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Rendaku in Japanese - Why Hitobito, Not Hitohito, Shinigami, Not Shinikami?

Friday, August 4, 2017
In Japanese, we have the word hito 人, "person," and we have a word that's hito 人 twice, hitohito 人人, I mean, hitoBito 人人. Likewise, we have shinigami 死神, "god of death," which ends with the word kami 神. This weird effect is known as rendaku 連濁, and in this article I'll explain why it happens and when it happens.

To begin with, I'd like to warn that the rendaku are not extra kanji readings. For example, hito 人 has the kun'yomi and on'yomi hito, ri, to, jin and nin. Those are all the normal ways to read the kanji. Note how there is no bito in that list. It's the effect known as rendaku in the word hitobito 人人 (or 人) that turns its normal hito reading into altered bito. It's not a new reading. It's the normal reading modified.

Since it's not a new special reading but just the old normal readings modified, this means the rendaku can affect any kanji reading. Nobody is safe from the rendaku. But if it can affect any of them, why doesn't it affect all of them? What makes a reading suffer rendaku? In what words does this madness occurs? And why?

It's Easier to Read

The irony is strong with this one. The rendaku, which makes kanji readings unpredictable and consequently difficult to read, actually exists to make them easier to read. Yes, actually. Just try reading these:
  • tokitoki vs. tokidoki 時々
    Sometimes
  • sanhon vs. sanbon 三本
    Three long cylindrical shaped things (seriously)
  • gomihako vs. gomibako ゴミ箱
    Trashcan
  • utakoe vs. utagoe 歌声
    Singing voice.

More specifically, rendaku makes it easier to pronounce the syllables by changing the pronunciation of the words slightly. That just happens to end up changing the readings of the kanji, or rather, the readings of the words that contain those kanji,  not the readings of those kanji directly.

A proof of this is the fact that rendaku can affect non-kanji words too. The most extreme example, I think, are particles. Just like we can combine the particles ni に and wa は to form niwa には, it seems it's also possible to combine wa は with wo を to form woba をば. So it's not an effect that is directly related to the kanji readings.

Effect of Rendaku

The rendaku 連濁 effect may look a little weird and random at first glance, but the truth is it only does one thing: it adds dakuten 濁点 to words.

Dakuten & Rendaku

The dakuten 濁点 are the Japanese diacritics. So the only effect rendaku has is turning syllables without diacritics into syllables with diacritics. In sum, it will alter syllables this way:
  • ka-ke-ki-ko-ku かけきこく
    Becomes ga-ge-gi-go-gu がげぎごぐ
  • sa-se-shi-so-su させしそす
    Becomes za-ze-ji-zo-zu ざぜじぞず
  • ta-te-chi-to-tsu たてちとつ
    Becomes da-de-di-do-dzu だでぢどづ
  • ha-he-hi-ho-fu はへひほふ
    Becomes ba-be-bi-bo-bu ばべびぼぶ
    Or pa-pe-pi-po-pu ぱぺぴぽぷ

Do note that the rendaku can't turn ba-be-bi-bo-bu (dakuten) into pa-pe-pi-po-pu (handakuten). It can only turn syllables without diacritics into syllables with diacritics. The rendaku does not occur in syllables that already have diacritics.

Word Compounds, Not Sentences

The rendaku helps pronounce a single word easier, but it does not help with a whole sentence. That is, the rendaku is an isolated effect, so most of the time you can expect it to happen only inside words with multiple kanji. For example:
  • tegami 手紙
    Letter (correspondence)
  • meeru wo riyoushite kami wo tsukawanai メールを利用して紙を使わない
    ...uses e-mail, doesn't use paper
  • hitobito 人々
    People
  • shinigami 死神
    God of death
  • sude ni kami to hito 既に神と人
    Already god and people...

We can see above that the same syllable patterns that end up creating a rendaku in isolated words do not create a rendaku in a whole sentence. In other words, rendaku only affects words.

Further, rendaku does not affect the first part of a compound word, only the parts after the first one. That is, the first syllable of a word never suffers rendaku. Only the first syllable of the second part (kanji, suffix, sub-word, technically called a morpheme) can get rendaku'd.

Rendaku Rules

Now I'm pretty sure you're asking yourself this. when does rendaku happen? How it works? How do I know when I'm supposed to pronounce a kanji differently in a word?

Those are pretty good questions, yes, but unfortunately the Japanese languages hates you.

There is no way to know when rendaku will happen for sure. There are some rules which help you figure out when it does not happen, but there are just so many exceptions that you're pretty much out of luck.

Words That Do Get Rendaku'd

One advice I can give you is that if you see a kanji getting rendaku'd once, then it can get rendaku'd twice. So you eventually get to know which ones can get rendaku'd just by learning a lot of words. (There's a list of rendaku examples at the end of the article if you're interested)

Conversely, if you never see a kanji getting rendaku, it's possible that it just can't receive the rendaku effect at all. This is the case with the suffix sha 者 for example. That suffix never becomes ja 者, it's always sha 者.

