Why does Japanese have so many words with different meanings which have the same pronunciation? For example, there are at least 80 different words which are pronounced "ko" , at least 45 for "ka", at least 48 for "kyū" and so on. I know that probably most languages have several different meanings for the same pronunciation (for example in Spanish we say "tomar" for "to drink" and "to get" which aren't even remotely related) or in English they use "to play" for playing an instrument or playing a game (which are very different actions in my opinion, and in Spanish we use 2 different words, namely "tocar" for an instrument and "jugar" for a game), but in Japanese this is taken to a next level. Is there any particular historic reason or some other kind of reason for this?


2 Answers 2


It is because of the influx of Chinese language words. In the original Chinese, these words with similar consonant+vowel pronunciations were distinguished by "tones" superimposed on those pronunciations. However, those tones were dropped as the words were imported into Japanese (or dropped as they entered Korean and then came to Japan).

In Japanese those imported words are called [漢語]{かんご}. The native Japanese (including words which may have been introduced from native Korean) are called [大和]{やまと}ことば.

You will notice that Yamato kotoba are not easily confused with each other as that family of closely related non-tonal native languages which eventually became today's Yamato kotaba just used more syllables to disambiguate when necessary.

A related fact is that written language, which by nature includes more higher level concepts, which historically are associated with 漢語, tends to be difficult to read without the use of kanji due to their ambiguity when represented only by phonemes. In Korea, which has dropped Kanji in favor of a purely phonetic writing system, reading texts densely packed with 漢語(*) is somewhat difficult, and there is always some talk about re-introducing Kanji.

(* or whatever 漢語 are called in Korean).

  • 1
    What would be a tone for a language? Something simillar to an accent?
    – Pablo
    Feb 10, 2017 at 19:22
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    @Pablo - A good description can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_(linguistics) . Notice that Japanese does contain some occasional small distinction by pitch, e.g., 橋 bridge and 端 edge, vs. 箸 hashi chopsticks. Feb 10, 2017 at 20:19
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    More about pitch in Japanese, and the large variations found by region: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_pitch_accent Feb 10, 2017 at 20:22
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    漢語 in Korean = 한어 (haneo). 😄 And, true to the confusion, this is also the word for 韓語, i.e. "Korean language". Doh. Dec 10, 2020 at 0:40
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    Another factor causing more homophones in Japanese than in the originating Middle Chinese is the shift from syllable-final //ŋ// (like the final consonant sound in English "sing") in the Chinese to a vowel //u// sound in the Japanese. Consider 方, originally something like //pʷaŋ//. This got borrowed into Japanese as //pau// instead. The //p// shifted //f// then //h//, and the vowels shifted from //au// (like ow!) to //ɔː// (like "aww!") and then to //oː// (like oh!). Feb 25, 2022 at 1:55

You are talking about Kanji, aren't you? Yes there are "子", "来", "小", "湖",etc. They share the same pronunciation "ko." The number of Japanese dairy Kanji is 2136. The number of Japanese pronunciatons are mainly more than fifty.(Precisely more than 100,000.) 50 to 2136 is the reason that there are so many words sharing the same pronunciation.

These Kanji(s) are ideographic characters. Even they share the same pronumciations, each of them has its own meaning.

English word "play" consists of four phonogram words "p", "l", "a" and "y."

Japanese word "子供{こども}" consits of "子{こ}" and "供{ども}=people obey their parents," and means children (of the family). The pronunciation "kodomo こども" is unique. So each Kanji shares the same pronunciations, but Japanese word consisting of several Kanjis has almost unique pronunciation.

Hope this helps.

  • Dear the person who gave me the negative evaluation, can you give me your comment? I'd like to improve my answer. Withour your comment I can't improve my answer. Feb 10, 2017 at 14:55
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    I didnt vote down, I was thinking about voting up or not, since you took time to answer and there is some interesting info, but it's not quite why I asked, it's not about if there is or not words with the same pronunciation, but why there are so many words with the same pronunciations
    – Pablo
    Feb 10, 2017 at 15:36
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    I gave you an upvote because I think the raw statistics tell part of the story. Feb 10, 2017 at 18:39

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