If you’ve studied Japanese for a little time or a long time, you’ve probably run across rendaku. You might not know what it is, just based off the name, but surely it’s confused you once or twice. Rendaku means “sequential voicing” – to put things more simply, these are the words that either repeat (ひとびと) or consist of a couple words put together (てがみ) where the second word/piece’s first kana either gets modified with dakuten or it doesn’t. Most people will go their entire Japanese studying lives just memorizing these rendaku words, but did you know there’s a way to know when the second word gets modified and when it doesn’t? Prepare for super-duper technical stuff, coming up (don’t worry, I’ll try to make it super-duper simplified where I can!).
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Some Examples Of Rendaku Words:
I think the first thing to do is take a look at some words that have this behavior – it’s much easier to see what I mean than anything else, I think. That way you’ll have a base to work off of when we get into the nitty-gritty of explaining why and when it happens.
さくら turns to ざくら
かっぱ turns to がっぱ
はな turns to ばな
ひと turns to びと
とき turns to どき
かいしゃ changes to がいしゃ
See how the first kana in the second section / word changes to its dakuten counter part (that’s when you add the ” to it to change its sound). These are all examples of rendaku words. Now let’s look at some you’d think are rendaku words, but aren’t.
That’s the question we should be asking rather than “what does cause rendaku?” Why? Simply because there are more solid rules around this than the other way around. Also, this will allow us to categorize the combo-nouns in a way that lets us examine them more effectively. And, let me warn you. Things are about to get crazy…
1. Already Has a Dakuten/Dakuon
If the second word already has a dakuten then there’s nothing you can do to make it go rendaku. If the dakuten is there in the second word/section, then the dakuten stays. There’s no anti-rendaku or anything like that which will take it away.
2. Lyman’s Law
Lyman’s law is perhaps the most famous way to figure out whether or not a word will get the rendaku treatment or not. Lyman’s law states that:
Rendaku does not occur when the second element of the compound contains a voiced obstruent in any position.
First off, we should probably define what a voiced obstruent is (seriously, wth linguistic people?). A voiced obstruent, put simply, it is a consonant sound (so, not a vowel) which is formed by obstructing airflow in your throat. It took me a while to figure this out, but if you do a lot of these sounds slowly, you’ll find your throat has to close a bit (and obstruct airflow) in order to be made. “Voiced Obstruent” sounds are b, d, g, v, j, and z (which make a vibration in your throat, too, if you want try it out!). Of course, not all of these or applicable. The voiced obstruents “B” and “G” for example would mean the kana is already in dakuon/dakuten status, meaning (according to the first point) they’d never go rendaku status. Also, “V” doesn’t exist in Japanese sounds.
That being said, though, there are exceptions to this “law” but it’ll keep you in the clear most of the time.
Anyways, the idea is basically this: Rendaku won’t occur as much when the second word/section has a voiced obstruent in it. Let’s take a look at some examples:
The second section (the びと, originally ひと) has no voiced obstruent in it. When it has a voiced obstruent, the rendaku won’t occur. Because it didn’t have a voiced obstruent in it, it does get the rendaku treatment. b, d, g, v, j, and z.
This has no voiced obstruents in it, so it goes rendaku.
山火事（やまかじ）＝ Forest Fire
The second word/section (かじ) does contain a voiced obstruent. Therefor, rendaku does not occur (it is やまかじ not やまがじ).
There are exceptions and rendaku has continued to be one of those things that’s hard to pin down perfectly (sounds like the entire Japanese language, right?). Beyond Lyman’s law (which is probably the safest bet) there are other things you can do as well to help you on your rendaku quest.
3. Foreign Words
Another thing you can add to your rendaku knowledge-base arsenal is the behavior of foreign words. There are two pieces to this, so let’s start with the easiest one first (non-Chinese foreign words).
Japanese has a lot of loan words, where non-Japanese words have been added to the language. These are usually written in katakana. In cases like this, you’ll hardly ever see rendaku being used:
As you can see, it’s not アイスゴーヒー (also following Lyman’s Law, on top of this)
Beyond this, though, there’s another class of (less) foreign words. These are words imported via kanji. Kanji has both the on’yomi and the kun’yomi readings. The on’yomi reading are the “Chinese” readings of the kanji. A lot of words consist of two or more kanji combined together to make a word. These jukugo (combo-kanji) are also rarely get the rendaku treatment, though it definitely does happen (at least more often than really foreign words). Still, overall native (kun’yomi) Japanese words tend to be more prone to rendaku than Sino-Japanese (words of Chinese origin… on’yomi readings) words. That being said – never trust any Chinese words, they’re tricky (was that racist? I’m not sure…).
