皆様, こんにちにゃあぁ！Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, presented to you in 𝕘𝕝𝕠𝕣𝕚𝕠𝕦𝕤 𝕥𝕖𝕔𝕙𝕟𝕚𝕔𝕠𝕝𝕠𝕦𝕣 wherever access to the World Wide Web is available. You’re standing on the precipice of a hill, overlooking the beauty and intrigue of a new land you’ve never experienced before. After finally making your way to the area, you realise the terrain is much more difficult to navigate than you’d hoped, covered in brush and vines, but you see others very easily making their way through it without issue, enjoying the journey. Within, they say, there’s an entirely new world to experience if you’re able to traverse it. You’ve made a resolve, but after you’ve stumbled many times, you find yourself stuck at a crossroads, not knowing what tools to use or how to get any further. Before you turn away, deciding you’ll simply never experience this new world as more than an outsider, you’re handed a water flask. ‘Drink up, weary traveller,’ you hear, but when you partake, within holds more than you can comprehend: knowledge and understanding of Japanese language and culture. You look to the source of the water flask, and ask, ‘Who are you…‘ But you needn’t an answer, as you already realise: it’s Kiki+Koko, your guides to Japanese language and culture.
This is the spiritual sequel to our previous lesson regarding 促音, sokuon. Yeah, we’re not sure what that means, either, but it really means you’ll learn from this one alone, but would be fine reading either one beforehand or afterwards. But, one disclaimer is that this will only cover concepts for hiragana so that things don’t become too confusing for beginners. We’ll go more-so in-depth in future with this as it becomes necessary. We’re going to try to walk you through this vital concept that will assist you in proper pronunciation, recognising the important differences in words based on pronunciation, and we’ll prove to you that Tokyo doesn’t exist… or at least not as you may know it.
Without further ado, let’s just jump right into this.
Japanese Long Vowels
Introduction to chouon: Clearing the Path
So, when you hear about ‘long vowels’, you’re probably thinking of how they’re used in English, if English is your native language. And, you might wonder, but, Kiki-sensei, Kouko-sensei, isn’t there only ONE reading for each Japanese vowel? Did you lie to me?? How can I trust you, it’s already been so difficult for me to open up this way, and you do this? And, we would ask if you’re okay and we would talk about how you feel and ways to build that trust. But, afterwards, we’d make sure to mention that was all for nothing as it’s definitely true, we did say each hiragana usually has the same reading, then we made sure to keep you filled-in with certain important grammatical readings for one or two of them. But, that’s not to say you have anything to re-learn or even think of these in a different way at all! Because, without even knowing it, you’ve probably been following the rules of this during QUIZBO™-kun’s Word of the Week Segment. It becomes very obvious in pronunciation, but only becomes strange when reading without audio.
So, vowels in Japanese aren’t ‘short’ and ‘long’ sounds in the same way as English, like your kindergarten textbooks: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ and ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, but rather, the literal length is changed. Instead, we’re thinking of a, i, u, e, o, versus aa, ii, uu, ee, oo, ei, and ou. But, this will make much more sense when we apply these to actual hiragana rather than relying solely on romaji which is one of the reasons why this concept can be much more confusing than it should be. But, that’s why we recommend learning how to read hiragana which would help give this whole section more context and help you avoid being ensnared in the ambiguity of romaji. Even romaji is technically romanised as roumaji in the method we usually use, but everyone recognises it by its usual shortening of rōmaji which makes it even more difficult, but eventually you’ll know how to read it as 「ローマ字」, and we can all have a good laugh about this.
Prepare for Trouble! (Make it Double!)
How long vowels are read and created in Japanese
So, as we explain throughout our lessons, save for the vowels, all of the other hiragana are almost entirely a consonant and a vowel. But, many words have more than one vowel after the consonant when romanised, and simply an extra vowel after the character itself in hiragana. In this case, we’re talking about the same vowel sound twice in a row. But, this is something of which you have to be aware when pronouncing a word because it can result in an entirely different word based on the length of each vowel. Of course, there are times where this won’t create an entirely different word, but it’ll effect pronunciation negatively. But, there is a significant amount of the time where it will mean an entirely different word!
Here are a few examples where the difference could end in a misunderstanding:
おばさん = obasan = aunt / (inf. ‘ma’am’)
おばあさん =obaasan= grandmother / elderly female
おにいさん = oniisan = older brother
おにさん = onisan = Mr. Ogre
くつ = kutsu = shoe
くつう= kutsuu = agony
After having a look at these, there may be times you want to call your brother an ogre or make a pun with painful shoes, but it’s important to know how to make this distinction. Well, very simply, you lengthen the vowel. Instead of taking the usual part of a beat, you give the vowel its own beat. You let it trail off a little longer. Sometimes when there is a shorter vowel sound, it can even be buried when it comes to any ‘u’ sounds. Some may think that the point of the long vowel would be to emphasise it, but it’s just lengthening the tone you’re already making so that it’s not awkward. Emphasis on the wrong part of the word can be the downfall of many speakers, as it can be a falling tone, rising tone, or just a middle tone happening with vowels depending on the word.
