Learn Hiragana
Monday, May 1, 2017

っ - Small Tsu つ - How It's Used - What It Means & More

In Japanese, there are two types of tsu characters. The normal tsu つ, and the small tsu っ, which is smaller. You can notice this in hiragana in words like mittsu みっつ, "three," and in katakana in words like nattsu ナッツ, "nuts." But how does this small tsu works? What is っ for? And what is it called?
(Category: The Japanese Writing System)


About The Small Tsu

Well, to begin with, this small tsu is literally called "small tsu" in Japanese, chiisai "tsu" 小さい「っ」 or chiisana "tsu" 小さな「っ」.

Unlike other kana the small tsu does not represent a syllable sound. Instead, it represents a "clogged sound," tsumaru oto つまる音, or a "geminate consonant," sokuon 促音, which is also called a "double consonant."

When the small tsu comes before a kana in a word it turns the consonant of that kana into a double consonant. Some double consonants are pronounced with a glottal stop at the start, which is a sharp pause in pronunciation that happens when you close your vocal tract (specifically, the glottis).

When the small tsu comes at the end of a word or sentence, it always indicates the glottal stop and makes the pronunciation of the word end with a sharp stop instead of the slowly fading to silence.

The small tsu っ and the ways it's used in Japanese before kana, in hiragana and katakana, and at the end of sentences, as shown in the manga tonari no seki-kun となりの関くん

Small Tsu in Romaji

In romaji, the small tsu at the end of words and sentences is usually not represented. This is probably because using the small tsu in this way was not a common practice in Japanese when romaji was popularized. Since the small tsu at the end produces a glottal stop, it could be represented by an apostrophe ' in romaji, which represents glottal stops, but it's unlikely you'll ever need to know this.

When the small tsu is before a kana, representing a double consonant, the consonant of the kana after it is simply doubled in the romanization. See:
  1. ga
  2. ga がっ (small tsu not represented)
    ga' がっ (small tsu represented as a glottal stop)
  3. gakko がっこ (small tsu before ko こ makes kko っこ)
  4. gakkou がっこう (学校)

In this article, as well as in this entire blog, when a consonant is repeated in romaji it indicates a small tsu in the reading of the Japanese word.

How to Pronounce The Small Tsu

The pronunciation of the small tsu depends on how it's used.

If it's used at the end of a sentence or word, the small tsu indicates a glottal stop, closing of the vocal tract, which means an abrupt, dry stop at the end of the word. This makes the ending feel shorter and rougher than normal, instead of the long, soft fade out it usually has.

When the small tsu appears before a kana certain rules should be followed for the pronunciation of double consonants, that is, not all small tsu sound the same. Generally speaking, the small tsu becomes a softened intro for the consonant, which ends up coming out stronger than usual. Double consonants also take longer to pronounce than normal consonants.

For example, if it's kka っか, tta った, ppa っぱ, or other syllables alike, you'll want to pronounce it with a slight pause in place of the small tsu, followed by a stronger pronunciation of the kana after it. Think of a drummer hitting the drums. ta ta ta vs. ta ta TTA!

Now, for tsu つ, tchi ち, ttcha っちゃ, ttcho っちょ and ttchu っちゅ, it's a little different because these sounds are between other t syllables and s syllables. So you'll most likely end up letting out a bit of "tchi" or "tsu" before the double consonant. Imagine saying nante ko-tchi-tcha, now nante ko-tchi-a, and then finally nante kottcha なんてこっちゃ.

For syllables with s consonant, like ssa っさ, it follows a principle similar to the above. The small tsu becomes pronounced like the start of the s. Imagine a lizard or snake speaking. The word sassato さっさと becomes sa-sssSSSSSSsss-sa-to. Well, not that long, but you get the idea.

Most words in Japanese that have double consonants follow the rules above or similar. This is because not all consonants can become double consonants in native Japanese. There are no words, for example, with a rra っら double consonant, or jji っじ double consonant. These only happen in words imported from other languages, like "badge," bajji バッジ.

