In this article we’re going to look at why these hiragana characters are sometimes half-size, and how they affect the pronunciation in Japanese.
Tiny Hiragana : Changing Sounds: ゃ, ゅ, and ょ
Japanese only has 46 hiragana, so without these modified sounds, you would only be able to make 46 different sounds. These give us a bit more to work with.
The main purpose of these is the change the vowel sound. To help illustrate how this works, let’s look at this handy chart.
|き (ki)||きゃ (kya)||きゅ (kyu)||きょ (kyo)|
|し (shi)||しゃ (sha)||しゅ (shu)||しょ (sho)|
|ち (chi)||ちゃ (cha)||ちゅ (chu)||ちょ (cho)|
|に (ni)||にゃ (nya)||にゅ (nyu)||にょ (nyo)|
|ひ (hi)||ひゃ (hya)||ひゅ (hyu)||ひょ (hyo)|
|み (mi)||みゃ (mya)||みゅ (myu)||みょ (myo)|
|り (ri)||りゃ (rya)||りゅ (ryu)||りょ (ryo)|
|ぎ (gi)||ぎゃ (gya)||ぎゅ (gyu)||ぎょ (gyo)|
|じ (ji)||じゃ (jya)||じゅ (jyu)||じょ (jyo)|
|び (bi)||びゃ (bya)||びゅ (byu)||びょ (byo)|
|ぴ (pi)||ぴゃ (pya)||ぴゅ (pyu)||ぴょ (pyo)|
The first thing you may notice with this chart is that the only hiragana sounds regularly modified by these small hiragana are the ones that end in an “i” sound, except for い and ぢ (it appears both of these are excluded because they would be too much of a pain to say). It’s natural when speaking for an “i” sound to connect smoothly to a “y” sound.
You’ll probably also notice that there are a lot of these. This chart alone adds 33 new sounds that we can make in Japanese, just by changing vowel sounds.
To see a clear example of changing the vowel sound, we can look at the “shi” row. If you look at a hiragana chart, the only character in the “s” column that is pronounced with a “sh” is “shi.” Adding these small characters to modify the vowel sound lets us use “sh” with other vowels. So we can say “sha,” “shu,” and “sho” as well.
These sounds are all used in really basic words like “shashin” (写真, しゃしん: photograph), “shuu” (週, しゅう: week), and “shokuji” (食事, しょくじ: meal).
Pronouncing these sounds is pretty easy. If you would like to practice, say them separately (like “shi-ya”), then make them into one syllable (“sha”). With some of them, you’ll lose the “y” sound completely, while others (like “bya” and “ryo”) will keep it. The biggest thing is the make sure they only take up one syllable. “Ryu” and “riyu” are different, and mispronunciations like that will be confusing for whoever you are speaking to.
Tiny Hiragana :Indicating a Stop: っ
The basic idea is that っ marks a stop in speech. It will almost always come before a consonant, and I was taught that it extends the consonant sound that comes after it, but it does so with a stop in sound. For those of you who are musically inclined, each hiragana character is a beat, and a っ is a rest.
Let’s take the word “bikkuri” (びっくり: surprise) as an example. Without the っ, this would take three beats to say (bi-ku-ri, 1-2-3). With the っ, it becomes four beats, with the っ being a beat of silence (bi-/-ku-ri, 1-2-3-4).
Obviously, when you’re speaking, you won’t be stopping to count the beats of each word, but you will need to make sure you have that stop in “bikkuri.” With the stop, you’ll say “bikkuri,” which means “surprise.” Without the stop, you’ll say “bikuri,” which doesn’t really mean anything.
It might not seem like it makes much of a difference, but dropping the っ can drastically change the meaning of a word. For example, “Katta!” (かった！) means “I won!” while “kata” (かた) means “shoulder.” The only difference is the stop before the た.
Why Is Tiny Hiragana Important?
Japanese can be a really easy language to pronounce. However, that means it’s important for you to really work on getting all of the sounds it has down naturally.
Being able to pronounce Japanese well will help your speaking because people will be more comfortable with listening and understanding your Japanese. Knowing about these small characters and how they change pronunciation will also really help your ability to write.