Sound it Out II: Rendaku

We are back to the Japanese sound system, but instead of the phonetic inventory, now we are going to talk about rules.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say in any language sounds can be organized by a series of predictable patterns. For example, English has the rule where “a” becomes “an” if it’s before a vowel. Japanese (and all other languages) also has such rules.

Today, I want to focus on well known one: rendaku. Even without knowing Japanese, English speakers know some words that demonstrate this rule. Let’s look at one word in particular: origami. Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures. It is a compound word made of roots ori (‘to fold’) and kami (‘paper’). That all makes sense, but how did kami become gami? The thing that causes that is rendaku.

Why origami instead of orikami?

Rendaku is a disassimilation process in which the first consonant in the second part of a compound word becomes voiceless if another consonant in the second part of the compound is voiced.

That’s a lot of information to handle at once, so let’s unpack that one piece at a time:

  • Disassimilation is a phonetic process that is the opposite of assimilation. At its core, this process is about making similar sounds more different. In the case of rendaku, the consonants are changing to sound different from each other on the basis of voicing.
  • Sounds can either be voiced or voiceless. For example, the English letters [t] and [d] are the exact same sound except for voicing. [t] is voiceless, and [d] is voiced.
    • You can test this out yourself! Put a hand on your throat and make a [t] sound, and then a [d] sound, notice how the [d] makes your throat vibrate? That’s your vocal cords vibrating!
  • So, the disassimilation process in rendaku change consonants that match because they are both voiceless and makes the first one voiced.

Let’s look at origami again.

Before rendaku, the word looks like ori-kami. However, [m] is a voiced consonant, which triggers the disassimilation process on voiceless [k]. This means that [k] becomes its voiced counterpart [g], so origami! There is a lot more to this rule, but at its heart, that’s why sometimes parts in compounds change. They always switch to the voiceless counterpart!

And that’s today’s look in to the Japanese sound system. As with all rules this is a generalization, and might not necessarily account for everything. Let me know if there is anything else you would be interested in learning about!

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