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I was wondering if there was some kind of rules to differentiate them, or if it was something we have to remember, like spelling in English.

The same question can also extend to お vs おう ; I learned that the "o" sound in おう is longer, but it can be hard to differentiate them in a speech for a beginner like me.

Thanks for the answers :)

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They are phonologically different. –  Zhen Lin Apr 8 '13 at 16:53
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おう vs お is just something you get used to with practice (おお vs おう, now...) –  nkjt Apr 8 '13 at 18:23
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Are you asking if they sound different, or are you asking if there are contextual cues you can use to figure it out when you fail to hear the difference? –  snailboat Apr 8 '13 at 21:41
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My question seemed to be not clear enough, I was asking if they sound different but also if some general rules exist to be able to easily tell them apart. Seems like it is the former –  tama Apr 9 '13 at 10:41
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You want a really long sound? The volitional form of 装う (dress; adorn) is よそおおう, and the volitional form of 覆う (cover) is おおおう. –  istrasci Apr 9 '13 at 15:17

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

て and って sound different. The /t/ sound in the latter is longer (or you might perceive is as if the latter has two /t/ sounds).

This is called gemination. Gemination is rare in some languages (including English), so you might not be used to listening for it. One example is the /t/ sound in "hat trick" versus "Patrick". You might pronounce the t longer in the former.

In Japanese, all "big" kana and little っs should take up approximately the same amount of time when speaking (the rest of the "small" kana modify the previous kana, but don't change its length). It's as if each kana takes up one beat in a fairly stable rhythm. In って, you should be able to hear the rhythm resting on the /t/ sound for a whole beat.

おう doesn't have gemination, but its length should still be approximately twice the length of お. In the rhythm of one beat per kana, おう lasts two beats, お one.

I think I've heard that some Japanese teachers teach their students to practice this by clapping a steady rhythm while pronouncing.

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Thanks for this interesting answer, so it's really something that we are able to hear out of practice ; that "rythm" being pretty fast for a non-native japanese and/or beginner, it can be hard to tell them apart, but it do exists :) –  tama Apr 9 '13 at 10:39
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Great answer. Just a small addition for tama: in normal (high speed) speech, there really are some times when extended vowels (e.g. おう) are indistinguishable from non-extended (お) and knowing the difference comes from experience and context. So if you are transcribing, you will have to have some experience to know the words being spoken, not just the sounds. –  kobejohn Apr 9 '13 at 14:08

Not quite sure I understand what you're asking, but I think a lot of it boils down to understanding the context of what is being said, and vocabulary associated with this context.

Since you will encounter the 〜て form of verbs very frequently, knowing the rules of making this form for different verbs will clue you in. For example

  • 来(き)て ください → Please come
  • 切(き)って ください → Please cut it / Please turn it off (power, etc.)

However, some situations may be harder to distinguish, yet may have the same/similar meanings.

  • 待(ま)って → Wait! (friendly request)
  • 待(ま)て → Wait! (strong/stern command)
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I'm fairly sure the question is simply, do て and って sound different? –  Zhen Lin Apr 8 '13 at 20:31

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