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Japanese has a lot of homonyms and sometimes one has more than 10 meanings.

When I heard the following sentences on the phone or a radio. How do I deal with it?

  1. はしのはしですか?
  2. きのう、かきをたべたけどあまりおいしくなかった
  3. これはすいせいですか?きんせいですか?
  4. かいじょうには、たくさんのえいががありました
  • (全部は無理ですが)[はしの]{LHH} -> 端の [はしの]{LHL} -> 橋の [はしの]{HLL} -> 箸の  [かき]{HL} [かき]{LH} とか。。 ところで4番はどういう意味ですか。「会場にはたくさんの映画がありました」ですか? – Chocolate Mar 28 '17 at 4:13
  • I'm okay with your asswer,"It's impossible." That's one answer to me. – user20428 Mar 28 '17 at 4:27
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    「全部は無理」は「pitch accent だけでは1~4の全部を説明するのは無理」と言いたかったんです。4番は、「会場にはたくさんの映画がありました」くらいしかありえそうにないけど、それでもちょっと変だと(「会場に映画がある」ってどういう状況だろう?と。)思って、ほかにどういう解釈があるか知りたくて聞きました。 – Chocolate Mar 28 '17 at 4:33
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    詩的には「海上には栄華があった」もありですよね – user20428 Mar 28 '17 at 6:31
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  1. By accent. See: Is there any difference when pronouncing 橋 and 箸?

    はし【HL】(箸)、はし【LH】(端)、かき【HL】(牡蠣)、かき【LH】(柿)

  2. By context.

    • すいせいですか、きんせいですか? → 水星ですか、金星ですか?
    • すいせいですか、ゆせいですか? → 水性ですか、油性ですか?
    • すいせいですか、りくせいですか? → 水棲ですか、陸棲ですか?
    • ぎんせいですか、きんせいですか? → 銀製ですか、金製ですか?
  3. By actually changing the reading for known confusing pairs. See: How to Pronounce 化学 "Chemistry"?

    化学【ばけがく】、市立【いちりつ】、私立【わたくしりつ】

If everything above fails, you have to rephrase or explain it (This rarely happens in practice).

私はほうそうかんけいの仕事をしています。

  • あ、つまり、法律の。 → 法曹関係
  • えーと、ラッピングの。 → 包装関係
  • テレビやラジオ放送のほうそうです。 → 放送関係
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I think that good answers were already given, so I was initially writing a comment but it got long hence I decided to post it as an answer. It might be a good reference for every one after all.

I wanted also to say that probably by accent and context is the main way.

In this regard, I wanted to add that not long ago I found this interesting EDX class on Japanese pronunciation from Waseda University.

Despite I have been living in Japan and studying the language for quite a few years now, It was actually the very first time I encountered some proper explanation about pronunciation (but probably this because I have never formally studied in a Japanese school).

Anyway, there are lots of audio material and at least for me, despite I consider myself to have a good ear, it was quite hard to catch some very subtle (and interesting) differences. As I mentioned above, it could be a good reference for Japanese learners to specifically practice pronunciation.

My answer might be a bit a duplicate (sorry about that) but as I said I mostly wanted to add that reference with some explanation, as I believe other readers might be interested.

  • 1
    worth mentioning maybe, this is a free online course. – Florian Castellane Mar 28 '17 at 9:04
  • Oh well yeah good point. I forgot to mention that but true, completely free. – Tommy Mar 29 '17 at 0:19
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Since so many stress the difference in pitch accent I decided to post my comment as an answer instead.

Even though it does exist, the pitch difference is not what Japanese native speakers normally use to distinguish words, but rather it is done by context instead. Also, the pitch varies a lot between dialects throughout the country, and in some Tohoku dialects they don't even have it in the language, yet people communicate without any problem with each other (as for dialectal traits, intonation is usually persistent despite attempts to speak 標準語)

Here is an article discussing the (non-)necessity of pitch accent in Japanese: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0911604413000547

  • It's not Tohoku that has non-accent zones, but ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/… And Pitch difference matters in differentiating words, even though it's not the only factor. Pitch variation being differnt between dialects doesn't mean it's not important because it's constant in the dialect itself. – user4092 Mar 28 '17 at 8:51
  • While I totally agree that pitch accent is less important (as described in the introduction section of the article), saying "it's not used to distinguish words" is too much. If I hear 金星 pronounced like 近世 or 昨日 pronounced like 機能, certainly I cannot understand what has been said without thinking for a second or two. – naruto Mar 28 '17 at 8:54
  • The non-accent region is partially within Tohoku, but you are right in that not all of Tohoku is non-accent, and also that the non-accent region extends to other places as well. – bjorn Mar 28 '17 at 8:57
  • @naruto, of course you wouldn't understand which word is being spoken if it's completely out of context, unless you have the pitch information as well, but this is not how language usually is used. Given any sentence containing the word きんせい you would understand if it's about a planet or if it's about a time period. There are of course words that are more related to each other, such as 柿, 牡蠣, but the research shows that this isn't a problem. – bjorn Mar 28 '17 at 8:59
  • @bjorn Please carefully check the map in the link to the wikipedia page. Almost all parts are not Tohoku. – user4092 Mar 28 '17 at 9:06

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