Distinguishing between 〜う words and ~お words in Japanese

By | January 1, 2015

Japanese, unlike English, has the convenience of a pretty direct mapping between writing and sounds, at least where Hiragana and Katakana are concerned. In other words, if you see a word in writing it’s pretty easy to guess how it should sound and vice versa.

However, there are some cases where things are pronounced a bit different than you would expect (ex: “そう言う” which sounds like “ソウユウ”). There are also a few times when figuring out how to write a word is tricky, given that you know how it sounds.

One of these is words which have う after a “O” ending character (お、こ、そ、と, etc.) vs. words which use お for this purpose. The reason this is a bit tricky is because often う is pronounced like お (or close to it) in words like 東京 (とうきょう). So if you hear an elongated sound like “とお” it can be written as either “とう” or “とお”.

Fortunately, the number of words written with a お for this type of sound are very few.

Up until recently, I had just memorized these, but when watching an education DVD for children, I discovered there is a list of the commonly used words in this category, and even a little phrase that helps to memorize them.

  • とおい  (遠い)   <far>
  • おおきい(大きい)<big>
  • こおり (氷)       <ice>
  • おおい (多い)   <many>
  • おおかみ (狼)   <wolf>
  • とお (十)          <ten>
  • とおる (通る)   <pass through>

The phrase mnemonic goes like this:

  • 遠く大きの上を多く狼十ずつ通る

A rough english translation would go something like this:

  • Many wolves pass above the distant, large ice, ten at a time.

I have never seen this little trick mentioned in a Japanese textbook written in English, and was glad to discover this watching a Japanese-language educational DVD for children. It’s always a fresh perspective to learn Japanese the way native children learn it.


(学習幼稚園2014冬号付録 入学前のさきどりおけいこDVD)


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