Japanese Pronunciation Highlight: The debate of the soft “ga”

By | December 22, 2023

In recent years I have been more active on Twitter/X and a little less active on this blog, though I am still trying to keep up the pace of at least one article a week. Besides the persistency of blog articles vs. the transience of Twitter posts, there is the fact that it’s much easier to give a lot of detail in a blog. Sure, you can make a thread on Twitter, but I feel like it’s not really designed for that use case, and it’s just annoying to read compared to a properly-formatted article.

As a result, posts about language learning on Twitter are often very brief and just mention something without getting into details or exceptions. This can be fine for someone who just wants info at a surface level, but for me it can be a little frustrating, and this post is about one such example of that.

Just the other day, a native Japanese teacher who I am following on Twitter posted about how が (ga) has two sounds in Japanese: the hard one (as in がっこう) and the soft one (as in だいがく). This tugged at a memory of researching this topic several years back, but I was unable to actually connect to any actual difference I had experienced in listening to native speakers. I responded to the post, but as of the writing of this article I didn’t get a response back.

I went back and researched this in Japanese. The difference here is called 鼻濁音 (bidakuon) and indeed “ga” can be pronounced with a hard “g” sound, or a softer “ng” sound, which can be written as か゚ (notice the little circle there).This page has a good explanation (in Japanese), along with some helpful audio samples.

On the surface, it may look like the poster was correct, and in a sense they are. But the problem is what they omitted. First of all, this soft vs. hard pronunciation can apply to all of the “g” sounds (including “gi”, “gu”, “ge”, “go”), not only “ga”.  But more importantly, this phenomenon has a regional component, plus the fact that in recent years many people have stopped using it, and many (if not most) young people aren’t even aware of it, and may not be able to even perceive the difference. Even for people’s speech where the difference is present, in everyday conversation it would generally be very subtle. The article I referenced above mentions much of this, but I confirmed with two native speakers just to be sure, and they agreed that this is not a common thing in modern Japanese. (Update: after writing this article I remembered a certain radio DJ who pronounced “sugoi” as “sungoi”, so there are certainly some people who can pronounce words like this.)

There are people like myself who like to get deep into studying a language, learning things that even native speakers may not consciously know (though this sort of knowledge doesn’t always lead to fluency).  Other students, especially those just starting off, can be confused by extra information that is unnecessary and inaccurate.

I enjoy learning various details about Japanese pronunciation, but I admit this bidakuon is one of the most useless things I’ve come across. I just hope there are no learners who read about this in some forum (like Twitter) and try to spend much effort making their “ga” sounds hard or soft. I often read Japanese literature that is several decades old, but in practice the か゚ character is not actually ever used in writing. (By the way, while drafting this article I noticed Google Docs seems to have a bug with using the “か゚ “ character, making it clear how uncommon this is, though to be fair the original poster didn’t mention this notation.)

For better or worse, some of the most popular content creators (the person in question has around 10k followers) are skilled at making dramatic content that really catches your eye (or ear), and yet said content may be overly pedantic or not have that much substance to it. Not that I am saying this person’s content is all like this, but rather that it’s good to take information from multiple sources, and not always believe a native is going to tell you the most clear or accurate explanation about something.

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