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Two numbers in Japanese have two pronunciation alternatives.

  • 四 / 4 can be pronounced either "よん" (yon) or "し" (shi)
  • 七 / 7 can be pronounced either "しち" (shichi) or "なな" (nana)

I know that "し" (shi) can be avoided because it has the same pronunciation as "死" which means "death" but how strong is the taboo and how does it relate to factors such as formality and politeness when choosing which form to use? Is it just a matter of superstition or should speakers be more sensitive?

"しち" (shichi) vs "なな" (nana) seems to be less discussed since it doesn't involve taboo or superstition as far as I know but again what about formality and politeness etc?

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九 / 9 also has two pronunciations: “きゅう” and “く,” and “く” is avoided in certain contexts because it has the same pronunciation as “苦” (suffering). –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 1 '11 at 14:59
    
@TsuyoshiIto: I've read about why 9-sai uses kyuu rather than ku. Is the latter etymologically independent of 苦? –  Andrew Grimm Sep 20 '11 at 12:53
    
Currently, @TsuyoshiIto's comment has 4 upvotes, while Ken Li has 7 upvotes. –  Andrew Grimm Sep 20 '11 at 12:55
    
@Andrew: Could you clarify what you're trying to say by comparing the votes on TsuyoshiIto's comment and Ken's question? I can't see that they disagree but maybe I'm missing something. –  hippietrail Sep 20 '11 at 13:20
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@hippietrail: With 4 and 7 being the main numbers being talked about, I thought it was an interesting coincidence. –  Andrew Grimm Sep 20 '11 at 13:31
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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

よん is a 訓読み(kunyomi) reading of 4 and し is a 音読み(onyomi). なな is a kunyomi reading of 7 and しち is a onyomi.

To make a long story short kunyomi is a native Japanese pronunciation and onyomi are pronunciation that were derived from classical Chinese.

In the case of numbers shi and shichi (onyomi) is used when you are counting things. For example, ichi ni san shi go, ... It is also used in months, like 四月(shigatsu) and 七月(shichigatsu)

When you point out that you have 70 yen you say nana juu en. (In this case use kunyomi) Kunyomi is typically used in cases where you point out you have X of some item. Counting in kunyomi is very unnatural so you almost never hear people say ichi ni san yon go, ... but it is used when you count backwards.

These are just basic rules, there is one exception I can think of and that is people, sometimes you do hear 七人(shichi-nin) when you talk about people. However, as far as I know, it is very unnatural for people to use shi and shichi used when talking about large numbers in the 10's, 100's, etc so use the kunyomi (yon and nana) for that.

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I disagree on the part regarding the counting: yon and nana are actually the common readings used, although it's an exception to the rule of "use on reading when the Kanji is alone"... –  Alenanno Jun 1 '11 at 16:53
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It actually depends on if the person is counting backwards or forwards. Shi and shichi are easier to pronounce when you count forwards actually so you tend to hear that a lot. See oshiete.goo.ne.jp/qa/2647245.html –  Ken Li Jun 1 '11 at 17:20
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There is also a strong geographical, if not toponymic, component: at the anecdotal level, I have noticed that Kansai/Kyoto people are more likely to read 四 as し and 七 as しち (in newly encountered words), when Tokyo people will tend to opt for よん and なな.

A most famous example would be the streets of Kyoto:

Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern (or a shogi board, to be exact) with East-West streets numbered from 1 to 10 (starting from the North): 一条, 二条, 三条 etc.

If you ask out-of-town (Japanese) visitors to read aloud the name for 四条 and 七条, they'll have little idea how to go at it. When pressed, they will probably opt for よんじょう and ななじょう (particularly the latter), when it is in fact しじょう and しちじょう.

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When you are counting, the reading "よん" is more used, because, as you also reminded, "し" is too similar to "死" which means "death".
Usually when a Kanji is "alone" you use the On reading, but in this case when counting, you don't do that for 4 and 7.

To quote this page here:

In modern Japanese, the digits are given the On'yomi readings except 4 and 7, which are called yon and nana respectively. Alternate readings are used in month names, day-of-month names, and fixed phrases.

I want to highlight something else: With the number "4" there is an exception, for example, when telling the time:

四時 the reading is "yoji" and not "*yonji".

or with the classifier つ:

四つ the reading is "yotsu" and not "*yontsu".

I can't recall exceptions regarding the number 7, but if I come up with something, I'll make sure to add it.

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I'm pretty sure most people count using し, not よん. –  Louis Jun 2 '11 at 0:14
    
Sure, how? If I may ask... –  Alenanno Jun 2 '11 at 0:22
    
I've been corrected on it a few times, and I remember hearing people count this way. –  Louis Jun 2 '11 at 0:28
    
Well, I've learned to use the other way, considering the material. But since you raised the "doubt", tomorrow (it's late here) I'll search further info on this matter. –  Alenanno Jun 2 '11 at 0:30
    
Is there a reason why "し" is similar to "死"? Were they originally from different dialects and only later on, when the two dialects were intermixed, did the homophone issue come up? –  Andrew Grimm Jun 7 '11 at 13:24
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I don't know that there are any rules, per se. I just know that in certain situations, you use one and not the other. Like 4月 is し・がつ, not よん・がつ, and 9:00 is く・じ, not きゅう・じ. I think it's just a matter of memorizing these "irregularities".

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