Small Tsu in Japanese Words

Words that have the small tsu should be considered different from words without it. Not the same. Even if two words are almost identical, if one word has a double consonant and the other does not, they are different words. For example:
  • te て (手)
  • tte って
    Quoting particle. Used to reference something someone said.
  • kakou かこう (書こう)
    Let's write. (volitional form of verb kaku 書く, "to write")
  • kakkou かっこう (格好)
  • ita いた (居た)
    Was [there]. (from verb iru 居る, "to be [somewhere]")
  • itta いった (言った)
    Said. (from the verb iu 言う, "to say")

In the words above, with the exception of the last pair that's usually written with kana only, it'd be difficult to mistake them while reading because they're usually written with kanji, not kana. However, when writing, it's important to note that one thing is not the same as the other and the small tsu makes them different words completely.

Further, the small tsu is not certainly not the same as the normal tsu. This means that the words below are different, even though they are very, very easy to confuse when reading the kana only:
  • katsute かつて (嘗て)
    Once (long ago). 
  • katte かって (勝手)
    Own discretion. Own way. By oneself.
  • shitsuke しつけ (躾)
    Discipline. Manners.
  • shikke しっけ (湿気)

Most words you'll find use the small tsu to represent double consonants as above. However, you may sometimes find in the dictionary words that end with small the tsu instead of having it at the middle or at the start. These come in two flavors:
  • a! あっ!
    Ah! (onomatopoeic)
  • bu 打っ
    To do something violently. (prefix, comes from butsu 打つ, "to hit")

In onomatopoeic words the small tsu always represents a glottal stop, but in prefix words the pronunciation depends on the word it's prefixed to. So buttobasu ぶっ飛ばす uses the tto っと pronunciation, but buttsubusu ぶっ潰す uses the ttsu っつ pronunciation.

Small Tsu at The End of Sentences

A special case happens when the small tsu is at the end of a sentence.

Although it represents a glottal stop just like it would in a word, when the small tsu ends a sentence it implies a sense of exclamation and brashness. It doesn't change neither meaning nor grammar of the sentence, but adds nuance. It works like an exclamation point or half of an exclamation point. It's common to even see it used together with exclamation points.

This usage happens often in manga, written dialogue of stories, and other places where onomatopoeic writing is to be expected. Like in rather comedic, exaggerated reviews and comments written on a film cover, or a magazine cover, etc. It's expressive, so it's unlikely to show up in formal writing, but common to see in more casual internet forums and messaging.

An important thing to note is that the small tsu at the end of a sentence is purely stylistic. It doesn't do much that an exclamation point wouldn't do. In fact, you may find that some manga do not use the small tsu at the end of sentences at all, while some do it with frequency. In the same way, some manga use exclamation points, while some never use exclamation points. Some use ellipsis (three dots...) while some never use it. Etc.

Difference Between っ and ー

The prolonged sound mark ー works in a way similar to small tsu, but opposite.

While the small tsu comes before a kana to make its consonant longer, the prolonged sound mark comes after a kana to make its vowel longer. It's possible to even have both things in a single word. Example:
  • battaa バッター

In the word above, the ta タ syllable has both a double consonant and a prolonged vowel.

How to Type The Small Tsu

Using any decent IME software in a computer, the small tsu can be typed in two ways.

First, if it's the middle of a word just repeat the consonant like you'd do in romaji. If you type kka it becomes っか. If you type kke it becomes っけ. If you type tta it bcomes った. Etc.

To type the small tsu by itself without having to type another kana, you can do it by using the small kana prefix before the input code for the normal tsu. Normally, the small kana prefix of an IME is x and or l (L), and the input code for the normal つ is tsu or tu. So typing ltsu, xtsu,  ltu, xtu is how you type the small っ.

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