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I'm aware that the so-called 'f' in ふ isn't pronounced with the English labiodental fricative [f], but rather the bilabial fricative [ɸ]. I'd like to know if Japanese speakers also use the bilabial fricative to pronounce は, ひ, へ and ほ. The reason I ask is because in romaji, I see these written as 'ha', 'hi', 'fu', 'he', 'ho', and wondered if ふ was a special exception in terms of how it is pronounced.

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No. は へ ほ are pronounced more or less as you would expect, and ひ is palatalised. – Zhen Lin Jul 14 '14 at 21:48
Hi @snailboat, I thought you wrote IPA in forward slashes, not square brackets. – Leo King Jul 14 '14 at 21:49
@LeoKing Most commonly, phonemic notation goes in forward slashes, phonetic notation goes in square brackets. – snailplane Jul 14 '14 at 21:50
...We've had this conversation before, haven't we? – Leo King Jul 14 '14 at 21:51
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is most definitely an exception. The actual phonetic realisation of that series goes like this:

は [ha]

ひ [çi]

ふ [ɸɯ~hɯ]

へ [he]

ほ [ho]

In Middle Japanese they all were pronounced with [ɸ], which you can see in European transcriptions of names from the 1500s and 1600s - the Portuguese wrote e.g. <Faxecura> for a name that in Modern Japanese would be transcribed <Hasekura>. In Old Japanese and earlier this sound was [p], and it still is [p] in most of the Ryuukyuus, e.g. in Miyako /pztu/ 'person' (cognate with Modern Japanese /hito/).

The ɸ>h sound change hasn't quite finished for many speakers, and so /h/ for them remains [ɸ] before /ɯ/. This probably has to do with the particular details of how Japanese /ɯ/ is articulated - it's ultimately neither rounded nor unrounded, but 'compressed': unlike a canonical [ɯ] your lips are pulled together, but they're not pushed out like with [u]. (I'm writing the Japanese version as <ɯ> anyway because there's no good transcription of the 'compressed' version.) [ɸ] is retained because your lips are doing mostly the same thing that they're doing with the 'compressed' [ɯ].

For other speakers, the ɸ>h sound change is complete, and ふ is [hɯ].

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"For other speakers, the ɸ>h sound change is complete". You mean for certain dialects? I haven't noticed this in standard Japanese, and FWIW, it's not mentioned here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_phonology – dainichi Jul 16 '14 at 1:45
I'm not sure exactly how it works out in regards to regional variation and so on; all I know is that I most definitely have heard both [ɸɯ] and [hɯ], and consistently one or the other from a given speaker. (I suppose this counts as 'original research', though I assumed it would be mentioned somewhere.) – Sjiveru Jul 16 '14 at 8:17

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