Sequential voicing in Japanese (Rendaku, 連濁)

By | December 5, 2014

Although I would bet there are many people who haven’t heard the term “sequential voicing” or “連濁” before, the basic concept of it is quite easy to learn, and will help you better guess the meaning of certain words plus make remembering them easier.

First a little terminology. When writing in Katakana or Hiragana there are two symbols that can be placed next to certain characters to change their sounds. The dakuten (濁点) is something which looks like two tick marks, and is sometimes called tenten (点々) Handakuten (半濁点)uses a little circle and is somethings called maru (丸).

If you’ve learned Hiragana or Katakana you probably already know how these are used, but for those who are new to Japanese I’ll use は (ha) as an example:

  • は => ha
  • ば => ba  (dakuten added)
  • ぱ => pa  (handakuten added)

(feel free to check out the wikipedia page for Hiragana here for more information on when these marks are used)

This fancy term called “sequential voicing” really boils down to when a dakuten or handakuten is added to first character of a word which is part of a compound word (except for the first character in the compound word).This applies to when using Hiragana/Katakana and affects the pronunciation of the word when spoken, but doesn’t manifest visually when writing the word in Kanji.

Let’s look at a few simple examples:

  • まほう (magic) + つかい (use) => まほうづかい (magic user)     [The つ has changed to づ due the added dakuten]
  • ビール (beer) + はら (stomach/belly) => ビールばら (beer belly)   [The は changed to ば due to the added dakuten]
  • たび (travel/journey) + ひと (person) => たびびと (traveller)    [The ひ changed to び due to the added dakuten]

So now that you know about this, if you were to hear something like  “かおじゃしん” you might be able to guess it came from かお (face) plus  しゃしん (picture), which basically means a photo of somebody’s face, like one used for a profile.

Keep in mind this sound transformation doesn’t always happen (ex: 読み書き which is pronounced よみかき not よみがき), and while there has been some research trying to determine exactly when it does and doesn’t happen (see here), there are no absolute rules that work 100% of the time. But after you hear enough of these types of words you’ll gradually acquire the ability to guess the pronunciation with some accuracy.


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