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I think I have to answer the Japanese question M posted in her comment on Feb-You-Ary?.

Her question was:

In Japanese, why does "ano hito" sound like "a no...shto"? I get the unvoiced vowel in "hi", but where did the s sound come from?

At first, I didn't quite get what she meant. Unlike English, Japanese is a language where you pronounce every letter in a word distinctly, even though there might be some exceptions. So, "あのひと (ano hito: that person)" should sound just like "a-no-hi-to," and that's all. What's that "sh" sound she was referring to? - I wondered.

Then, eri-san kindly responded to it saying:

Those who pronounce "shi" instead of "hi" are what is called Edokko, or people who are and whose ancesters were from Tokyo.

"Oh yeah, that's it!", I thought. Edokko may well say "ano shito." And interestingly, I remembered I knew some people even from Hokkaido who tend to say rather like "shi" instead of "hi."

Then again, however, I got to notice an interesting point, repeating "ano hito" myself. Compared to the other three sounds, the "hi" is pronounced pretty weakly like only a breath, which makes the sound a subtle one. I have no explicit knowledge of phonetics. Actually, my major was law. But don't ask me about law. ;) Well, so it may be that, because of that, the "hi" sounds like "sh" to non-native speakers of Japanese.

So, M, is it that you hear the "sh" sound from every native Japanese speaker pronouncing "ano hito"?


I'm not sure where I've first heard it or whether I always hear it, but I've read an explanation for unvoiced/devoiced vowels in several places. My "Martin's Pocket Dictionary" has a good explanation in its introduction and a whole paragraph on hito/shito. (It does say that some Japanese people will pronounce it this way--not that it is the normal pronunciation.) It also prints a little dot beneath vowels that are often unvoiced. This is a better system than some other romanized dictionaries which use an apostrophe.

desu -> des'
shita -> sh'ta
hito -> h'to
sukiyaki -> s'kiyaki

The apostrophe actually throws off native English speakers, because they will pronounce des' as one syllable ending in a consonant -> dess--rather than giving it two beats, each ending in a vowel, the second vowel whispered -> de s*.

The problem with not teaching English speakers about unvoiced Japanese vowels, is that we have a tendency to stretch out our vowels anyway. hito -> hee toh; shita -> shee tah; sukiyaki -> soo key yak kee.

I'll start listening for examples, but I think I hear "shito" quite a lot in broadcast Japanese, maybe even from our language lab tapes. I'm pretty sure that they say "shito" in Oita--because I was so excited when I found the explanation that I made notes in my dictionary at the time. Wait, I remembered they do, because it took me a long time to understand that they were saying "onna no hito" and "otoko no hito". (Does this mean I've acquired a Southern accent in both my languages?)

My first Japanese teacher, who is from Tokyo, definitely uses many unvoiced vowels. But my current teacher, who is from a village near Kobe, doesn't. I thought she was just voicing them so we beginners could understand her. But maybe it's a regional thing.

I find the important thing is to get the beat right--not to elongate syllables or slur them into the next syllable. (For example, the apostrophe in s'kiyaki will encourage people to mispronounce it -> skee ya ki). So with unvoiced syllables, I don't just skip them. I say them in my mind to give me the correct pause, rhythm and change in tone.

There are so many features in a language that native speakers don't usually notice or care about but learners of the language find important yet difficult to get over. Yeah, M, I actually say "des'"! I have to admit I haven't thought of "unvoiced vowels" in Japanese. Simply because you're a native speaker doesn't always mean you're a good teacher of the language for non-native speakers. (And that's why I might possibly be a good teacher for Japanese learners of English.)

Now, M, I think those unvoiced vowels are a common practice among native Japanese speakers. So probably your current teacher intentionally pronounces words clearly, like many native English speakers do when teaching in Japan. But still I don't get the mechanism why the unvoiced "hi" sounds like "sh" to you while I don't notice it.

Anyway, I completely agree with you about the importance of "getting the beat right." That can apply to English learning as well.

Some day, I hope to hear your Japanese. Yeah, I really do.

You are absolutely right--being a speaker of a language doesn't make a good teacher of one. This is true of any area of expertise. Often an expert in a field performs so intuitively or naturally, they don't understand what it is they do. And so can't explain it to a beginner.

On a unrelated topic I've been meaning to thank you for the rain and cooler weather you sent. On Monday, we suddenly got two inches of rain (so quickly that there was some flash flooding) and now the days are dry, sunny and cool. The weather is so perfect that I actually walked downtown (about a 30 minute walk).

Here's a couple of photos I took. I live two blocks south (opposite of the direction I'm facing) of where I stood to take the first photo.


So it was you who has brought the warmer weather here for the past couple of days. ;)