皆様, こんにちにゃあぁ！Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, the site where everything is real and the points DO matter. That’s right, just like our belief in your ability to learn Japanese! As you float onto a sandy beach after days adrift at sea, you meander through its foliage. You notice some important natural tools that you’ve experienced in the past, but after days of simply trying to survive, it’s not quite enough to thrive. But, just as you’re at the end of your rope, foraging for just one helpful piece of sustenance, there’s a bright light in the distance shining through the trees. You approach, and the brightness obscuring your line of sight fades away. In the middle of a seemingly aimless, but beautiful landscape, you see a cafe. You approach the counter and notice all of the basics you’ve been able to find are right there, but in new combinations. You’re handed a new and refreshing way to understand the world around you by none other than your guides to Japanese language and culture, Kiki+Koko. And, we’re here to help you survive and thrive in Japanese.
Sometimes you’ll need a new vocabulary word or a new concept to add to your Japaense Language Survival Kit, but this time, we’re adding to the 「音」sequels to create a proper trilogy. Though reading Japanese’s basic tier characters are much less complex than differentiating sussing out how to read words like ‘eight’ and ‘ate,’ there is a little bit more to proper pronunciation and writing than meets the eye. But, not to worry, as we’ve laid down the proper foundation in order to keep your tower of learning from toppling down. There are many sounds we’ve introduced in vocabulary that we haven’t properly introduced to you. They’re combining the characters you know in new ways and new quantities, but we’re sure with time, you’ll get to know and enjoy these new characters. We definitely recommend you take a look at the previous two lessons before delving into this, as it’s a little less jarring than this concept can be at first. You’ll learn three knew characters you technically already knew if you’ve learnt basic hiragana with us.
Basic Japanese Diphthongs Intro: New Blends
New and Hidden Sounds
You can’t know what you don’t know until you know enough to know what you don’t know… And by that, we mean, before understanding why this may be something strange for beginners, you’ll have to become acquainted thoroughly with at least the first 46-48 hiragana before this becomes useful. We’re going to focus on this concept from the perspective of someone who is at least at that point as well as focusing on the hiragana examples that will be useful to beginners. So, we’re going to gloss over giant points about how Japanese writing works, but you can take a look at our article giving a basic synopsis on Japanese writing.
That being said, knowing that Japanese hiragana are almost entirely consonant-vowel pairings without singular consonants, you might wonder how very common words like Kyouto, 京都, or Ryuukyuu, 琉球, happen. Is this just a phenomenon that occurs with romanisation? Not exactly! But, there’s another aspect that arises when you think of this that may not have arose until thinking of diphthongs. What about sounds from words like maccha, 抹茶, or jitensha, 自転車? How could one create a cha or sha as one character? These are oddly words that are difficult to figure out how to spell using Japanese when using romanisation as it doesn’t who you how the sound is created. But, this is where the concept of a diphthong comes in.
Think of sounds like kya, shu, chu, ryo, they all have a「y」 sound hidden in there, hidden in the ones that aren’t romanised with a 「y」. This takes some delving into a different way of thinking about pronunciation to fully understand how to read and write these sorts of sounds. These sounds are created with a combination of two characters, a character ending in an 「i」vowel, and a slightly new but different character that you would be partially familiar with:ゃ、ゅ、 and ょ
These combine with any of the second characters in each of the sections like き、し、ち、に、ひ、み、and り to create what we’ll refer to as a blend. Characters like these combine with ゃ、ゅ、 or ょ to make the blends you know and love. As we’ll reiterate in the next section, these small counterparts partner with these types of characters to create proper blends. Let’s take a look at jitensha, 自転車, again.
