I've been thinking about how Japanese people can read a text (out loud, say) when the readings of the kanji can be so variable depending on okurigana, suffixes, or prefixes that change the meaning and/or expected part of speech, all of which can impact the reading of a kanji. This implies that you have to "read ahead" before you can be expected to pronounce the phrase correctly. In English, you are mostly guaranteed to have all the information you need to pronounce a word correctly after seeing all the letters of the word, with a few exceptions like "read" [red/ri:d] depending on part of speech, but in Japanese this distinction is muddier because word boundaries depend on correct word recognition in the first place. What are the worst examples you can see of this phenomenon in Japanese?

Although this view is in part informed by many examples which I cannot fully recall, the ones I can think of at the moment are:

  • 一昨日【おととい】 / 昨日【きのう】 / 日【ひ】
  • 一本気【いっぽんぎ】 / 本気【ほんき】
  • 今日【こんにち】は、先生! / 今日【きょう】は、先生が来てくれます。

There are of course also many words in Japanese whose readings are not distinguishable despite any amount of context, because the readings are interchangeable (family names often fall in this category), but I am interested in readings which are distinguishable but require a lot of context before they can be placed correctly.

By the way, what do you usually do when a kanji has multiple readings with different meanings but context can't distinguish them (because they are the same part of speech or grammatical role)? I had this issue recently with 開く【ひらく】 / 開く【あく】, and when I asked about it I was told that あく is more commonly transitive than ひらく. It still seems like a mess, though, even for a native.

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    Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. – blutorange Dec 23 '14 at 20:20
  • Anditisnoproblematalltoreadthisaswell. AndkeepinMINDyouvegot3scriptsinJAPANESEtohelpyouDISTINGUISHwordBOUNDARIES. NottomentionCONTEXT. PRACTICEmakesperfect. – blutorange Dec 23 '14 at 20:24
  • @blutorange when you run english words together, sometimes ambiguities arise, and that's what I'm looking for here. I realize that most of the time it's not too difficult, but every once in a while there is a peculiar reading that you might not expect until you realize later in the sentence. – Mario Carneiro Dec 23 '14 at 20:27
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    @blutorange That is not entirely correct. See mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt-davis/cmabridge – snailboat Dec 23 '14 at 20:39
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    I just wanted to point out that we can do this in English as well. Here's an interesting site I found: 誤読の部屋 (probably Shift-Jis or Euc-JP) While I think this is interesting, technically, this is a n open-ended question and thus out od the scope of this site, but if there is enough interest, we could collect examples in a community wiki. – blutorange Dec 23 '14 at 20:41

My favorite example is この先生きのこるには.

It was originally posted in a net forum, and was intended to be read as このさき、いきのこるには (how to survive longer). But many native speakers have misread this as このせんせい、きのこるには (how does this sensei mushroom(?)), even though there is no such verb as きのこる.

This sounded so funny that it soon became a piece of net slang, and finally a character きのこる先生【せんせい】 was created.

From my personal experience, I still make mistakes, for example between 人気【にんき】のない映画 and 人気【ひとけ】のない場所. When such things happen, I just read again carefully. But such things do not happen that frequently; words like 今日【こんにち】は and 好【よ】く are usually written in hiragana these days, and pairs like 一本気 and 本気 cause no problem once you've got used to these words.

  • Wow, the ひとけのない example is quite impressive, although I suppose that it is grammatically correct since 映画 and 場所 are both nouns and the only reason you can tell the difference is because it would be strange to talk about a deserted movie or an unpopular place (wait, that's not that strange... is there another preferred construction for 人気【にんき】のない場所?). – Mario Carneiro May 25 '15 at 15:15
  • 人気【にんき】のない場所 is equally natural in some context. Perhaps I should have used something like 人気のない夜の教室 as an example that can be interpreted only in one way. – naruto May 25 '15 at 16:49
  • [大人気]{おとなげ}ない。

  • [大人気]{だいにんき}である。

  • Wow, that's surprising. The only difference is positive/negative connotation? – Mario Carneiro Mar 22 '16 at 22:51
  • They are more different than that, and come from different places which makes it funny. [大人気]{おとなげ} is the quality of acting like a grown up, and [大人気]{だいにんき} means "great popularity" or "of great popularity". The former adds 気 to [大人]{おとな} (adult) while the latter adds 大 to [人気]{にんき} (popularity). – Alejandro Cremades Rocamora Mar 23 '16 at 1:29
  • Err, sorry, I meant that the only difference in the context is the ない/である ending. I imagine that it would still be grammatically correct to have [大人気]{おとなげ}です or [大人気]{だいにんき}ない, although it certainly seems strange to say "I am not very popular" (wait... that's normal in English. At least it doesn't work as well in Japanese than it does in English.) – Mario Carneiro Mar 23 '16 at 2:53
  • Yeah, I guess those could be argued in a gramatical way but they do look weird in lack of context. I have an idea for viable context for the former, but not for the latter: あなたに足りないのは[大人気]{おとなげ}です。 – Alejandro Cremades Rocamora Mar 24 '16 at 1:17
  • @MarioCarneiro the difference is not, in fact, positive/negative connotation, but part-of-speech with respect to particles. 大人気がある and 大人気ではない are about equally as differentiable as the above example, at least to my eyes. – archaephyrryx Feb 7 '18 at 4:20

I'm not sure if this answers your question exactly, but here are the examples I find interesting.

  • 一【いち】 / 一人【ひとり】 / 一人称【いちにんしょう】
  • 大人【おとな】 / 大人数【おおにんずう】 / 大人数人【おとなすうにん】

This is not a very answerable question because of the range of writing styles encompassed in written Japanese. In everyday writing like what you see in your neighborhood bulletin or light novel, it might not get more complicated than 今日【こんにち】は vs. 今日【きょう】は. But in fact if you are willing to look up a kanji in your favorite EDICT software and look at all of its readings, you may get a hint that if you read more difficult texts -- especially pre-modern texts -- you will be constantly stuck in a no-man's-land between on'yomi and kun'yomi. I once was faced with the task of determining whether a Taisho period spiritualist's name was read with on'yomi or kun'yomi, and librarians and archivists had no consensus on the issue. So I met with the world's leading expert on the guy and asked him in person, and he said that the man never had a preference in the first place.

I don't think it possible to say what the most obnoxious ambiguity is because it depends on the difficulty level before it becomes "nobody knows so just go ahead and read it the way you like," and what you think is obnoxious anyway.

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