How do Japanese people pronounce 言う? 言った? 言われる?

Earlier today on Reddit there was a discussion about how Japanese people pronounce 言う in all its various forms. Is it pronounced いう [iɯ] or ゆう [jɯː]? Does it change for past tense, て form, or other forms? Does it differ by region? Is it a Kansai thing?

There was lots of good discussion, but no real data on the subject. I had a feeling that the truth is a lot less cut-and-dry than just saying all Tokyo speakers pronounce it as ゆう in dictionary form and いう (いった、いったり) in other forms. So I cooked up a 20-phrase questionnaire and asked a bunch of Japanese people to read for me. Very high tech research methods here.

This is in no way a scientific study. My sample consists of 10 Japanese people who happened to be taking an introductory course in J-E interpretation with me, plus a security guard at Sophia University and another 17 people who happened to be passing by Yotsuya station around five in the afternoon on a Monday. A little over half were college students or younger, and a little over half were men–I tried to approach people to get a rough balance of ages and genders. The sample sentences are 20 sentences written by a non-native speaker (me) in about 10 minutes, chosen to cover a smattering of grammatical forms in both casual and polite registers. However! Some data is better than no data, and I think the results at least demonstrate that there is significant variation between speakers.

So, data!


Okay, what kinds of trends do we see? Well, ゆったでしょう! and 早くゆってよ! are only pronounced by a few young women. But ゆわれる was more often pronounced by men than by women, and more often by older speakers than younger. It’s a very small, very unrepresentative sample, though, so please don’t go making pronouncements about how all Japanese people speak off of this data.

I also took down prefecture of origin, but nearly everyone was from Tokyo, Chiba, or Kanagawa, so I don’t think it’s really fair to generalize off of the couple of Kansai speakers I found. If someone wants to run these sentences by a bunch of Kansai-jin, though, it’d be interesting to see if there really is a difference. You might want to try re-writing the sentences to be in dialect rather than 標準語, though–our Mie-ken speaker mentioned that she would probably have read the sentences differently had they been written in her dialect.

Big thanks to my classmates, and especially to Yui Ibuki for standing out in the cold with me to hassle strangers. Thanks also to  /u/wonkydonky for suggesting the survey. If you want to see the whole data set, you can find it up on my Google Docs here. Thanks for reading!


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Phonetics and Phonology
4 comments on “How do Japanese people pronounce 言う? 言った? 言われる?
  1. locksleyu says:

    Great post! Rather than the content per-se, I like your scientific approach of gathering real data and analyzing it. It reminds me of a post for one my blogs where I made an excel spreadsheet and graphed ice cream calories vs sugar.

    Though I am very interested in Japanese pronunciation in general, this specific dichotomy in pronunciation of 言う isn’t something I’d really thought about much before. My general feeling is that the ゆうpronunciation evolved in phrases like ~そう言う~ and 〜なんて言う〜 because it’s easier to pronounce that way. I have never heard someone go out of their way to say “そうイウ ” and the other forms where ゆう is pronounced are relatively infrequent, which is somewhat consistent with your data.

    The ゆわれる item is a little surprising to me, I have actually almost never that one. However I don’t live in Japan, so my sample set isn’t exactly as deep as I’d like it to be.

    One thing I wanted to get hard figures for was the number of homophones (like 想像 vs 創造) in Japanese compared to English. I’d like to get hard numbers for that figure since it seems Japanese has way more than English, but it might be that I feel that way due to native-language bias on my part.

    • gengojeff says:

      One thing I wanted to get hard figures for was the number of homophones (like 想像 vs 創造) in Japanese compared to English. I’d like to get hard numbers for that figure since it seems Japanese has way more than English, but it might be that I feel that way due to native-language bias on my part.

      That seems like a very researchable question to me, provided we had a good corpus that accounts for pitch accent. A lot of words appear to be homonyms to an English-speaker’s perspective until you account for pitch accent: 端, 橋 and 箸; 肴 and 魚; 海 and 膿. It kind of seems like a language with so few phonemes and a fairly simple tone system would have a lot of homophones, but then again Japanese also has an awful lot more morphology (verb forms etc.) to work with than English. This is why we need more free and open corpuses!

      • locksleyu says:

        I was actually thinking just counting homophones without taking into account the changes in pitch, since they differ across region and some words can have multiple valid pitch-patterns in a certain dialect.

        That should be possible with just a simple dictionary which I can programmatically access in Japanese and English. I know Jim Breen has a free one that is available in Japanese, and there are also English dictionaries that can be accessed via APIs.

        However at present I don’t have enough motivation to do the work required to figure this out just for my mild personal interest (:

      • gengojeff says:

        That could have some interesting results, but then you’d only be getting homophones from a cetain perspective. Since Japanese speakers differentiate some words based on pitch-accent, that really only gets you part of the way there. Take the English sentence “the judge decided to convict the convict.” The verb and noun are spelled the same, but differ in stress, so they can’t really be called homonyms.

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