So, as we mentioned, this phenomenon isn’t created by romanisation, but it is obscured by it. If you don’t initially learn these words using at least a combination of hiragana and romanisation, you’ll find yourself missing an entire character and an entire piece of the romanisation that would only cause more ambiguity. Now, you’ll notice that there was always a ‘y’ hidden in there all along. But, something more, you don’t truly hear the ‘i’ sound either. When you see these two characters together, they blend, taking out the ‘i’ sound, your mouth ready to say it, but slipping into the next character, ゃ, in this case. But, this is where we have to point out that there is a similar character you already know that may cause a bit of confusion if you’re unable to tell them apart. No worries, though, we’re here to explain!
Big やゆよ and little ゃゅょ:
Gallivanting around with that floozy of a bigger brother of yours
If you’ve already learnt the characters of the gojuuon,then you’ll have come across や、ゆ、 and よ. These three make up the sparse 「y」section of the chart. But, these aren’t the focus of these sound combinations. Though they look totally the same, there’s a huge difference that will save your reading life… and that difference is… the characters of which we’re talking are smaller.
Normally, we would say that the way you can identify them would be that you’ll always find their small counterparts next to an 「i」vowelled hiragana, but there are many words that will have a full-sized や、ゆ、or よ next to a hiragana with an 「i」vowel and result in an entirely different word. Big や、ゆ、or よ mean that characters like き、し、ち、に、ひ、み、or り will prominently make a sound. As you’ll know from differences in spelling in previous sections, a different character, just as in English, means an entirely different word has been created. This may be a bit to take in without examples, though. So, let’s take a look at a few scenarios where we can see similar looking words in hiragana that mean very different things.
きょう ＝ kyou ＝ today
きよう ＝ kiyou ＝ deft
The blended version creates a smooth sound of one syllable, 「きょ」 whilst the second with full-sized characters would create two distinct syllables 「きよ」
りゅう ＝ ryuu ＝ dragon
りゆう ＝ riyuu ＝ reason
When people pronounce this specific blend, or any blend, it’s very important to avoid putting emphasis on the first character. It’s about beginning the sound with your mouth as though you’re about to read the character, stopping short at the consonant, then continuing with the little ゃ、ゅ、or ょ. Words like the two above should sound different, but to a new learner, it may sound similar. Simply work on blending the sound, and you should be A-OK!
ひゃく＝ hyaku ＝ hundred
ひやく ＝hiyaku ＝ leaping
There are many words that are simply common to see versus others that are less common. By recognising the size of each character, you should notice whether something is different than usual. It makes sense once you think of the small character as an add-on to the first character, making a new sound and the regular sized character as its own syllable. So, this is definitely something you’ll learn over time with recognition repetition.
It may be difficult to spot the difference at first, but this distinction in modern Japanese is so much more helpful than in historical Japanese where there was no small version and readers would simply have to use context. And, in many cases, context is a good clue for many of these words, but knowing how to read these words based on how their spelt will assist your pronunciation with leaps and bounds. These blended sounds are very important to proper pronunciation, so becoming familiar with scenarios in which small versus regular や、ゆ、or よ is essential. Otherwise, you’ll insert extra syllables where they’re unnecessary or skip important ones.
In all of this, it’s important to go back to our original question: 拗音とは？What is youon? Overall, this will refer to any time you see a blend like the one’s we’ve seen in this lesson and others like きゃ、みゅ、ちょ, and more! Taking a look at the exact kanji may not make it much clearer, but it is interesting to note. 拗, you, means twisted or distorted, and 音, on, means noise or sound. So, oddly enough, this results in ‘distorted’ sound. Usually, 拗音, youon, can be translated as ‘diphthong,’ but it’s usually specifically referring to when a kana character is paired with the little characters we’ve introduced to you, a bit different to anything used in English. But, this is of course, because of the nature of the writing system itself.
With time and practise, you’ll eventually get to the point where these won’t be difficult to identify or use, but for now, this should hopefully have acted as a useful introduction to a broad concept. 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. And, of course, if you want to communicate, reading and writing are other essential tools to your survival, and were essential to getting much use out of this article. 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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