We’re now at the final section of hiragana characters and the individual sounds that they represent. In this lesson you will learn what the combination sounds in Japanese are and how to form them.
This part gets interesting as we once again take the basic hiragana that you’ve already learned and alter them slightly in order to represent some new consonant and vowel combinations.
However, we do it differently than we did the first time. Instead of adding dashes or circles to the basic kana, we are going to add more kana. Although they are smaller (and cute!).
How To Make Combination Kana
This part can kind of be thought of like a mathematical formula. Here’s what I mean by that:
Take any hiragana that is a Consonant + the い [i] vowel, and combine it with one of the three [y] kana: や, ゆ, or よ.
き and や become きゃ = kya
き and ゆ become きゅ = kyu
き and よ become きょ = kyo
Note that when this happens, the [i] sound from the first kana disappears. What this means is that きゃ = kya is a single sound.
[kya] is the correct way to say it – It’s just one syllable.
[ki-ya], which is two syllables, would be incorrect.
This might feel a little weird for you at first, so just be sure to pay extra close attention when you listen to it and then try to make a single sound when you produce it.
Also, something to note is that, you will probably have noticed that the [y] kana in these combo-kana are only half of their normal size!
This shows that they belong to the normal size hiragana that immediately precedes them.
Even though きゃ is created by using a normal sized kana in conjunction with a half-sized kana, it is still considered as one single mora.
What Is A Mora?
In the last lesson I told you that I would go into more details on what a mora is, and I think now is a good time to do that.
A “mora” is defined as “a unit in phonology that determines syllable weight” but we can make it easier to understand when it applies specifically to Japanese.
To make things simple (and useful) we can say that a mora is a single kana character and its associated sound.
That would mean that き [ki] is a single mora and きや [ki ya] is two mora.
When it comes to these new combination sounds, such as きゃ [kya] we are essentially taking two morae and merging them into a new single mora.
Since the Japanese language using the consonant + vowel combination so often, we might initially think that mora and syllables are the same thing, but once we get into the section of this course where we study the sounds in complete words, we will see that a syllable can actually encompass several morae.
So think of “mora” as a single phonetic character in Japanese, and remember that these combination kana are just one mora.
They Are Called “You-On” In Japanese
I hope that it makes sense now why I’ve been calling them “combination hiragana” from the way they are constructed.
However, they are actually called “you-on” in Japanese which translates as “contracted sound.”
You might recall the daku-on and handaku-on from before and notice a pattern right at the end of these words. They all end with “on” which is actually the Japanese word for “sound.”
There are a total of eleven groups. Here are the first six groups now.
きゃ = kya
きゅ = kyu
きょ = kyo
And of course here are the voiced counterparts as well.
ぎゃ = gya
ぎゅ = gyu
ぎょ = gyo
The [y] sound is changed to a [h] sound when the first kana used is the し [shi] character.
しゃ = sha
しゅ = shu
しょ = sho
It changes once again to a [j] sound when じ is used, which is the voiced counterpart to the above し.
じゃ = ja
じゅ = ju
じょ = jo
When we use ち we actually get the [h] sound again.
ちゃ = cha
ちゅ = chu
ちょ = cho
Thankfully, from here on out it’s all [y] sounds with these you-on. We will see the next group now and then all five remaining groups after some example words.
にゃ = nya
にゅ = nyu
にょ = nyo
Some Example Words
Content goes here.
きょねん = Last year
かいしゃ = Company
にゃん = Meow (the sound a cat makes)
としょかん = Library
じゅんび = Preparation
おちゃ = Green tea
ぎょせん = Fishing boat
Be Careful About These Sounds
Now here’s a question for you to ponder: “Will a [y] hiragana always fuse with a preceding Consonant + [i] kana?”
The answer is no.
There will occasionally be times when they do not combine, and are instead two separate sounds. I wouldn’t say that it’s common, but it does happen.
The tricky thing is that, at first, it can be kind of hard to distinguish the difference between these two situations. I’d like to show you what I mean.
Take a look at these next two words and see how close they sound to one another, and yet they are still different:
The below sounds are #1 [sha], and #2 [shi-ya]:
- しゃしん = Picture
- しや = Outlook
Did you catch the difference between the しゃ [sha] sound in the first word and the しや [shiya] in the second word. This ought to help you tell the difference between the combination sounds and regular ones.
If you can’t quite tell the difference yet, just be aware that it exists and listen a few extra times to help train your ears.
It also helps if you practice making the two sounds yourself. Try saying しゃ [sha] which is one mora, and then しや [shiya] which is two morae, a few times.
The Rest Of The You-on
First we’ll start with the [h] sound in combination with [y].
ひゃ = hya
ひゅ = hyu
ひょ = hyo
And the Daku-on version.
びゃ = bya
びゅ = byu
びょ = byo
And the Handaku-on version.
ぴゃ = pya
ぴゅ = pyu
ぴょ = pyo
The [m] is pretty simply as well.
みゃ = mya
みょ = myu
みゅ = myo
Finally we get to the tricky one.
りゃ = rya
りゅ = ryu
りょ = ryo
Special Notes On The [ry] Group
There are two situations that most English speakers struggle with when it comes to creating these りゃ, りゅ, and りょ sounds.
The first one I have talked about a little bit where a person creates two separate sounds [ri-yo] one after the other, rather than the single sound that is correct [ryo].
I would say that this is the most common struggle, and just being aware of it usually helps solve it.
The other problem people have is that they don’t hear that initial [r] sound at all and pronounce it as just [yo] when again, the correct sound is [ryo].
This second one is very subtle and you have to pay close attention so that you can catch it when others are talking.
There are two ways I would recommend you practice these sounds in order to help get ahead of these potential problems.
The first way is to practice making two sounds as separate morae followed immediately by the one combination sound. You can do it slowly at first in order to get a good feel for it before then speeding up to a normal pace.
り – や [ri-ya] and then りゃ [rya]
り – ゆ [ri-yu] and then りゅ [ryu]
り – よ [ri-yo] and then りょ [ryo]
The point of this exercise is to feel and hear how they are different from one another so that you can get used to them.
The other way to practice making the correct sound is to start with the tip of your tongue touching the top of your mouth (similar to the [r] group from before) and then try pronouncing the [y] sounds and notice how this is different from just the normal [ya-yu-yo] sounds where your tongue lays flat in your mouth the entire time.
This ought to help train you to make the three [ry] sounds correctly and keep it distinct from any other sounds that are close to it, but not quite the same.
Again, these are tricky sounds for English speakers so the best way to overcome them is to first be aware of them, and then do a lot of practice listening and repeating.
And remember to go easy on yourself. This isn’t something that you need to get perfect right away. The skill will come in due time the more you play with the language.
More Example Words
ひゃくまん = One million
ぴゅぴゅ = (the sound of) Whistling of wind
りゃくご = Abbreviation
りょかん = Ryokan – A Japanese style inn
Part 1 Complete!
Congratulations, you have now completed the first part of this course!
You now have a solid understanding and exposure to the individual sounds in Japanese. In addition to that, you can now read and write hiragana which is the first writing system in Japanese and a visual representation of these sounds.
In the second section of the course we are going to explore the sounds that only appear within complete words.
This next part ought to be fun, as it will open the door further on your understanding and mastery of the sounds of Japanese.
But before we get to that, let’s do one final review on everything that we’ve covered so far. I am also going to give you a complete chart of these hiragana (free!) that you can download and use whenever you want to.
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