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My question comes from this case: 会う 逢う 遭う 遇う

I see they all are read "au", and mean "to meet". So, why are there these many cases? And more important, which one should I use? I knew 会う, and when I read 逢う I thought it was a completely different verb.

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In case you haven't noticed, there are lots of these... like 見る、観る、視る and 診る、看る or 聞く、聴く、訊く and 効く、利く. – Earthliŋ Jan 26 at 13:25
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The very answer to your question is why I like Japanese so much. As you noticed a same word can be written with different kanji: that is not limited to verbs. If kanji changes meaning changes too (that is especially true concerning verbs, nouns are more subject to stylistic preferences: eg. かっこいい(casual form)・恰好良い(old form)・格好いい(normal form)). In order to grasp the different meanings the best is to learn kanji nuances and meanings.

You can find a (short) list of 異字同訓{いじどうくん} here and there but the best place is a 国語辞典 or a 漢和辞典.

Here are some examples:

  • 会う (meet - no nuance)
  • 合う (fit - no nuance)
  • 遭う (meet - meet something bad). 彼はえらい目に遭った。(He ran into troubles).
  • 逢う (meet - fate encounter) 彼は恋人に逢った。(He met his girlfriend)
  • 遇う (meet - coincidence) 彼はAさんに遇った。(He met A by chance)
  • 會う (ancient form of 会う)

  • 見る・視る (see - no nuance)

  • 観る (see - more like watch)
  • 看る (look after) often 面倒を看る
  • 診る (examination by the doctor)
  • 覧る (see - more like to inspect 観覧・観察)
  • 監る (see - look upon, look out) (my IME does not have it ...)

  • 聞く (ask or listen)

  • 聴く (listen (carefully))
  • 訊く (ask)
  • and countless more.

Summary, choosing the right kanji is not only up to stylistic preferences there are rules but to often those rules are overlooked in traditionnal second language acquisition because nobody cares!

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You forgot 覧る and 監る for みる. – istrasci Jan 29 at 21:26
Added, but this is almost nitpicking ;) – 永劫回帰 Jan 30 at 10:25
Nitpicking or hella fun? – istrasci Jan 30 at 19:11
@istrasci mostly fun for sure. – 永劫回帰 Jan 31 at 0:24

Japanese didn't have any original letters in ancient times. Kanji was brought into Japan from China in the 3rd or 4th century.

When old Japanese people adopted kanji, they called each letter as Chinese people pronounced it. While, kanji often had the meaning which matched some Japanese words, so they came to read ''山'' as やま, ''空'' as そら, ''人'' as ひと, for example. It was a kind of translation at first.

In Japanese, the meaning of these kanjis, 会, 逢, 遭, 遇, are all あう, but each letter of kanji has difference in meaning.

There is often the most popular and general kanji in the same word in Japanese, it is often indicated in dictionaries. For example, there are several kanjis for あう, ''会'' is the most general, doesn't have a nuance, and the others have specific meanings.

The kanji of 逢 conveys that a man and a woman who are in love meet.

遭 conveys that someone meets with an accident or a bad happening.

遇 conveys that someone meets someone or meets with something unexpectedly.

You are able to express more details with choosing kanji according to the situation, but it is not general to use 逢, 遇, and 遭 in daily communication like E-mail.

Native Japanese speakers, including me, don't care which kanji should be assigned when they say or hear ''あう'' in conversation, because あう is just one word.

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