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I looked up あつい, and the top two results were different words with the same pronunciation but similar though distinct meanings:

Do I understand correctly that these words are simultaneously heterographic and synonymous? Wouldn't one be unable to convey the difference without writing them down?

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    With context, why wouldn't they? If someone said 「夏はあつい」it would always be 暑い, no? I don't think there's any way to mistake one for another in such a situation. – Shurim Feb 13 at 19:30
  • @Shurim I was thinking the same but curious why there would be a need to distinguish between them in writing but not in speech. – Don Reba Feb 13 at 19:49
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    @DonReba it's less that they "needed" to be distinguished in writing but not in speech, and moreso that the kanji inherently mean different things and therefore you choose the appropriate kanji for the appropriate nuance. The word あつい has a broader meaning than any individual related kanji, so more than one is used. Are you aware of the history of kanji, and how they are borrowed from Chinese? – Leebo Feb 15 at 0:16
  • @Leebo It's kind of a weird distinction, isn't it? English doesn't make it at all. Russian makes it for "hot" but not for "cold", and Japanese makes it for "hot" in writing but not in speech but in both writing and speech for "cold". – Don Reba Feb 15 at 20:58
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They are heterographic as you say, but not synonymous. Since you already have the meanings pretty much figured out, there is no need to go into detail. To sum, 暑い describes weather/environment/temperatures, while 熱い describes objects.

When you hear or see 「あつい」, context often determines which word is used.

The Venn diagram below, copped from Wikimedia, demonstrates several related concepts. To be considered synonyms, the words have to have the same meaning but different pronunciations and spellings. Strictly speaking "synonyms" exclude homophones and homographs.

「暑い」and「熱い」fall square in the purple area.

enter image description here

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  • Thanks! Although, with respect to synonyms, they almost never have the exactly same meanings. At least, in Russian, which has the same distinction between the two kinds of "hot" (горячий/жаркий), there are enough instances when you can use either. Maybe "near-synonyms" is a better name. – Don Reba Feb 13 at 22:06
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    @DonReba Yes, synonyms often do have different shades of meaning and nuances, but usually there are situations/sentences in which they are interchangeable without significantly altering the meaning of the sentence. 暑い and 熱い (usually) can't be used interchangeably. Those are two different words sharing a pronunciation. – Eddie Kal Feb 13 at 22:14
  • I've never seen a definition of "word" before, which involves such (IMO unwarranted) consideration of "spelling", like this Venn diagram implies. If I was speaking English, I would never have considered 6 and six as different "words". – dROOOze Feb 14 at 7:44

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