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Tale of the YAKU: Part 3

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In English, “tail of the yak” and “tale of the yak” both make sense but mean very different things. This is nothing compared with the profusion of Japanese homonyms. When you type YAKU in hiragana and convert it to kanji, any of the following characters could pop up, as all have the on-yomi of YAKU:

(to promise, shrink, about)
(to translate)
(medicine)
(service, serviceability)
(misfortune)
(to leap)
(epidemic)
(benefit, profit) 

This leads to a plethora of homophonous YAKU compounds.

There are three more types of yaku:

焼く (to burn, roast, grill, bake)

In this case, ya(ku) is the kun-yomi. Some compounds include the kun-yomi of this kanji, but the form is always yaki or yake. This kanji therefore doesn’t factor into the YAKU homonym confusion.

妬く (to become jealous)

This kun-yomi is uncommon and seems to play no part in any homonym problem.

ヤク (yak)

I believe this word also causes no compound confusion.

Yak Near the Sacred Yundrok Yumtso Lake, Tibet
Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis

Yakity Yak
Yakity Yak
Photo credit: Valerie Abbott


Yet Another YAKU

YAKU Words with Great Internal Rhymes …

Kanji with Both EKI and YAKU as On-Yomi


So which YAKU homophonous compounds do cause people to scratch their heads? Well, three of them mean “breaking a contract or promise”! That is, you might say kaiyaku, intending for the other person to “hear” these kanji:

改訳 (kaiyaku: retranslation; revision)     to revise + to translate

Instead, the other person might take alarm at “hearing” this:

解約 (kaiyaku: cancellation of a contract)     to cancel + contract

Similarly, you might say iyaku, meaning either of the following things:

医薬 (iyaku: medicine)     medicine + medicine
意訳 (iyaku: free translation; liberal translation)
     meaning + to translate

But the other person might mistake your iyaku for this:

違約 (iyaku: breach of contract)     to break + contract

An Iyaku-Rich Sentence …

Finally, you could be talking about this kind of haiyaku:

配役 (haiyaku: cast (of a play))     to allocate + role, part, cast


However, someone might misconstrue your haiyaku as this:

背約 (haiyaku: breach of promise)     back + promise

This literally means “turning one’s back on a promise”!

I must take a moment to say that some people become quite huffy about this so-called Japanese homonym problem. They insist that context clears up everything and that putting emphasis on the proper syllable often provides further clarification.

Well, yes and no. For one thing, when you input hiragana and hope to produce the correct kanji, you need to know the differences between the homophonous compounds. At that point, there’s no issue of context or pronunciation; you’re up against your computer’s kanji conversion tools and your knowledge of kanji.

Also, context doesn’t explain everything. After all, you can have homophonous phrases or sentences. Mistakes during kanji conversion have become the basis for an annual typo award in Japan. Recent candidates included the sentence that turned a “sweeping victory after five seasons” (五季ぶり快勝: five + season + pleasant + to win) into “cockroach extermination” (ゴキブリ解消: to dispel + to extinguish). One would read both phrases as gokiburi kaishō.

Finally, when people get up in arms about the homonym issue (as they tend to do, oddly enough), I wonder where the joy and lightness have gone. We all love Japanese (that is, when we’re not resenting its difficulty!). So if I point out that there are about thirty words pronounced kōshō, there’s no reason for anyone to hear this as an attack on the language or the culture. A fact is a fact is a fact.

Well, enough of all that. Time for two games! Unlike most Verbal Logic Quizzes, today’s homonym puzzles require some knowledge of kanji. See if you can untangle the homonym confusion that threads through the language. The goal is to prevent people from thinking that you’re breaching your contract with them!

Verbal Logic Quizzes …