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The word “ken” has at least 2 meanings: Ken (拳) means fist, while ken (剣) means sword.

If a Japanese speaker hears about the video game Tekken (鉄拳, “iron fist”) for the first time, without seeing the word written down, would they be able to tell that Tekken refers to “iron fist” and not “iron sword”?

I found this answer, which mentions that homophones are sometimes distinguished by the pitch accent. However, I’m not sure if this applies to monosyllabic words like “ken”. I also found this question, where answerers point out that ambiguity is often circumvented in everyday speech. However, I’d like more specific information on if/how this is achieved in this case.

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    件 is probably the most likely けん to hear in conversation. But if the answer is "they can't" what exactly would that mean in your opinion? If I say "bank" and nothing else, you don't know if I mean a place to keep money or the side of a river. But does that impact anything? I assume you don't mean when they are used in full sentences with context, because that seems obvious. – Leebo Oct 4 '20 at 10:40
  • @Leebo Actually, I'm interested in the specific example I gave. I just edited the question to make it specific to "ken". – hb20007 Oct 4 '20 at 11:18
  • 鉄拳 is a word that predates the video game. A monolingual dictionary will tell you that it means clenched fist. I don't think there is any ambiguity here: weblio.jp/content/%E9%89%84%E6%8B%B3 – user3856370 Oct 4 '20 at 11:24
  • @user3856370 right, but he's asking in contrast with the also-existing 鉄剣 weblio.jp/content/%E9%89%84%E5%89%A3 – Leebo Oct 4 '20 at 11:26
  • for some reason a lot of times people working at game centers can't understand me when I say something along the lines of 「鉄拳ありますか?」it must be a pitch accent problem, because most people can understand when say other words containing 「っ」in it. – Felipe Chaves de Oliveira Oct 6 '20 at 4:46
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There is no difference in pitch accent between 鉄拳 and 鉄剣, so it purely depends on which word is more familiar to laypeople. Neither is particularly common in daily life, but IMO 鉄拳 is a little bit more familiar because there is a word 鉄拳制裁, which is used outside gaming or history contexts. "Iron sword" is usually referred to simply as 鉄の剣. It's just a hunch but I think more than half of Japanese non-gamers think of 鉄拳 first when they hear てっけん with absolutely no context.

(By the way, on-on compounds do have pitch accents; see this answer for example.)

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It's related to rather contexts than phonology. Other than the lecture of Japanese history, one normally associates "Tekken" with 鉄拳{てっけん}. I do not think one can associate "Tekken" with 鉄剣{てっけん} at present-day. Japanese Emperor does not have to have an iron sword for their authority at present-day (2000 years ago possibly he uses it).

"Ken" itself has many homonyms 剣, 券, 拳, 圏, 県, etc. They use it in a daily life. As for 剣, a martial artist : kendōka(剣道家) may tend to relate the sound "Ken" to 剣. However, I believe even the martial artists do not use 鉄剣{てっけん} at present-day and they consider "Tekken" as 鉄拳{てっけん} such as iron-fists or video-game.

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I think normal Japanese people cannot get what "tekken" means if he/she hears it first time, even if that word appears in a rich context. Neither 鉄拳 nor 鉄剣 is something you can easily come up with. 鉄拳 - how can you imagine a fist made of iron? 鉄剣 - a sword is usually made of iron, so that it is quite unexpected you explicitly state that fact. (If you list up swords of different materials e.g. "seido-ken", "gin-ken", "tekken",... maybe he/she can understand.)

We (or maybe just I) usually write kanji to explain, maybe swiping our fingers in air. If we cannot do that (e.g. talking over phones) we explain in different words. 鉄拳 is 鉄の拳 ("tetsu no kobushi"), 鉄剣 is 鉄の刀 ("tetsu no katana" - well 剣 and 刀 are actually quite different things but he/she can hopefully understand what I mean, or maybe I need to explain more like "鉄の刀だけど刀ではなく剣".)

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  • 鉄拳 meaning "tightly clenched fist" is not that rare, and I think it's safely understood in spoken Japanese if there is a little context. You can check BCCWJ's results. See this question, too. At least my non-gamer sister could tell the meaning of てっけん instantly even without any context. – naruto Oct 9 '20 at 9:30

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