Groups Of Rendaku Behavior
Lyman’s law and other “behavior rules” aren’t always reliable. There are some other things you can do to help figure out when rendaku takes place or doesn’t take place. There are different “groups” of words that have different kinds of rules – if you know these groups (especially the first one) you’ll be able to figure figure out rendaku words more effectively.
1. Never Go Rendaku (Immune)
This set of Japanese (“Yamato”) nouns (versus nouns imported from China … we’re talking kun’yomi here) never undergo the rendaku treatment. Out of allllll the Japanese word nouns out there, this is a tiny fraction. It’s the exception so to speak, but it’s also solid, without any exceptions of its own.
- 浜（はま）＝ Beach
- 下（した）＝ Below
- 土（つち）＝ Earth
- はし（はし）＝ Edge
- かまち（かまち）＝ Framework
- 滓（かす）＝ Garbage, Scum
- 艶（つや）＝ Gloss
- 枷（かせ）＝ Handcuffs
- 暇（ひま）＝ Leisure
- 北（きた）＝ North
- 姫（ひめ）＝ Princess
- 形（かたち）＝ Shape
- 煙（けむり）＝ Smoke
- 紐（ひも）＝ String
So, with these examples, you can conclude that none of them will appear in the rendaku form (ひま will never be びま, けむり will never be げむり, and so on). Want some examples of this? Here you go:
横浜（よこはま）＝ Yokohama (the city)
よこはま doesn’t turn to よこばま
As far as I can tell, this doesn’t have a voiced obstruent in the はま, but because it’s one of the exception words it doesn’t change to ばま.
顔形（かおかたち）＝ Facial Features
かたち stays at かたち. It is immune to rendaku.
血煙（ちけむり）＝ Squirt Of Blood
けむり stays at けむり, just like it should.
You can also do a search on jisho.org where you take the word (above) and put a * before it. That will show you all the words with something before the word you put in. For example, if you put in *暇 you’ll get all the words with stuff before 暇 in them. You’ll have to look for the ones that are pronounced ひま though, rather than the on’yomi or other pronunciations.
Example: Look up *暇
If you learn this group of words (and you will eventually, though it’ll happen automagically over time as you gain more experience), you’ll at least know a list of words that never get the rendaku treatment. There are others, as well, though, and they’re not quite as friendly.
Then again, just like with everything rendaku, there’s exceptions with the “never go rendaku” words too. Not so “never go rendaku” are you, rendaku? Just shows why this topic is so difficult to pin down.
2. Rendaku Resistors
The above Group never gets all rendaku up in your face. This group of nouns just resists the rendaku treatment, where it is the exception when it happens.
According to a study done by Eric Rosen (“Systematic Irregularity in Japanese Rendaku: How the grammar mediates patterned lexical exceptions” … seriously, a mouthful of a title), these 8 nouns consist of 50% of all the cases of rendaku resisting words. That means if study these eight words and the combo-words they’re involved in, you can make educated guesses on some of the words you’re not sure about when you see them written in kanji.
- 草（くさ）＝ Grass → Resists rendaku 84% of the time
- 原（はら）＝ Field → Resists 57%
- 癖（くせ）＝ Habit→ Resists 75%
- 皮（かわ）＝ Skin → Resists 42%
- 先（さき）＝ Tip → Resists 100%
- 木（き）＝ Tree → Resists 61%
- 子（こ）＝ Child → Resists 38%
- 手（て）＝ Hand → Resists 75%
Now, there’s something interesting about the rendaku resisters. Their resistance occurs only in “short-short” compounds. That is, compounds that are two or less kana long (on both sides). When there is a long compound, these “rendaku resistant” words can no longer resist. For example:
常盤木（ときわぎ）＝ ときわ ＋ ぎ
You can see the first compound is three kana long. Thus, it is a “long-short” compound. Anything that’s not a short-short compound will not resist rendaku (if it is a rendaku resisting word).
