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Monday, December 4, 2017

Compound Kana - ひゃ, しょ, ちゅ

Compound kana is a term that refers to when a normal-sized kana is followed by small kana in writing, creating a syllable of one single mora that's represented by multiple kana. For example kya きゃ.

A compound kana represents a diphthong (syllable with two vowels), and in Japanese it's called youon 拗音, "distorted sound."

Normally, a compound kana starts with a normal-sized kana ending in i, such as ki, ni, chi, shi きにちし, followed by a small ya, yu or yo ゃゅょ. Such compound kana are found in native Japanese words.

Chart with examples of most common compound kana in Japanese

Besides these, there are also compound kana made by with any small kana, like kyi きぃ. Or with the first syllable ending in u instead, like fa ファ (fu + a). There are others such as dhe デェ, too. There are even compound kana followed by not one, but two small kana: tyie ティェ. All of these are normally found in loan words, not in native Japanese words.

Different Words

The small kana used in a compound kana are not equivalent to their normal-sized kana. This means that a word with small ゃ is not the same as a word with big や. For example:
  • kyou きょう (kanji: 今日)
  • kiyou きよう (器用)
  • hyou ヒョウ (雹)
    Hail. (the raining kind)
  • hiyou ヒヨウ (費用)


The most important thing about compound kana is that they take one mora to pronounce. A mora is an unit of time used in pronunciation, and generally speaking, each kana takes exactly one mora to pronounce. So a word has four kana / mora, it takes twice as long to pronounce as a word with two kana / mora. The compound kana break this rule.

With compound kana, you have a syllable that takes only one single mora to pronounce but is written with more than a single kana. This means, for example, that kyakya きゃきゃ takes as much time to pronounce as kiya きや, even though it's written longer. This is because kya きゃ is one mora, ki き is one mora, and ya や is one mora. So both take two mora, the same amount of time.

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