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Japanese dictionaries often give distinguish among meanings for homophonous words with related meanings that have different kanji representations, such as:

  • 固い・堅い・硬い (see, for example, the 大辞林 entry for these words)
  • 柔らかい・軟らかい
  • 飲む・呑む
  • 渇く・乾く

My intuition is that all three forms of かたい are really "the same word" in a native speaker's mental lexicon, and that a native speaker will choose a given representation from 固い・堅い・硬い in writing so as to provide added meaning. Is my sense correct here, or do native speakers actually regard 固い・堅い・硬い as three different words?

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But compare 有る・在る (one word, two kanji) to 或る (usually considered a separate word despite the common origin). –  snailboat Dec 6 '13 at 14:56
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is exactly as you suspect. It is totally illogical to consider 固い・堅い・硬い, for example, to be three different words and here is why.

Whenever you are dealing with a kun-reading word, you need to remind yourself that it existed when Japanese was merely a spoken language. We had no way of writing 固い・堅い・硬い or even かたい. All we had was the sounds "katai". Then we encountered the Chinese and the rest is history.

The vast majority of homonyms in Japanese are found in words of Chinese origin.

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