きこえる / きける Japanese Grammar Lesson
Grammar Type: Group 2 Verb
Essential Meaning: Audible / Can be heard (indicates passive auditory potentiality)
Construction: Group 2 Verb
- There is a subtle and important distinction to be made between 聞こえる (a group 2 verb indicating auditory potentiality) and 聞ける (the potential form of 聞く [To hear]).
- 聞こえる indicates a passive auditory potentiality. In other words, something can be heard without the hearer making an active effort or decision to hear, and the hearer is unable to alter the situation. For example, if you can hear your neighbor’s music through the wall, the music is audible independent of your volition. Or, if someone is speaking too quietly, you have no potential to hear them even if you try. 聞こえる is often used to refer to one’s sense of hearing (or lack thereof).
- E.g. 耳が聞こえない。[My ears have no potential to hear (i.e. I’m deaf).] In this case, the speaker has no potential to hear through their ears.
- 聞ける, on the other hand, indicates that the subject can actively or purposefully hear something. For example, if you go on Youtube you can choose to hear many Japanese songs. If you buy a pair of wireless headphones, you can listen to music while you run. In short, 聞ける is used when the hearer deliberately puts his or her self in the position where they are able to hear something.
- E.g. いいステレオを買ったからレコードが聞ける。[Because I bought a nice stereo, I can listen to records.] In this case, the speaker puts himself in the position to hear records by means of the stereo.
- Sometimes, the choice between 聞こえる and 聞ける depends on whether the speaker perceives the situation as being alterable or inalterable. In other words, if the speaker has the ability to alter the situation so that they can hear or they can no longer hear, 聞ける is appropriate. But if they have no ability to change the situation, 聞こえる is appropriate.
- E.g. 音楽がうるさくて話が聞こえない。[The music is so loud that the conversation is inaudible (and there’s nothing we can do about it).] Due to the presence of 聞こえる, the situation is apparently unalterable.
- E.g. 音楽がうるさくて話が聞けない。[The music is so loud that we can’t hear the conversation (and there’s something we can do about it by turning down the volume or by moving elsewhere).] Due to the presence of 聞ける, the situation is apparently alterable.
私はウグイスの声がよく聞こえる。[For me, the nightingale’s sounds are very audible.]
その音は小さすぎて聞こえない。[That sound is too quiet to be heard.]
大山さんの声は大きいので隣の部屋の人にもよく聞こえる。[Oyama-san’s voice is so loud that even the people in the neighboring room can hear it.]
私にはお寺のかねの音が聞こえたが、弟には聞こえなかった。[For me, the temple’s bell was audible. But for my little brother, it was inaudible.]
テーラーさんの作った文は変に聞こえる。[The sentences that Tara made sound strange.]
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