Try not to let that bog you down too much, though, as that’s something you’ll pick up on as you learn more vocabulary and hear more speaking. Just something to keep in mind as not to make your long vowels sound too overwhelming.
The Ditto of Japanese Pronunciation
How い and う blend in with their pals え row and お row
Now, there’s long vowels that are a bit different to the ones we mentioned just earlier. These vowels aren’t the same character twice in a row, but they do make the same sound! Normally, these sorts of concepts seem like something obvious to teach, but we suddenly realised, as we taught vocabulary, this was something that just seemed to happen whether or not people noticed it. There are just certain pronunciations that will feel unnatural and you probably won’t attempt if you’re repeating the vocabulary verbally… but when it comes to reading words for the first time, this is where we noticed this skill really became an apparent need and definitely worth ‘Japanese Language Learning Essential’ status.
There are many times that words are simply given a romanisation just like we mentioned earlier where a line is placed above the letter where an extra character belongs next to it, then over time and in different formatting, the line is taken away, and you’re left with simply a misspelling. Other romainsation methods have tried to remedy this by phonetically sounding out the word. But, this isn’t as cut-and-dry as spelling is in Japanese as double vowels aren’t only the same vowel twice, but a different character that blends in. Spelling these inconsistently in romanisation can make things much more complicated in the long run when trying to write and type on a computer! But, we’re here to help you through this.
We have a few examples from previous lessons that show how lengthened vowels sound within the context of a word:
せんせい = sensei
In some romanisation, it would be written ‘sensee’ to emphasise that the ending is a long vowel, however, this would result in an incorrect spelling in hiragana as せんせえ which isn’t a word at all. So, be mindful of pronunciation, but be sure to keep to correct spellings.
けいたい = keitai
This is usually a word written in katakana, but in this it’s important to see a case where it’s within the middle of a word in contrast to another character that is next to a vowel. Notice this is another that’s from the え section of the gojuuon order. Think of pronouncing this with an instinctive English pronunciation, you may not even be able to tell the difference between someone forgetting to blend the い or not as the two naturally sort of blend together. It’s just about being mindful of it.
べんきょう = benkyou
This is one that’s important in spelling that you definitely can’t hear aloud. This is another case where the two sounds do naturally blend together, but you just have to be more mindful of it in this instance by keeping your mouth round through and through when seeing an う after an お sound when it’s mean to be blended. If it’s part of a new syllable.
Here’s an example of a word that has a blend, but also breaks off into its own, lthe word ‘meloncholy’: ゆううつ, 憂鬱, the first う blends with the ゆ, but the second is part of a new syllable.
We do have one more example… A famous city you may know as ‘Tokyo’ The romanisation leaves people with a strange three syllable pronunciation like to-ki-o, but this is incorrect. We will draw back the curtains on this as you’ll see the true two syllable, pronunciation:
とうきょう = Toukyou
That’s right! What you may have thought was Tokyo all along, is actually: Toukyou. Two syllables with two long vowels. And, you’ll notice this is with an 「う」rather than an 「お」. Many stations will romanise it as ‘Tookyoo’, but this simply ends in confusion for beginners as there are other cities with double 「お」sounds like おおさか, Oosaka. But, all in all, issues like this fade away a bit when you learn how to read Japanese. And, you’re already on your way!!
So, as we’ve shown, 「Tokyo」 doesn’t exist…in Japanese, but 「Toukyou」, とうきょう, 東京 does! But, we definitely are having a bit of a laugh being so extreme as you’ll see this spelling all over the world and it’s become ubiquitous. But, in Japanese, if you were to try to spell it T-O-K-Y-O, or「ときょ」, when typing or writing in Japanese, it would be a bit silly, and it may look more like nonsense than a city if you don’t know kanji. But, knowing these still will assist you in reading even when you are far enough to write kanji.
More definitively, we can fully and easily define our main question: ‘what is chouon’ as it can be broken up into two kanji to explain its meaning: 長, chou, for long and 音, on, for sound or noise. Fittingly, chouon has chouon within it making the u sound fade into the cho.
We hope that this helped you understand and equip the new survival tool that is properly reading long vowels in Japanese. If you need further assistance wielding and differentiating, feel free to leave a comment below. We want to make sure you have the best opportunity to survive and thrive in order to truly have an enjoyable experience with Japanese language. But, if you want to communicate, reading and writing are other essential tools to your survival. We’ve covered the first 46-48 hiragana as of this lesson and shall continue, so be on the look out for the latest lessons in reading, writing, and recognition.
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