The problem with はやい is that it’s a homophone. Like so many other words in Japanese, there are multiple characters that are pronounced the same way, but have similar, yet slightly different meanings. In some sense, this is a bit similar to—but doesn’t exactly parallel—how the Japanese ways of talking about “cold” can be confusing to English speakers. Only, as was the case with “cold,” the similarities exist in English, not in Japanese.
はやい can be written two different ways. 速い (as we saw in the previous column) and 早い. The confusing part comes in that some dictionaries translate both into English the same way:
速い – fast; quick; early in the day
早い – fast; quick; early in the day
So… they mean the same thing. Right? Then why have two completely different characters to represent the same idea? Well, as it turns out, even some Japanese seem to have trouble knowing when to use which.
I found the following question in Yahoo! Japan’s 知恵袋 [ちえぶくろ], or “Bag of Knowledge,” a website equivalent to the English-language Yahoo! Answers:
速い・・・・と 早い・・・・の使い分けができません。 辞書で調べてはみたものの …
I can’t figure out the difference in usage between
I looked in the dictionary
but it made absolutely no sense.
Can someone give me an “Oh yeah! That’s how it works” sorta hint?
One response read:
“早” is a character that represents daybreak, suggesting that the time (of day) is early.
“速” suggests that one’s speed (of movement) is high.
Another response added the following (red indicates words added by me):
頭の回転が速い – (lit.) “The turning of the head is rapid” (to be quick-witted)
車の速さ – the speed of a car
決断が速い – a decision is quick
ペースが速い – a fast pace
呼吸が速い – respiration is fast
遅かれ早かれ – (lit.) “late, early” (“sooner or later”)
気が早い – (lit.) “one’s ‘ki,’ or spirit/energy is early” (“hasty”)
素早い – fast; quick; nimble; agile
早起き – early rising (in the morning)
早送り – fast forward (audio/video)
理解が早い（速い）- quick to comprehend (which, apparently, can use either)
So… did that clear anything up? 🙂
As a general rule of thumb, I recommend using 速 when talking about speed and 早 when talking about being early. That should cover most cases well enough.