Elephants and Statues: Homophones
Another challenge when working with Japanese is that it is a comparatively sound-poor language and has a lot of homophones with entirely divergent meanings as a result. Take for example the word “denki,” which can mean electricity (電気) or biography (伝記). These mix-ups are also very easily made in multi-character words where one of the characters is the same. “Jiten” can refer variously to a dictionary (辞典) or an encyclopaedia (事典), and both words share the kanji for code or rule (典). Even with single-character words, there are sometimes homophones that are also very similar in appearance. “Zou” when written one way means elephant (象), but when written with a very similar-looking homophone means statue (像). Without proper proofreading these lookalike kanji are particularly easy to miss.
The Confusing World of Dokuniji
Beyond simple homophones, Japanese also has a series of homophones that mean very similar things but which each need to be used in their correct contexts: these are called dokuniji in Japanese. The word “toru” (to take) is a great example of this: written one way (取る), toru means “to physically take something,” but written another way (撮る), toru means “to take a picture.” Another commonly mixed up dokuniji is “atsui” (hot), which is written one way when describing hot weather (暑い), and another way when describing something hot to touch (熱い).
Even more challenging for proofreaders, there are also visually similar dokuniji. “Au” (to meet) has one writing for describing a meeting between people (会う) and another used when something “meets” something else in the sense of suiting it or merging with it (合う). While Japanese readers would probably understand even if the wrong dokuniji are used, proper proofreading prevents this potentially unprofessional presentation.
Okurigana can also be a source of grammar mistakes because slight variations among them often change word’s type. For example, tanoshii (楽しい) is an adjective for fun, tanoshimi (楽しみ) is a noun for the idea of fun, and tanoshimu (楽しむ) is a verb meaning “to enjoy oneself.” When these okurigana are so easily mistyped, proper proofreading is essential.