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In my audio learning, I hear the beginning consonant sound of the same word spoken by two different speakers to be as a "w", as in "wari", or to be an "m", as in "mari". While it seems clear that the Japanese have a different sense of this sound, it proves a little difficult to distinguish which pronunciation one is supposed to be hearing in the first place. What simple rule can I apply to sort out this sound when I hear it?

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As a native speaker, it is difficult for me to understand how a learner of Japanese hears sounds in Japanese. But answering the question in the title, I do not think that infliction ever changes a consonant between /m/ and /w/ in Japanese. In addition, I do not think that inflection changes the consonant at the beginning of a word in Japanese. – Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 21 '12 at 3:13
Hi Michael, this question could benefit from a little more context. What are the words in question? If possible, the full sentences, even... – Dave Jul 21 '12 at 3:15
m.youtube.com/watch?v=nb04t38Bfx4 – user458 Jul 21 '12 at 7:49
Ah, I know ワリオとワルイージ. ワリオ is a bad(=ワル) guy and ワルイージ is a mean(=イジワル) guy, right? – user1016 Jul 21 '12 at 9:42
Yes. In this video, ワルイージ is not initially mean or bad, but ワリオ changes him. – user458 Jul 21 '12 at 10:04

While it seems clear that the Japanese have a different sense of this sound

What you're actually referring too is called the phoneme; a discrete contrastive unit of sound of a language. In IPA transcription, "W"=[ɰ], and "M"=[m], where the bracket notation indicates phonetic transcription. These two are indeed part of the phonemic inventory of Japanese, meaning that if a Japanese speaker were to use one where the other was called for, the result would be either a mispronunciation or an entirely different unintended word. It is most likely that you are misperceiving one of them, or it is the fault of the recording or machine. Look up the two permutations in a dictionary, probably only one will be listed, unless the word is in fact a suffixed word.

If you had provided the words to which those supposed sounds belong, someone could have disambiguated the intended sound. Given the intended sound and word, one could obviously write down the so-called rules that were involved. There are of course rules, linguistic rules at any rate, such as, for example, that one phoneme cannot neighbour another phoneme in the speech stream.

What simple rule can I apply to sort out this sound when I hear it?

What is the sound being sorted against? I'm not sure what you mean. Perception strategies for another persons speech? Acoustic cues to the articulated phoneme?

I guess to answer your actual question "Is this consonant...inflection?". There's different uses of the word inflection. Morphological inflection in grammar is one, and the other commonplace usage, I think, is a misnomer meaning "change in intonation" or something to that affect. I hear this word all the time from the common folk, and I even used to use this word myself, but I've never seen the the word "inflection" in the context of phonetics/phonology. Looking at the wiki for Infelction it is entirely the morphological sense. I think it's just a misused word in the daily vernacular. For some reason people think it means change in pitch (as opposed to the well-known fixed tones of certain Chinese dialects) or something. I have no idea. You meant inflection in this sense of changing pitch, right?

The answer then I think is no; intonation (the pitch profile) acts independently of the phonemic form of a utterance.

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Thank you for the detailed answer. I did not know the second (non-technical) meaning of the word “inflection.” – Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 22 '12 at 11:17
Neither did I, if it is ever used. – user458 Jul 22 '12 at 15:53
Thanks taylor, for the excellent answer. The phrase I had in mind for this question was (phonetically); "m(w)akari mas", meaning 'I understand'(ironically). Also, the video was amusing, but a little too esoteric for my simple understanding. I appreciate all the helpful input from the members here. – Michael K. Jul 23 '12 at 20:10
@sawa I'd guess it's probably the most frequently used meaning, as most people don't need to talk about the other technical meanings, and there are several common phrases for it. "Inflection in [pronoun] voice...", for example. Pretty sure it's not a misnomer. – Louis Jul 24 '12 at 2:16
@Louis I see. Thanks. – user458 Jul 24 '12 at 4:46

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