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I've heard many people pronounce す, つ, く, and る as if く and る rhyme, す and つ rhyme, but not any other pair. It seems as if す is sometimes pronounced [sɨ] and く is pronounced [ku]. This doesn't seem to make sense though, since in many song lyrics they do rhyme and are used for rhyming effect.

Is this related to the fact that す and つ are often devoiced and the devoiced /u/ sounds like [ɨ]? Or is this related to the fact that my Chinese-accustomed ears mislead me when the う line is devoiced? This is especially since it seems like people who pronounce the vowels of す and く the farthest are speakers with a Chinese accent, like the singer Alan Dawa Dolma. I swear though that for some speakers of Japanese I hear, す does not seem to rhyme with く.

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Possibly related: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/5175/78 –  istrasci Apr 30 '13 at 15:25
    
"but not any other pair"? :) In (modern-day) normal circumstances, each syllable of the "う line" (う、く、す、つ、ぬ、ふ、む、ゆ、る) does rhyme. :) There will be times where people shorten the pronunciation of す... and times where a small っ won't be voiced... but technically speaking, that whole う line would normally rhyme. –  summea Apr 30 '13 at 17:25
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す and つ are indeed pronounced with a fronted vowel compared with く. This should be mentioned in any good analysis of Japanese phonology. –  Zhen Lin Apr 30 '13 at 21:29
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Where can I find such a good analysis? Neither Wikipedia nor the IPA official booklet mentions す fronting the vowel, only sometimes devoicing it. –  user54609 May 1 '13 at 0:35
    
@EricDong Does this help? books.google.com/… –  snailboat May 6 '13 at 13:11
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1 Answer

In IPA this phenomenon is captured by the little circle under the u, i.e. [u͍̥] which indicates voicelessness.

When pronounced (almost) silent, what's left of the vowel in す and つ kana sounds pretty close to [ɨ], which makes sense, since neither [ɨ] nor [u͍̥] are rounded.

Pronouncing /u/ almost silent is not always possible, however. E.g. compare する and すき: Only the latter can be pronounced almost silent. I think す, しゅ and つ are often pronounced (almost) silently (where possible!), other syllables less often so.

As for rhyming, I think that the entire う row is considered to rhyme (as would be sensible). But in 演歌, the /u/ sound is almost never pronounced silent, but often held for several measures of music (ですぅぅぅぅぅ).

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演歌 is always weird with the う sounds. I remember several of them consistently pronouncing the う line with the /y/ or German ü sound, really fronted vowel. Speaking of する, I do in fact perceive it having two different vowels: [sɨɺu] though the way I personally pronounce it it sounds like [sʉɾʉ] or [sɨɾɨ]. –  user54609 May 1 '13 at 0:37
    
@EricDong I think that る is usually not pronounced with a fronted vowel. –  Earthliŋ May 1 '13 at 10:08
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