第5課: Kana III: Long Vowels, Double Consonants, & Yotsugana

Every language has an orthography for its script(s). In any orthography, there are rules that govern how the writing system(s) are used. For the most part, Japanese orthography in regard to Kana is rather straightforward, but there are a few special cases.

Long Vowels in Hiragana

In Hiragana, long vowels are typically written by doubling the vowel. As you can see below, only long /e/ or /o/ sounds are extra complicated. The reason why these two long vowels are two possible spellings is because of all the words that have been borrowed from Chinese. Sometimes, spelling doesn't always match pronunciation. As readers of English, you should know this oh too well. 

 Long /a/ Long /i/ Long /u/ Long /e/ Long /o/
 ああ いい うう ええ

The next thing to do is see actual words with each of these long vowels. The information we learned about long /e/ and long /o/ sounds in Lesson 1 will be extremely relevant in this lesson. 

Long /a/, /i/, & /u/ 

To create long vowels for /a/, /i/, and /u/, all you do is double the vowel symbol. In the word charts below, the first column shows their spellings in Hiragana. Because word type is a major factor later on in this lesson, the word type for all words shown in this section are also provided. There are three main sources of vocabulary in Japanese: native (words that are indigenous to Japanese), Sino-Japanese, and loan-words. Sino-Japanese words are words that were either borrowed or created with roots from Chinese. These words are alternatively referred to as Kango (the Japanese terminology for Sino-Japanese) in the charts below. Loan-words are borrowings from modern world languages that have managed to find their way into Japanese. In the third column. 

Transcription Note:
1. Because pitch contours will be marked on the Hiragana spellings, long vowels will be romanized with macrons in the charts below except for long /i/, which will be written as "ii."
2. High pitch and pitch drops will be denoted the same way as previous lessons, just with their Hiragana spellings. 

Curriculum Note: False long vowels, vowels that happened to be juxtaposed next to each other but are in fact belong to separate word elements, are not represented as examples of long vowels in the charts below.  

 Long /a/ Word Type  Meaning
 Native Ah
 Okāsan あさん
 Native (Someone's) mother
 Obasan ばさん
 Native Aunt; middle-aged woman
 Obāsan あさん
 Native Grandmother/old woman

Usage Note: Long /a/ is not a common long vowel. In Hiragana, long /a/ is limited to native words. 

 Long /i/ Word Type  Meaning
 Ojisan じさん
 Native Uncle/middle-aged man
 Ojiisan いさん
 Native Grandfather/old man

Usage Note: Long /i/ is also not a common long vowel. In Hiragana, long /i/ is limited to native words. 

 Long /u/ Word Type Meaning
 Sūgaku うがく
 Kango Math
 Fūfu うふ
 Kango Married couple
 Gyūniku ぎゅうにく
 Kango Beef 

Usage Note
: Though common, long /u/ is limited to Sino-Japanese words in Hiragana

 Long /e/: ええ vs えい

Whereas long /e/ in native words is always spelled with ええ, it is spelled as えい in Sino-Japanese, in which case it may alternatively be literally pronounced as [ei]. This literal pronunciation is preferred in many regions of Japan as well as in conversation pronunciation, especially in singing. Note that all other instances of えい outside Sino-Japanese vocabulary must be pronounced as [ei]. 

 [ē] Word Type Meaning
 Onēsan えさん
 Native Older sister/young lady/miss
 Native Really?
 [ē] or [ei] Word Type Meaning 
 Ēga/Eiga いが
 Kango Movie
 Mēshi/Meishi いし Kango Business card
 [ei] Word Type Meaning 
 Mei Native  Niece 
 Hei  Native Wall/fence
 Ei えい
 Native Stingray

Long /o/: おお vs おう

Long /o/ is usually spelled in native words as おお. Historically, the second "o" would have originally been ほ or を, depending on the word. In Sino-Japanese words, long /o/ is written as おう. When おう is used in native words, it either stands for a long /o/ or "o.u." Typically, おう in native words is always a long /o/ except when it is at the end of a verb. The ending of a verb is treated as a separate element, thus breaking apart what otherwise would be a long vowel. 

 Word Type Meaning
 Kōri おり
 Native Ice
 Tōi おい
 Native Far away
 Ōkii おき
 Native Big
 Native Many
 Native Already
 Otōsan うさん
 Native (Someone's) father
 Kanjō かんじょう Kango Emotion
 Gakkō っこう
 Kango School
 Nōgyō うぎょう Kango Agriculture
 [ou] Word Type Meaning
 Ou Native To chase
 Ōu おう
 Native To cover

Long Vowels in Katakana

For Katakana, long vowels are typically represented with a mark that looks similar to a hyphen: ー. It's normally either called a chō’ompu ちょうおんぷ or bōbiki ぼうびAs Katakana is used primarily to write foreign words, you are primarily going to use and see this with foreign words. 