Some kanji get rendaku only in some of their readings, not all of them. For example, kuchirendaku's in iriguchi 入口, but the kou 口 of jinkou 人口 is never pronounced gou 口.

One Diacritic per Part Rule

An important rule about rendaku is that it can only happen in a part of a word if that part does not have a diacritic yet. That is, rendaku's effect is to add diacritics, and it can only add diacritics if there are no diacritics. It makes zero-diacritic parts into one-diacritic parts.

This rule is also known as Lyman's Law, or Raiman no Housoku ライマンの法則. Although what it states is that a morpheme can't have two voiced syllables. Since rendaku adds a voiced syllable to morphemes, it'd be infringing The Law if it worked on a morpheme that already had one voiced syllable, because then, well, 1 + 1 = 2, so it wouldn't work.

What this means, for example, is that the word kabe 壁 can't become gabe because it already has a diacritic on be べ, so we can't add a diacritic on ka か to make it ga が. So compounds words that include kabe 壁 include kabe as-is, without rendaku. Example: ishikabe 石壁, shirakabe 白壁, arakabe 生壁, etc.

However, we can still have rendaku in a word that includes kabe 壁. Just not on the kabe part. For example, kabegami 壁紙, "wallpaper." Since kami 紙, "paper," does not have diacritics originally, we can turn its ka か into ga が.

Rendaku & Lyman's Law: diagram showing how it works and when is it OK to use rendaku. When there are no diacritics on the latter morpheme of the word.

Parallel Compounds

Words which combine other words in parallel, that is, AB being "A and B," do not get rendaku.
  • oyako 親子 (oya and ko)
    Parent and child.
  • ueshita 上下 (ue and shita)
    Up and down.

But, if the parts are not isolated words (most likely if the reading is on'yomi), then rendaku can happen:
  • touzai 東西 (neither tou 東 nor sai 西 are words)
    East and west.

Counters

A number of Japanese counters get rendaku after a prefix that ends with n. Examples:
  • sanbon 三本
    Three long cylindrical objects. (seriously)
  • sanbiki 三匹
    Three small animals.
  • sanzen 三千
    3000
  • nanbon 何本
    How many long cylindrical objects.
  • nanbiki 何匹
    How many small animals.

Repeated Kanji

Words that repeat kanji (usually with kurikaeshi), end up having the latter half voice.
  • tokidoki 時々
    Sometimes.
  • samazama 様々
    Various
  • karugaru 軽々
    Lightly

Since this rule is very easy to remember, a reminder that the Lyman's Law still applies: kazukazu 数々.

Examples of Rendaku

To finish, some examples of rendaku adding dakuten to various kanji:
  • ginga 銀河 (not kinka)
    Galaxy.
  • mayuge 眉毛 (not mayuke)
    Eyebrows.
  • tingin 賃金 (not tinkin)
    Wages.
  • futago 双子 (not futako)
    Twins.
  • deguchi 出口 (not dekuchi)
    Exit (door)
  • hizashi 日差し (not hisashi)
    Sunlight.
  • nanzen 何千 (not nansen)
    Many thousands (unknown number of)
  • tejina 手品 (not teshina)
    Trick (of magic)
  • yozora 夜空 (not yosora)
    Night sky
  • kouzui 洪水 (not kousui)
    Flood.
  • medatsu 目立つ (not metatsu)
    To stand out. (attract attention)
  • hade 派手 (not hate)
    (appearance) that attracts attention.
  • chikadika 近々 (not chikachika)
    Soon. Close.
  • mendoukusai 面倒くさい (not mentoukusai)
  • (sounds like it's) troublesome.
  • kanaduchi 金槌 (not kanatsuchi)
    Hammer.
    Slang for people who can't swim and sink like a hammer
  • kotoba 言葉 (not kotoha)
    Word.
  • kobeya 小部屋 (not koheya)
    Small room.
  • koibito 恋人 (not koihito)
    Lover.
  • haiboku 敗北 (not haihoku)
    Defeat.
  • tebukuro 手袋 (not tefukuro)
    Gloves.
  • kanpai 乾杯 (not kanhai)
    Cheers! (before drinking)
  • kanpeki 完璧 (not kanheki)
    Perfect.
  • enpitsu 鉛筆 (not enhitsu)
    Pencil.
  • sanpo 散歩 (not sanho)
    A walk (through the park, etc.)
  • senpuuki 扇風機 (not senfuuki)
    Electric fan.

As you can see, there are a lot of words where rendaku happens. But you end up getting used them eventually anyway, so don't worry about it. This is just another reason to not focus on memorizing the kanji readings themselves and aim to learn the words instead.

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