Wait, what? These weren’t in chapter one of Genki….
If you’ve studied Japanese, then chances are you’ve seen the voicing marks (tenten in Japanese) that go above some hiragana. You’ve also probably encountered the little circles (maru in Japanese) that go above the hiragana for ha, hi, fu, he, ho, turning them into pa, pi, pu, pe, po.
But something you might’ve never seen before is the little circles being used with other hiragana, namely ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.
▼ Everything I thought I knew about Japanese is a lie….
They may look a little strange to learners of Japanese. How would you even pronounce them? P-ha, p-hi, p-fu?
Nope! These weirdos represent voiced nasal sounds and are pronounced similar to: nga, ngi, ngu, nge, ngo.
▼ Skip to 0:30 in this video to have a nice man in a hat pronounce the difference between the normal ga, gi, gu, ge, go and nga, ngi, ngu, nge, ngo.
Okay, so that’s great and all, but where are these hiragana used? And if they’re so cool, why aren’t students of language ever taught them?
Good questions! These voiced nasal sounds are mostly exclusive to the Eastern dialect of Japan in the Kanto and Tohoku regions (Tokyo, Fukushima, Aomori, etc.). In the Western regions (Hiroshima, Kyushu, etc.), the voiced nasal sounds don’t exist, and they somehow get along just fine with only ga, gi, gu, ge, go.
Since Tokyo Japanese is considered “standard” Japanese, news anchors and announcers have to go through rigorous voice training programs to ensure that they’re giving the “correct” nasal touch to their voiced sounds.
So if you want to sound like a fancy Tokyo-ite, then here’s a handy guide to when your ga, gi, gu, ge, gos should turn into nga, ngi, ngu, nge, ngos:
▼ Red represents the voiced nasal (ng),
and blue represent the normal voiced (g).
▼ The voiced nasal is used for the particle ga, and for every
ga, gi, gu, ge, go sound that doesn’t come at the beginning of a word.
Aside from those undergoing announcer training though, most Japanese people never encounter these bizarre-looking hiragana, and that’s why students of Japanese aren’t taught them.
It makes sense though; in the U.S., we don’t usually take dialect differences into account when spelling English either: “aunt” is spelled the same even in places that pronounce it as “ant,” and “soda” is spelled the same even in places that pronounce it as “pop.”
According to Japanese linguists, the voiced nasal has been slowly dying off, being replaced by the normal voiced sounds that we’re all familiar with. At this rate it might not be too much longer before they’re extinct sounds.
▼ Skip to 1:40 to see how the red circles (normal g) has been invading from the west to take over the green circles (nasal ng) over the past 50 years.
Personally I know that whenever I use the voiced nasals, I just feel like I sound pretentious, so I usually keep them hidden away in my nose. But what do you do when you speak Japanese? Were you taught to use the voiced nasals? If so, let loose with some in the comments, so we can preserve their nasal-y beauty for all eternity.