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「おかあさん、すきやきの支度、できた?」
まる子は台所をのぞくと、おかあさんの背中に向かってきいた
「もうすこしだよ。待ってて」
"Mum, Did you prepare the sukiyaki?"
When Maruko peeked into the kitchen she faced Mum's back and xxx.
"It will be a little while. Keep waiting."

In this extract does きいた refer to what Maruko asked in the first line or what she heard in the third line? Or is it my choice? If it's not my choice what is it that makes the correct answer obvious?

In general in this book I find that both options are used but the "said/asked/heard etc" is generally in the first clause of the narration if it's referring to the previous quote.

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  • Does it help if you pare it down to just the essentials? 「...」(と)まる子はきいた。 → 訊く – Brandon May 14 '16 at 23:58
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This is an odd situation, thanks to きく's unusual polysemy. I'm inclined to read it as 'ask', for two reasons.

First is simply Japanese word order. English is fine putting quotation verbs on whichever side of the quoted material, but in Japanese, since in most sentences the verb goes after everything else, it's much more natural to put it after the quoted material. You can do it the other way, sure, and that happens all the time, but it's mildly at odds with Japanese's general tendencies - you have to put it in a separate sentence, and it comes off sounding a bit more like 'He spoke. "This is his quote."' than 'He said "this is a quote"'.

Second is the semantics of the other two verbs in the sentence. Each of them describes an action that まる子 has some degree of agency in - 'peek through' and 'face towards'. 'Hear' is a bit out of place, in that it would be much less up to まる子 whether or not she heard - that's largely out of her control, while the facing and the peeking are quite voluntary. With 'hear', you get a sentence like 'Maruko peeked into the kitchen, faced her mum's back and heard (it)', which, while intelligible, is a bit odd. If the goal was to say that she actively listened, the author would almost certainly have chosen a phrase to highlight the intentionality of the listening (perhaps 耳を澄ました), as 聞く corresponds to English 'listen' only in the sense of 'listen to music/the radio/some other intentionally-chosen background noise'. If the goal was to say that she 'heard the following information', I might have expected something like ...向かって、これを聞いた.

So I'm fairly confident that it means 'asked', since it's quite natural for 'asked' but slightly unusual for 'heard' or 'listened'. The reason that it's not in the first clause is because of the sequencing of events - the peeking, facing, and asking happen in that order. The author probably gave the content of the quote ahead of time to avoid breaking the sequence into multiple sentences (implying a longer pause between the peeking/facing and the asking than was meant), and to avoid having the quoting verb come before the quoted material.

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As you alluded to, ”きく” can mean both "asked" and "listened". Generally speaking, you can tell which is the case from the context.

Here, since the first line says "おかあさん", it is clear that the other person ("まる子") is speaking. So the ”きいた" is referring to Maruko "asking" her mother. The fact the first line is a question is also consistent with this, as is the fact she is doing it "towards" (向かって) her mother's back. Marko "listening" to hear mothers back just doesn't fit in this context.

An example where きく can be used to mean "listen" is here, where the speaker is upset about the other person not listening.

君、きいてるの?

Hey, are you listening to me?

きく can also translate to mean "hear", which is similar in meaning to "listen". In this case, the speaker is surprised after discovering some new information.

そんな事、きいてないよ

I haven't heard anything about that!

EDIT: In response to l'électeur's comment, I'd like to point out that this phrase can also mean "I'm not asking about that!". However, since I have given the context that the speaker has just learned something new, the only valid interpretation is "I haven't heard anything about that".

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    To be perfectly honest, I often have problems with the example sentences that you provide here and this time is no exception. The two sentences are both ambiguous - particularly the second one. The second one can mean "I'm not asking about that!" just as easily as what you state it means. – l'électeur May 15 '16 at 1:02
  • Yes, I agree it can be ambiguous, which is why I have provided context in the previous part = "the speaker is surprised after discovering some new information". – Locksleyu May 15 '16 at 1:59

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