Part.1 Japanese Syllables

Why Is The Katakana Tiny?

Japanese words will only have the combination of characters ending in “i” sounds with “y” characters to modify them, but borrowed words can be different. There are a lot more sounds in languages that Japanese has borrowed from—especially English, which makes up a big chunk of these words—so katakana sometimes uses vowel characters (ア, イ, ウ, エ, オ) to modify other characters.

When used to modify, these vowel characters are also written smaller, and the combination still counts as one syllable. Let’s use the katakana version of the word “official,” which is written as オフィシャル. It has the normal combination of シ and ヤ to make シャ or “sha.” But it also combines フ and イ to make フィ or “fi.” In Japanese, there are no native words that have a “fi” sound in them. Sounds like this are only used in borrowed words, and only written in katakana.

These combinations are put in katakana pretty much as the need arises. As you see more katakana words, you’ll see more common combinations regularly. The more you practice with reading words and sounding them out, the better you’ll get at knowing which combination to use for each word.

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But Why is the つ Tiny??

You may have noticed I left out a pretty important character that you’ll see in its tiny form pretty often. That’s because っ works a bit differently compared to the other tiny characters.

When つ is written smaller in a word, it indicates a stop. It’s kind of like an extension of the consonant sound after it, but it literally is not voiced at all. It’s pretty much the absence of voice when you’re speaking.

If we look at the word びっくり (surprise), we can kind of see how this works. Unlike the other tiny characters, small つ is technically a full syllable. It modifies the character after it by having you take a syllable rest before you say it. It’s kind of hard to explain this through typing, so try to find it in audio or through a Japanese-speaking friend. But I’ll do my best.

The romanization of びっくり is “bikkuri,” and the double k’s are your sign the have that break in there. So instead of saying this straight, you have a bit of a pause before you get to the “k” sound. Sort of like “bi-kuri.”

The amount of time you pause on a small つ can add emphasis. If your pause is a normal length, there’s little emphasis. But if you pause a bit longer and you say it more like “bi—kuri!” it will add emphasis. Don’t go overboard with this though. Too much of a pause will sound a little ridiculous. This is one of those listen-to-a-native-speaker-to-get-the-hang-of-it things.

Small つ can also be used in writing to indicate cutting off a word. One of the word I see this with the most is “えっ?” This isn’t really a word, but it’s used to indicate confusion or surprise. The っ at the end shows you that the え sound is cut off to add emphasis.

What About Long Vowels?

Some words in Japanese have extended vowel sounds. You write these by adding a vowel kana after the kana you’re trying to extend. So if you’re trying to write the word “kuuki” in hiragana, you can show the long “u” sound by adding a う (くうき). The く already gives you an “u” sound, the う just makes it longer.

The sounds あ, い, and う, are all extended using those kana, such as in くうき or うつくしい. However, え is extended by adding and い, and お is extended with a う in most situations. You can see this in words like キレイ (which is Japanese but written in katakana because the kanji is 綺麗 and it’s hard to write) and びょうき. These extended vowels are sometimes romanized with a line over them (びょうき would be “byōki”).

There are a few exceptions, such as the word おおきい (大きい: big), but there are few enough that you can easily remember them as you learn new vocabulary.

These vowel extensions count as their own syllable. This means the word くうき, even though we could easily say it as two syllables with our English-speaking minds, is actually three syllables (ku-u-ki). If you get this down, it’ll be easier to figure out how to pronounce things and distinguish between your words.

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Now You Can Write Haiku!

If you put all these rules together, you’ll be able to improve your pronunciation and even your spelling. You’ll be able to distinguish between words like くうき and クッキ through your speech alone. That’s going to help Japanese people understand you better too.

You can also finally master the art of haiku, making accurate 5-7-5 poems with your complete understanding of Japanese syllables and blowing all your friends’ minds as you become a modern day Bashō.

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