Learn Hiragana
Sunday, April 9, 2017

ー - Prolonged Sound Mark - Meaning - Vertical Line in Japanese or Long Dash

One of the most artistically inspired symbols in the Japanese language is the prolonged sound mark. It looks like a longer horizontal dash, or a vertical line in vertical text. Like this:ー. And it performs a very simple function in writing: to make sounds longer.


The ー symbol means nothing alone, it doesn't have any sound on its own. Instead, the sound of the "vowel," boin 母音, preceding the ー is prolonged by it. It doesn't matter if it's kana representing a syllable without consonant, a consonant-vowel syllable, or even the small kana at the end of a compound sound. They all may be prolonged the same way. Examples:
  • a あ to aa あー
  • na な to naa なー
  • gya ぎゃ to gyaa ぎゃー

Appearance in Text

The prolonged sound mark has a very tricky appearance that may catch you off-guard. It varies so much, it's stylized so much, that sometimes it will look like something else entirely.

Prolonged sound mark in Japanese: what it looks like. The different styles: normal, longer mark that looks like a vertical line, vertical line that spans multiple lines in a speech balloon, a wavy vertical line, a long horizontal dash, a bendy horizontal dash, and some things that are not the prolonged sound mark.

First off, on horizontal text, it's a horizontal line, but on vertical text, it's a vertical line. This alone should be tricky enough, but on top of that, there's also the fact that the kanji for the number "one," ichi 一, looks like a horizontal line always. So you might mistake the kanji 一 with the mark ー some times.

Second off, the length of prolonged sound mark may vary. Its normal size is identical to the size of any full-width kana or kanji, but some authors may choose to make it longer than that, turning it into more of vertical line than a symbol, and implying that the sound is prolonged for longer than normal.

In some more extreme and ridiculous cases the line is so long it wraps vertically and looks like a bunch of vertical bars in text.

Think of it as dragging a longer line to drag a longer sound. The difference of length is purely stylistic and it's akin to writing a character shouting with one exclamation point (kisama! 貴様!) versus multiple exclamation points (kisama!!!!! 貴様!!!!!). 

In computer text, horizontal, the prolonged sound mark is repeated instead of just being long line. (aaaaa あーーーー)

Further, , sometimes a wavy line is used instead of a straight one. This, too, is purely stylistic, and often represents deliberate prolonging of the sound by the character who speaks it or just a trembly, shaky voice. In horizontal writing, people tend to use tildes and other wavy symbols to emulate it. (souuuu そう~~~)

There are also cases of authors using dots and ellipses (…) in a way similar to that of the prolonged sound mark. I think they mean a silent pause, but I'm not quite sure to be honest.

How To Type ー

With Microsoft or Google IME you can type the prolonged sound mark (ー) by typing the dash (-) usually with the key between 0 and = on the alphanumerical side of your keyboard. If you use the minus symbol on the numeric keypad the IME will type the normal dash (-), so you must use the alphanumerical one.

There is no way to type the stretched prolonged sound mark as there's no character for it for obvious reasons. On the ClipStudio (Manga Studio) forums, their support team recommended typing the em dash (—, a dash of special length and function) multiple times in sequence using a specific font and changing the letter spacing to negative in order achieve the same effect. (thread: セリフで、縦の長い線ってどうすればできますか?)

What Is ー Called in Japanese

In Japanese, the names for the prolonged sound mark varies. Generally, it's referred to as a mere "line," sen 線, or as a "stick," bou 棒, specially because of its appearance in vertical text. When it's talked about specifically, however, its names include:
  • chouonpu 長音符
    Long sound mark.
  • chouon kigou 長音記号
    Long sound symbol.
  • on'biki 音引き
    Sound drag (from verb "to drag/pull," hiku 引く)
  • nobashi bou 伸ばし棒
    Elongating stick. (from verb "to make longer," nobasu 伸ばす)

Note that chouon 長音 means "long sound" in Japanese, and is written with the kanji for "long," nagai 長い and "sound," oto 音.

Long Vowels in Japanese

The prolonged sound mark is used to create a long vowel, but that's a little misleading as it sounds like it's doing something unique, which it is not.

These long vowels are just vowels,, voiced for longer than usual (prolonged), so it goes without saying that there are other ways to write them in Japanese.

You could, for example, literally write the the kana for that vowel after a syllable which ends with that vowel.
  • aa ああ = あー
  • naa なあ = なー
  • gyaa ぎゃあ = ぎゃー

In terms of length, a small kana could be used instead to make it shorter or longer.
  • aa あぁ (one and a half?)
  • aaa ああぁ or あぁー (two and a half?)

All these options make some words, specially onomatopoeic words, vary slightly in spelling from time to time. For example, the word for "meow" in Japanese may be nya にゃ, nyaa にゃぁ, にゃあ, にゃー, nyaaa にゃぁー, にゃあー, nyaaaa にゃあぁー, etc.

Pronunciation Rules for Prolonged Sounds

A prolonged sound is normally twice as long as its non-prolonged counterpart. In terms of mora (pronunciation time), a あ takes one mora, aa ああ and aa あー take two mora.

In terms of sound, the prolonged sound mark doesn't  always prolong the exact same vowel sound as the vowel preceding it. Although it works in a very straightforward way with aa あー, ii いー and uu うー, it does not with ee えー and oo おー.

Following the normal pattern, you can write neesan ねえさん, "sister," with the prolonged sound mark: neesan ねーさん. and you can write hooemi 頬笑み, "smile," as hooemi ほーえみ. But besides that, there's also another pattern.