 Word Meaning Word Meaning
 Tēburu テーブル Table Aisukuriimu アイスクリーム Ice cream
 Intāchenji インターチェン ジ  Interchange Mēru ール Email
 Fināre フィーレ Finale Kōchi ーチ Coach
 Sōda ーダ Soda Kompyūtā ンピューター Computer
 Aisutii アイスティ Ice tea Sēru ール Sale
 Orenjijūsu オレンジジュース Orange juice Chiizu ーズ Cheese
 Daunrōdo ダウンロード Download Kōhii コーヒ Coffee
 Intabyū ンタビュー Interview Sūtsukēsuーツケース Suitcase

Curriculum Note: A lot can be said about how to transcribe and pronounce loan-words. For now, know that long vowels are typically written with ー in Katakana.

Double Consonants in Kana

In both Hiragana and Katakana, double consonants are created by preceding a symbol with a shrunken tsu. In Hiragana, this is っ. In Katakana, this is ッ. As we have learned previously, unvoiced consonants are typically the only consonants doubled. However, /n/ and /m/ can technically be long, but the symbol for N will be what precedes the main symbol (ん in Hiragana and ン in Katakana). 

 Word Meaning Word Meaning
 Chotto ちょっと
 A little Matto ット
 Hokkē ッケー
 Hockey Shippai っぱい
 Jetto ジェット
 Intānetto ンターネット
 Sakkā ッカー
 Soccer Robotto ボット

With Katakana, voiced consonants are only voiced in certain loan-words or in exaggerated pronunciations. Even in such expressions, these doubled voiced consonants are still usually pronounced as if they were unvoiced so long as there is an unvoiced equivalent. For instance, "bed" is beddo but is normally pronounced as betto. Nonetheless, it remains spelled as ベッド. Consonants for which this all applies include: g, z, d, h, f, b, r, w and y.

 Word Meaning Word Meaning
 Baggu ッグ
 Bag Beddo ッド Bed
 Suggoi っご
 Cool! Reddo Sokkkusu ッドソックス The Red Socks
 Aipaddo イパッド
 iPad Bagudaddo グダッド Baghdad
 Hottodoggu ットドッグ
 Hot dog Bahha ッハ Bach

Glottal Stops

In Lesson 1, we learned about what glottal stops were. A glottal stop is made by forcibly stopping air in one's Adam's apple. When an expression ends in a glottal stop, a small tsu is used to indicate this pronunciation. An example of this is itah いたっ (ouch!).


Yotsugana refer to Kana that spell what were traditionally four distinct consonants: /z/, /dz/, /j/, and /dj/. Pronunciation-wise, /z/ is usually pronounced as /dz/ and can only be pronounced as /z/ inside words. As for /j/ and /dj/, the two sounds are overwhelmingly both pronounced as [dj]. Previously, we learned when these consonants are used, but we haven't gone over the rules for how to write them correctly in Kana

Below are the symbols in question in both Hiragana and Katakana. In the chart, symbols are listed as "common", "uncommon" or "rare." 

 Sound Hiragana Rarity Katakana Rarity
 JI じ Common ジ Common
 ZU ず Common ズ Common
 DZU づ Uncommon ヅ Rare
 DJI ぢ Uncommon ヂ Rare
 JA じゃ Common ジャ Common
 JU じゅ Common ジュ Common
 JO じょ Common ジョ Common
 DJA ぢゃ Uncommon ヂャ Rare
 DJU ぢゅ Rare ヂュ Rare
 DJO ぢょ Rare ヂョ Rare

Because Katakana is used largely for loan-word transcriptions, which is why symbols traditionally associated with the consonants /dj/ and /dz/ are all rare. Typically, the symbols traditionally associated with the consonants /z/ and /j/ are used regardless of how the consonant is pronounced. The only times when づ・ヅ and ぢ・ヂ are used is when they are immediately preceded by つ・ツ and ち・チ respectively, or when they are the voiced forms of つ・ツ and ち・チ respectively in compound expressions.

 Nosebleed Hana(d)ji なぢ
 Instruction Shiji 
 Shrinkage Chi(d)jimi ぢみ
 Bell Suzu 
 Continuation Tsu(d)zuki づき
 Monopoly Hitorijime とりじめ
 Class Jugyō じゅぎょう Jaguar Jaga ジャガー
 Monotone Ippon(d)jōshiっぽんぢょうし Information Jōhō じょうほう
 Suggestion/hint Ire(d)jieれぢえ Crescent Moon Mika(d)zuki かづき
 Within reach Te(d)jikaぢか To spell Tsu(d)zuru づる
 Proximity Ma(d)jikaぢか Hairpiece Zura

Word Note: ヅラ is an abbreviation of katsuraつら (hairpiece), and it is usually spelled in Katakana largely to emphasize its existence as an abbreviation.

Curriculum Note: To learn more, see Lesson 355.