But, when 木 is used in a short-short compound, things are totally different. Even though it doesn’t resist all the time, the percentage is much better (i.e. not 100% rate of rendaku like long compounds).
This is a short-short compound
本木（もとき）＝ Original Tree Trunk
もとき is a short-short compound (both sides are two or less kana long), and it is more resistnat.
生木（なまき）＝ Live Tree
That being said, there are still short-short compounds for the rendaku resisting words that still can’t resist. It’s just that they don’t occur as often (though they still do occur).
山木（やまぎ）＝ Mountain Trees
Even though it’s a short-short compound, it can’t resist the rendaku (き becomes ぎ). There are exceptions, since it’s only rendaku resistant and not immune.
I’d say the most tricky ones are the resistant words. They tend to not go rendaku (if you had to bet, you’d at least have better than 50% odds most of the time, I suppose?) but they sometimes do as well. It’s a tricky business, but not something that’s too hard once you’ve studied Japanese for a while and you know a decent number of words.
3. Rendaku Lovers
Then, there’s a group of nouns that love rendaku. They never resist, and you’ll almost always see them in the rendaku form if they are the second part of the word. This is Rosen’s short list of of words that make up 39% of all the occurances of these rendaku loving nouns.
- 風呂（ふろ）＝ Bath → 100% Rendaku’d
- 腹（はら）＝ Belly → 100% Rendaku’d
- 船（ふね）＝ Boat → 100% Rendaku’d
- 骨（ほね）＝ Bone → 100% Rendaku’d
- 花（はな）＝ Flower → 100% Rendaku’d
- 笛（ふえ）＝ Flute → 100% Rendaku’d
- 金（かね）＝ Gold → 100% Rendaku’d
- 口（くち）＝ Mouth → 100% Rendaku’d
- 底（そこ）＝ Bottom/Sole → 100% Rendaku’d
- 箱（はこ）＝ Box → 100% Rendaku’d
- 紙（かみ）＝ Paper → 100% Rendaku’d
- 人（ひと）＝ Person → 100% Rendaku’d
- 形（かた）＝ Shape → 100% Rendaku’d
Then, these ones are still Rendaku Lovers, but they don’t love rendaku quite as much as the previous list.
- 鳥（とり）＝ Bird → 80% Rendaku’d
- 雲（くも）＝ Cloud → 80% Rendaku’d
- 川（かわ）＝ River → 61% Rendaku’d
- 玉（たま）＝ Ball → 80% Rendaku’d
These words tend to be a little bit more reliable (at least compared to the rendaku resistors). Most of them are 100%, and the ones that aren’t 100% tend to be a lot closer (80% for all but one). If you take a look at these words, they should voice the rendaku every (or almost every) time.
That being said, I found some exceptions to these rules (as in, some of the 100% ones aren’t 100%). There’s 悪口 (わるくち, which to be fair can also be written わるぐち) and there’s 仕口 (しくち, which isn’t a super common word, but you get my drift). There are others as well, but I think Rosen’s 100% list is pretty close, though I’d bring some of them down to around 90% (still close enough to make smart bets in my book).
Then Again, You Could Just Learn The Words
This is a huge amount of information. I never knew any of this until just recently and somehow got by just fine. I also doubt that anyone else learns about this either, and they somehow get by okay too. I think the above information is helpful, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s more helpful for making guesses when you aren’t sure how to read a word written out in kanji. With tools like rikaichan (not to mention regular old dictionaries) needing to be able to guess isn’t as necessary as it may have once been.
Still, I think this kind of thing is pretty fascinating. I thought it was all totally random. The Japanese Language Gods were punishing everyone learning Japanese, I thought. I mean, half the Japanese language seems random anyways, so why not this (actually, I think most of the Japanese language makes sense, once you take the time to look at more of the linguistic elements of it).
Most students of Japanese will probably never learn any of this, though – so if you’re learning Japanese, and you made it through this epic post, thumbs up to you. You know more than 99.9% of all Japanese students out there. You could even show off some of your new found crazy linguistic knowledge to your Japanese teacher, too, but I doubt they’ll have any idea what you’re talking about.
Oh, and almost everything above has exceptions (damn you, Japanese Language Gods! *shakes fist at the sky, screams a bit*). Sorry about that :P
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