Equivalent question: What Japanese letters won't equal 1?

From: the homophonic group: a mathematical diversion → This is an exercise from Michael Artin's Algebra on, well, abstract algebra. In this exercise for the English language, words are equal if they are homophones, kind of like a formalisation of the joke that sin(x)/n=6. So in English:

  • bee=be → This implies e=1 by cancellation of b and e.

  • buy=by → This implies u=1 by cancellation of b and y.

  • rase=raze → This implies s=z by cancellation of r, a and e.

canvass=canvas → This implies s=1 by cancellation of c,a,n,v,a and s. By canvass=canvas and rase=raze, we have s=z=1.

Eventually, all 26 English letters will equal 1. Apparently, this was done for French and Czech.


1 Answer 1


Hiragana is a phonogram, meaning each letter has a distinct sound. There are a few notable exceptions like は pronounced as わ in certain contexts, but mostly I expect the size of homophonic groups to be quite large. If you include 漢字, this gets even larger, though there are plenty of kanjis that share the same pronunciation.

The only hiragana that I can think of that changes pronunciation is は~=わ and を=お

  • I can't believe I actually remember hiragana that well. Thanks! Anyhoo, my Chinese friend who speaks next to fluent Japanese seems to say East Asian languages don't have that many 1's. Agree?
    – BCLC
    Aug 16, 2018 at 15:06
  • 1
    what about the う in おう and the い in へい? Are they not considered to be changing pronunciation?
    – By137
    Aug 16, 2018 at 15:11
  • Just a correction: although は (ha) does change pronunciation to わ (wa) in some circumstances, neither を or お ever change pronunciation. They are true homophones.
    – kandyman
    Aug 16, 2018 at 16:32
  • @kandyman have you never heard を pronounced "wo" and not "oh"? I hear it a lot, from people of all ages.
    – By137
    Aug 16, 2018 at 16:55
  • 1
    The historical loss of the phonemic distinction between を and お is 100% complete, but it is possible as a modern phenomenon to pronounce w in を as a spelling pronunciation, and although it's not phonemically distinct, a phonetic glide can be inserted before /o/ under some circumstances. @KohsukeKawaguchi Don't forget the particle へ.
    – user1478
    Aug 16, 2018 at 17:40

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