Compared to English, Japanese is much more consistent and predictable in terms of how words are pronounced, at least at the level of vowels and constants (intonation is another story though). There are some exceptions, for example the word 大事 which can be read as “oogoto” or “daiji”, with a slight difference in meaning and usage.
There is another category of words that can be ambiguous because they can be derived from two different conjugations of verbs. These aren’t that common, but they can be confusing to Japanese learners, so I want to focus this post on one of them that is relatively common: 入れる.
Japanese has transitive (takes a direct object) and intransitive (does not take a direct object, the subject is performing the action on itself) variations of verbs. For example 加える (kuwaeru) means “to add” as a transitive verb, and 加わる (kuwawaru) means intransitively “to be added”. Sometimes you can find sound patterns to give a clue which it is, but ultimately you have to memorize which type each verb is.
A very common transitive verb in the Japanese language is 入れる, which can be read as “ireru”, and means “to put in”. The corresponding intransitive verb is 入る (hairu).
So far, things seem fairly straightforward. However, as you saw above I mentioned that 入れる can be ambiguous. How can that be?
Well, a common tense in Japanese, the potential, is conjugated so that there is a “~eru” or “~rareru” sound at the end of a dictionary-form verb. So in the case of 入る (hairu), the potential becomes 入れる, which is actually read as “haireru”.
Now you can see the confusion. 入れる can have two very different interpretations:
- (ireru) to put in (transitive)
- (haireru) to be able to go in (intransitive)
As with ambiguous words like this, context is generally the best way to figure out which is which. The other day I saw a Japanese chat room that was labeled: 自由に入れる. Which interpretation do you think this is? Let’s look at what each of the interpretations means in English:
- (I, you, we) put in freely.
- (I, you, we) can go in freely.
From the context, we can tell the second one is clearly the intended meaning, meaning that anyone can freely enter the (virtual) room.
If you were using a phrase like this yourself, generally you could find ways to make the text clearer so that there is no confusion. Here are a few options:
- だれでも入室OK (dare demo nyuushitsu OK)
- 自由に入ることができる (jiyuu ni hairu koto ga dekiru)
- 遠慮なく入ってください (enryo naku haitte kudasai)
Having said that, average fluent speakers should be able to figure out 自由に入れる, so there is nothing wrong with using that expression.
By the way, the potential tense actually can cause another type of confusion. For example the verb 食べられる (taberareru) can have two very different meanings.
- To be able to eat (potential tense)
- To be eaten (passive tense)
In this case as well, context usually makes it clear. But sometimes the passive case can be used in the form 食べられてしまう(taberarete shimau), or a variation of that (食べられちゃう）. Here, the “~te shimau” has a negative nuance, so it hints at the “something was eaten” meaning, as opposed to the “be able to eat” meaning. Also, the “~te shimau” form is rarely used with the potential.