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Recently I've been using the スーパー大辞林 Japanese dictionary, because it is built-in to all my Apple devices. But I frequently find words where there is a single entry in the dictionary, but 2 or 3 different kanji "spellings" are listed.

For example, if I search for 空く, I get this page which claims to be the entry for 開く, 空く, and 明く all at the same time. Does that mean that all 3 of those words have identical meanings? It looks like some of the definitions are reserved for only one of the kanji. Like in my search, definitions 1 and 3 are marked 《開く》 and definition 4 is marked 《空》. Does that mean that to use 空 to convey the meaning from definition 1 is incorrect? If that's the case, why don't they have separate dictionary entries?

Are these entries indeed homonyms, in that they have the same pronunciation, but unique, independent meanings, and it is these unique meanings that gave rise to the separate kanji to begin with? That would seem to argue for their dictionary entries to be separate.

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    Judging two usages to be homonymy or polysemy often is one of the hardest tasks for lexicographers. – broccoli forest Sep 14 '15 at 13:32
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These 3 kanji words are by some means the same and by the other means quite different. They are like "Venn diagram", not exact the same,but share some parts.

The reason why they are not distinguishable, is that they have the same origin.

The multiple spelling entries you have found almost always share the same "kun yomi" but not the same "on yomi" because they are indifferent till Kanji introduced.

There are many examples you can find. For example, 明るい(bright) and 赤い(red) have the same pronouciation "aka". Since 赤 is the same as 明,the sun is bright and also red(as the national flag says).

On the other hand the same kun-yomi doesn't guarantee the same origin. The dictionary site has one entry for 居る, another entry for 射る and yet another entry for 炒る-煎る-熬る.

    居る = ゐる = 'wiru'
    射る = ヤ行上一段活用 = 'yiru'
    炒る = いる = 'iru'

These are from the different origins, don't share the same meaning,thus the different entries are given.

  • +1. Just to clarify, does "they are indifferent till Kanji introduced" mean "they were a single kun-yomi word until Kanji was introduced to Japan"? (Trans: 「日本に漢字が伝わるまでは同一の訓読み言葉だった」という理解であってますか?) – mirka Sep 16 '15 at 15:12
  • This doesn't explain why specific numbered meanings are assigned to different kanji. Why would meanings 1 and 3 be reserved for 《開》 and meaning 4 reserved for 《空》? Or am I misreading the intention of the kanji in the angle brackets? – Chris Sep 16 '15 at 18:52
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To add to the good technical reasons given by user897730, let me explain how the relationship feels to a native mind.

Every kanji character already has meanings tied to itself, independent of any actual Japanese “word”. (And by “word” I mean a combination of sounds.) It happens to be that, coming from another language (Chinese), the kanji meanings do not map perfectly to the preexisting Japanese words. Hence the Venn diagram metaphor.

So, it's not that the numbered dictionary meanings are assigned to the kanji, but the other way around: the kanji are assigned to the numbered meanings.

When sentences flow from your mind, they come as sounds, not spellings. I'm sure English speakers are very aware of this (you're/your? then/than?). When people say in English “open the door”, “open your schedule”, or “open a store”, I doubt they are conscious of which numbered dictionary meaning they are using. They definitely feel like the same, single word. Imagine one day the U.S. decides to import kanji characters, and imperfectly map them in a way that sort of corresponds to the numbered meanings. Would it make sense to split them up into different dictionary entries?

When natives write these words, we actually have to think quite consciously to decide which is the “correct” kanji to use for a word-as-a-sound that comes to mind. It is a major source of mistakes, and we will often just give up or spare ourselves the embarrassment and write it in hiragana!

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    喪が明ける is used if it is to have wedding party yet, if the dead one is beloved one it might sound rude(delighted after ones death), that is when hiragana is selected to use. – user897730 Sep 16 '15 at 23:35

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