Learn Hiragana

When "ha" は is "wa" - How to Tell If It's Pronounced wa or ha

Tuesday, June 27, 2017
If you have started learning Japanese you might have noticed or been told that the hiragana ha は is sometimes pronounced wa. This is even there's already another hiragana specifically for the syllable wa わ. So how can you tell if は is pronounced wa or ha in a phrase?  Is there even a way? Is it really that confusing all the time?

(category: The Japanese Writing System)

Well, to begin with, the reason for all this is that ha は is the normal syllable. The default. And wa は is only pronounced that when it represents the waparticle. If it's not the particle, then it's ha. If it's the particle, then it's wa. Simple like that. (by the way, wa わ is always just wa)

How to tell if は is read wa or ha - a flowchart diagram: if は is the wa particle, then wa, if not, then it's ha. If わ is the wa particle, then it's wa, and if it's not, it's wa too.

How to Tell When は Is The Wa Particle?

I mean, that sure sounds like a very difficult, troubling question, doesn't it? The mysterious, two-faced, quantum-Schrodinger は is both ha and wa until you figure out whether it's part of a word or not. This is certainly a problem since there are so many words with ha syllable in them in Japanese. For example:
  • hachi wa hashiru no wa hayai noni hachi-i shika torenakatta
    蜂は走るのは速いのに8位しか取れなかった
    The bee is fast at running, but couldn't get anything other than the 8th place.

As we can see above, that's a lot of words that start with ha は: hachi, hashiru, hayai, hachi again. With so many words that start with ha は it was extremely, ridiculously difficult to tell the two wa は particles apart from the rest of those ha は. I mean, let's take a good look at that sentence again:

蜂は走るのは速いのに8位しか取れなかった

Can you tell which of the は above are actually ha は and which are the wa は particle? If you can't let me tell you: they are all the wa particle!!!

How is this possible??!?!?!? Where did the normal ha は's go to?!

It's simple. There are no inflections in Japanese that contain the ha は and almost all of the verb stems and words are written with kanji instead of hiragana. That means は is almost always the wa particle!

"But I'm reading texts with hiragana only! I can't read kanji!"

Well, first, stop doing that. I repeat: do not read texts with hiragana only.

They are a pain in the ass to read. They hurt your eyes. You can hardly tell where a word starts and the other ends. Japanese was not designed to be written or read without the kanji, so go read something with the kanji. Something with furigana beside the kanji so you can actually read it.

I'm not understating it when I say normal Japanese only has the actual ha は syllable appearing in the furigana reading aid, it's almost never in the main text.

Exceptions

Of course when I say almost never I don't mean never never. There are exceptions.

One of them are onomatopoeia. This one is pretty easy, since there's literally only two or three of them:
  • ha
    Ha.
  • ha
    Hah... (pant, sigh, etc.)
  • haha はは
    Haha hahaha hah... heh (laugh)

We're done here.

Children

Next there's children.

I assume Japanese children speak like a bunch of drunken morons in real life because whenever child-speak is written the kanji are just thrown away to give that extra "idk wtf this kid is talking about" feeling.

For example, say we have the word haha 母, "mother." Normally you'll find this word written with the kanji. However, a lot of words spoken by children end up deliberately written with kana, specially this one. This means the impossible to mistake 母 becomes the utterly confusing haha はは.
  • haha wa hachi wo tsukamaeta はは は はち を 捕まえた
    Mom caught a bee!

Some authors do the favor of including spaces around words and particles, but don't count on it.

Children also end up having a lot of dialogue full of misspellings and other shenanigans. There is no saving you there. Just beware of children talking in manga in general.

It Was Actually The Wa Particle All Along!

A few common words look like they are written with the ha は syllable at the end, but they are actually being written with the wa は particle and you just haven't noticed it was the wa は particle yet because nobody has told you it was actually the wa は particle and you just figured it was one of those Japanese language mysteries you'd one day learn about down the road.

Well, today is the day, and the words are:
  • dewa では
    As for (that). With (that).
    I'll be taking my leave.
    (actually the particles de で and wa は together)
  • kon'nichi wa 今日は (こんにちは)
    Good morning.
  • konban wa 今晩は (こんばんは)
    Good evening.

So now you know why it's read kon'nichi wa こんにちは and not kon'nichiha.

But don't worry. You can actually find kon'nichi wa 今日は misspelled as kon'nichi wa こんにちわ by Japanese natives sometimes. It's such a grammar gotcha everybody has trouble with it.

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