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The Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries can mostly be described as phonetic. But there are two exceptions, the two pairs of syllables modified to be voiced with the dakuten diacritic which turns them into homophones:

  • す (su) → ず (zu); つ (tsu) → づ (zu) 
  • し (shi) → じ (ji); ち (chi) → ぢ (ji)

The same goes for katakana:

  • ス (su) → ズ (zu); ツ (tsu) → ヅ (zu)
  • シ (shi) → ジ (ji); チ (chi) → ヂ (zi)

So are these pairs always pronounced the same or are there sometimes subtle differences? The former of each pair seems to be the more common, are the latter in each pair much used? How does one choose which to use when spelling words in kana? What about for spelling foreign words or names in kana?

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I saw one in a sign by the road in the country today. It said "あずまや". I think it was for a soba shop. Any ideas which case this was? –  hippietrail Jun 17 '11 at 14:27
    
Great question! I just now saw ぢ and realized that it virtually never gets mentioned in language books (at least if they're not upper-level) and needed to learn it. –  Panzercrisis Oct 3 '12 at 18:00
    
There's also the use of ぢ to write 痔, which has an interesting history... ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%97%94#.E6.A6.82.E8.A6.81 –  jogloran Nov 17 '12 at 11:09
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3 Answers

In modern Japanese these pairs are pronounced exactly the same:

  • ず, づ are pronounced either [dzu] or [zu].
  • じ, ぢ are pronounced either [dʑi] or [ʑi].
    (the first sounding like the English J and the second like the French J, but both are with the middle of the tongue raised to the hard palate, producing what seems like a softer pronunciation).

So in short, the pairs are redundant as far as the modern language is concerned. But like most cases of duplicate letters, they originally represented distinct sounds:

  • ず represented [zu] (nowadays it is really more like [dzu] with [zu] being a slacker pronunciation).
  • づ represented [du] (and just like [tu] became [tsu] it became [dzu])
  • じ represented [zi] (and just like [si] became [ɕi] it became [ʑi]).
  • ぢ represented [di] (and just like [ti] became [tɕi] it became [dʑi]).

While the exact pronunciation of these 4 letters have changed since classical Japanese, they essentially remained distinct until the Edo period. We can easily see this from old Portuguese transliterations of Japanese, which used the following letters to transliterate these sounds:

  • じ was transliterated ji.
    (remember that this is the Portuguese or French j here, not the English j).
  • ぢ was transliterated gi.
    (it was obviously distinct from ぎ, but not distinct enough to Portuguese or Spanish ears)
  • ず was transliterated zu.
  • づ was transliterated zzu or dzu
    I'm not sure how this last letter was pronounced, since the only old text I've read, Ars Grammaticae Japonica, makes a clear distinction between 水 (old spelling: みづ) which it transliterates as mizzu and 蜜 (strangely enough: みつ) which it spells as mizzu. This mess probably stems from the fact that Spanish itself (the writer is Spanish) was undergoing transformations to the very same consonants at that time.

In the end, [dzu] merged with [zu] and [dʑi] merged with [ʑi] in all but a few dialects (the Kagoshima dialect apparently retains these distinctions), but until the spelling reforms of 1946 all words retained their original spellings, so 水 was spelling ミヅ in and 味 was spelled アヂ. Good kokugo (Japanese-Japanese) dictionaries still list these old spellings.

After the spelling reforms, づ and ぢ were kept in only two places:

  1. With a repeated sound: [続く]{つづく}, [縮む]{ちぢむ}
  2. In compounds with rendaku: [気付く]{きづく}, [馬鹿力]{ばかぢから}

In all of the other places, ぢ was replaced with じ and づ with ず.

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@Boaz: Aha thanks I was wondering about rendaku but forgot to put it in my questions. Do you know of any dialects that preserve a greater distinction? And does this mean that the sound change came after the widespread adoption of hiragana (whenever that was)? –  hippietrail Jun 17 '11 at 1:01
    
Or with rendaku of 「つ」 (気付く). –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 17 '11 at 1:25
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@hippieL look at Kef's answer. There's a link to a Wikipedia page that lists some of the dialects that preserve these distinctions. Essentially, its mostly confined to southern Kyūshū and Shikoku, especially in Kagoshima dialect (which many Japanese consider practically unintelligible). On the other hand there seem to be many more dialects that unify all four of these sounds (the so called Zuzu-ben). –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 17 '11 at 11:50
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I, for one, find the diagram quite surprising, as I always seem to hear a very slight difference in ず and づ from Kantō newscasters and the like, and so I've intentionally included that difference in my own pronunciation. But if the Kantō region makes no distinction between ず and づ, does that mean my mind's been tampering with my hearing and projecting a difference onto the two where there is none? Scary. –  Derek Schaab Jun 17 '11 at 14:30
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@Derek: I'm afraid that's the case. Our pronunciation and hearing habits are more affected by writing than we'd like to think. These research subject was a sort of taboo in linguistics until recently (because of written language was treated as secondary to spoken language), but now it's beginning to be explored. I should know that sad reality very well, since the messy system of Hebrew orthography clearly affects speakers' perceptions of both native words and foreign words. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 17 '11 at 14:49
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Pronunciation-wise, there is no difference in the standard dialect. Some dialects may preserve the distinction between the two sounds, but most of the words that used to be spelled with づ and ぢ are now spelled with ず and じ in the standard language. (In other words, relying on the standard spelling won't tell you when to use "dzu" and "dji" in these dialects, because standard spelling doesn't reflect when these sounds occur.) This page has more information on dialectical usage of づ and ぢ.

The cases where づ and ぢ are still used today are when rendaku is applied. "Rendaku" is the voicing of syllables that sometimes occurs when making compound words. For example, the same phonetic process that turns 山口 into やまぐち (instead of やまくち) also turns 月々 into つきづき. One of the most common cases is the verb つく (付く), which gets tacked onto other verbs: もと+つく = もとづく. つける can turn into づける via the same process.

Also, occasionally, the sequence "tsuzu" is spelled つづ. For example, 続ける is つづける even though it doesn't seem to be a compound word.

ぢ is considerably rarer than づ for some reason -- I can't think of any words offhand that use it, though I may know one or two -- but nonetheless the same rules apply.

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ぢ is indeed much rarer than づ, but it probably has to do with the fact there are very few words with reduplicated ち (I can think only of 縮む and its relatives right now) or words that begin with ち and are affected by rendaku. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 17 '11 at 12:42
    
Another one is チヂミ, a loanword from Korean. –  dainichi Nov 16 '12 at 9:03
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Here's what my Japanese lecturer told me when I asked her about it:

"Usually it is じ for ji sound. However, when ji is used after chi sound in one word with one kanji, ぢ is used, such as, ちぢむ (縮む)、ちぢれる(縮れる). When it is a part of word with two kanji, such as, ちじん (知人 = acquaintance), じ is used."

Interesting....

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