Words with the ei sound, like tokei 時計, and those with ou sound, like otousan お父さん, can be written with the prolonged sound mark too even though those sounds are not ee and oo. See: tokee とけー, otoosan おとーさん.

In fact, most of the time you'll see the prolonged sound mark after a kana ending with e (kemede で, etc.), it will come from the ei sound (kei けい, mei めい, etc.) not from the ee sound. Likewise, most of the time the mark comes after a kana ending with o, it comes from the ou sound, not from the oo sound!

Another note is that n ん is considered to be a vowel in Japanese. So nn んー is a perfectly valid way of writing a dragged nasal n.

Difference Between ああ and あー

Since both aa あー and aa ああ sound the same, are pronounced the same, they may mislead you to think that they are exactly the same, which is not true.

The detail lies in the orthography, the correct way of writing things. Just because two words sound the same doesn't mean they are written the same. But since that happens way too often with kanji homonyms, let's say that, in Japanese's case, just because two words sound the same doesn't mean they are spelled the same with hiragana and katakana.

When to Spell a Word With ー

In a dictionary, a word may or may not contain the ー symbol in its correct spelling. If it does have it, it shouldn't be removed and the word has to be written with it. Likewise, if the word does not have one, one should not be added to it.

This means you shouldn't write oneesan お姉さん as oneesan おねーさん, for example, because that'd be the wrong way of writing it. (we'll see more on that later). But this also means you should be able to differentiate in text between some hiragana homonyms.

For example, the word aa ああ (it's a word)  means "yes," while aa あー would most likely be someone saying "Ah!" after being spooked by a ghost or something. Similarly, ee ええ (also a word, seriously) means "yes" (too) and shouldn't be mixed up with ee えー, a possible interjection often translated as "eh?!"

ー in Kanji Readings

The ー mark never shows up in kanji readings, be it kun'yomi or on'yomi. This is also orthographic; the furigana 振り仮名 for mizuumi 湖, "lake," is always みずうみ and never みずーみ, because that's just the right way to spell it.

ー in Hiragana

In general, even words that are not written with kanji do not use the prolonged sound mark in its correct spelling. For example: the word aa ああ (again! This time the demonstrative pronoun aa ああ), as in aa iu fuuni ああいう風に, "in that way," shouldn't be written as あー (or the phrase as あーいう風に)

Only interjections (Ah! Eh?! Oh! Uh? Ahn? etc.) and onomatopoeic words use the ー symbol in their correct spelling with hiragana.

ー in Katakana

With katakana, as strange as it is, words do tend to have the ー mark in their correct spellings, and with notable frequency too. It seems that long vowels in hiragana words are never written with ー, but long vowels in katakana words are always written with ー!

For example, "coffee," coohii コーヒー, is correctly written with two ー marks. It'd be kind of wrong to write it as koohii コオヒイ. Other examples include: keeki ケーキ, "cake,"  aisu kuriimu アイスクリーム, "ice cream," jyuusu ジュース, "juice," and so on.

Note that no difference exists between the ー mark when used with katakana instead of hiragana, it functions exactly the same in both cases.

(someone on the internet claims the prolonged sound mark was made for katakana, for foreign words, to skip over sounds that don't exist in Japanese, I assume, and it then began being used with hiragana despite not being made for it. ひらがな表記では「ー」(長音記号)は使っちゃダメなのでしょうか?)

When Spelling Things Wrong is The Right Way

So far we've talked about how the ー mark should only be used when the dictionary says so, only in words that have it in the dictionary, the cases where it's always used, when it's never used, when it should be used and should not be used, etc.

You may have noticed these are all absolutes, all hard rules, and rules are meant to be broken. An important side of the ー mark is that it's actually, and often, used to spell words in the wrong way, that is, not in the way it says in the dictionary, not in their standard, formal way.

Now I'm pretty sure you're all confused, asking yourself: "why the fuck would you even do that?" Certainly, it makes no sense to spell things wrong just to spell things wrong, but sometimes, specially in dialogue, it just happens that the spelling matches the speech, and the speech does not match the formal spelling.

Imagine some idiot trying to say "garage" that's so stupid he doesn't know how to pronounce it and says "gay-rage" instead. (that's me by the way, thanks Rick & Morty for making me realize it). Clearly, this idiot means the word "garage," but the way he pronounces it is so off that you have to write "gay-rage" in order to properly transmit to the reader the way character speaks. In doing that, you spell the word wrong, deliberately, so it's conveyed right.

Usage With Differentiated Speech

In this same way, some words, not all words, but some of the most expressive words tend to have prolonged sound marks added in differently voiced syllables. This can happen for a number of reasons, the most common one being yelling or speaking with excitement, which may make any character alter their pronunciation of a word, specially the end of it.

(aaaaaaaaa あーーーーーーーー)

Some characters speak more differently than others. This is often the case with young children who will end up having a third of their dialogue written with the wrong spelling, which is kind of a pain in the ass when you realize you can't look up misspelled Japanese words in a dictionary because it's not written correctly.

If you had the pleasure of watching Kemono Friends けものフレンズ, you may have noticed a certain character saying the word sugoi すごい all the time. Except that, because she says it so many, many times it ends up being voiced differently some of those times. In some cases, it'd be spelled sugooiすごーい, with a longer o, in other cases it'd be spelled suggoi すっごい, with a double consonant. Although it was an anime, these misspellings of the word do show up in manga and writing. They do exist.

The bottom line is: if you see a long-vowel mark in a word, remember: it's probably not supposed to be there, and it's only there because the character is speaking in a irregular way. Except if the word is written in katakana, then it's probably supposed to be there.

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