Today we are going to cover a very important part of Japanese phonetics that is represented by a special character. It’s not a new kana, you’ve seen it before, just not quite like this. The reason is because it is a smaller version of the original. What is the small “tsu” in Japanese?
Here’s a quick look at the normal size つ and here is it again in the miniature form っ. Let’s also see them right next to each other to help really show the difference: っつ.
Now let’s get into this lesson so that we can understand what it is used for and why it is so important.
What Is A Stop Sound?
The last section talked about making a sound in Japanese longer by holding on to it. But this section is going to cover the opposite concept. Today I’ll be giving you an explanation on stop sounds in Japanese.
Although we won’t be making any of the basic sounds shorter than what they normally would be, what we will be doing is adding in some silence inside of the words.
It’s a pretty important concept, as it gets used a lot in Japanese.
Remember when we talked about Japanese being similar to music because they both have beats?
For example, a 4-beat word in Japanese that we saw in the previous example word list was おいしい (delicious). Each hiragana character, or mora, counts as one beat.
A stop sound is when one of the beats inside of the word is silent.
It’s important to keep in mind that this silence, represented by the small “tsu” character, still counts as a full mora (or beat).
The word まって has three morae, but you would pronounce it by saying [ma] on beat one, being quiet on beat two, and then saying [te] on beat three.
That being said, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Let’s take a look at handling that quiet part now.
Is It Always Quiet? Nope.
When we write the stop sound as the つ symbol we do so at half the normal size just like how we shrink the three [y] hiragana when they are used in combination kanji.
If we were to write this stop sound in English, what we would do is double the consonant that appears after the pause.
Example: まって which means “wait” would be written as [matte].
This is important to note because your mouth placement is going to go to the consonant that occurs right after the stop and then hold it there for one beat.
Saying まって in Japanese would be like saying [mat – … – te] in English.
It feels pretty awkward to stop all sound in your mouth on a vowel and then try to come back in on a consonant, so Japanese people just rush to the upcoming consonant and then pause before reiterating that same consonant.
Because of this, certain words aren’t actually 100% silent.
In particular, when the っ appears before an [s] consonant, you hold the [s] sound for an additional beat instead of stopping all the sound in the word.
You might think of yourself as a snake speaking when it comes to these words… A Sssnaake!
Here’s an example: しゅっせき (attendance) would be spelled in English as [shusseki]. For the っ in words like this, you hold [s] for one beat instead of stopping all sound.
So it kind of sounds like [shus-sss-se-ki] when you actually say it.
This will make a lot more sense when you listen to the examples down below.
Calling this entire thing a “stop sound” can be a little misleading since the [s] sound continues throughout, but I wanted to present it to you in a format that is easy to understand considering that most of the time, the sound will indeed stop.
The actual name for the small っ symbol is “soku-on” which translates into English as “geminate consonant”… Whatever the heck that is!
I’m just playing. It means “doubled”
The [n] and [m] Group Are Special
When it comes to words that have this doubled consonant feature, there is a situation that is handled differently from the rest.
I’m talking about words that below to the [n] and [m] groups.
They do not use the っ symbol when they have a stop sound because there is already a kana that is perfect for these situations.
They will use ん in these words, since it accomplishes the same effect.
Words such as みんな [minna] and はんも [hammo].
Typically you just hold that ん sound for a beat which sounds like more a hum instead of silence.
Types Of Small Hiragana
So far in this course we have encountered two situations where the hiragana characters become miniaturized.
The first one was with the combination sounds where we combined two kana such as み and ゆ to make みゅ.
Now we’ve added one more, the っ, which represents the stop sound that appears in certain words.
There will also be times where you run into vowels that have been shrunk like this, such as in a common phrase that people say when they want to tell someone else that they are lucky.
- You’re so lucky!
This is done to show that the speaker is holding on to that final vowel for emotional emphasis. It doesn’t change the meaning of what’s being said, it is just used as a kind of intensifier for the feelings of the speaker such as happiness, anger, disbelief, etc.
Getting Good At Silence
First I’ll give you five words that use a stop sound and then I’ll give you three words that aren’t quite silent (the [s] one’s).
Finally I’ll give you a couple of the [n] one’s so that you can see how they are kind of the same, but also slightly different from the rest of these examples.
きっぷ = Ticket
みっつ = Three
さっき = A few minutes ago
がっこう = School
りっぱ = Splendid
いっしょに = Together
はっせん = 8,000
まっしろ = Pure white
みんな = Everyone
どんな = What kind of
Also, it might be useful to hear some words without a stop sound right next to one with a stop sound, so here are two examples of this:
みて and まって = Look and Wait
はそん and はっせん = Damage and 8,000
Listen to these last two example pairs again, and focus on the differences between the middle of the words where one has a stop sound and the other does not.
It Takes A Little Time
A final thing to note is that when native speakers make these stop sounds, they actually go through them pretty quickly. A beginner might miss it and think that the Japanese person skipped the stop sound all together.
From my experience, people learning Japanese tend to overemphasize the stop sound, but that’s not really a bad thing when you are first starting out. As you hear it more often and become more used to it you will naturally speed up.
Questions? Comments? Let me know by writing them below!
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