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How does Japanese handle sounds outside the 五十音図【ごじゅうおんず】? Are there ways of distinguishing sounds such as V or L in katakana renderings of foreign words? How are the missing sounds in the ワ column represented?

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Heads up: Some of this is going to be a bit obscure. Wikipedia covers some of this ground; examples consisting of proper names, place names, etc. were checked via Japanese Wikipedia articles.

ウィ、ウ、ウェ、ウォ

Due to holes in the ワ column (including the general restriction of 「ヲ」 to grammatical duties), 「ウ」can pair with other vowels to replicate /w/ combinations. 「ウ」 on its own fills the role of /wu/. Examples include:

  • ウィナー (winner)
  • ウェイジ (wage)
  • ウーマン (woman)
  • ウォーカー (Walker)

ヰ、ヱ、ヲ

As they are considered archaic, 「ヰ」 and 「ヱ」 are not typically used. Along with 「ヲ」, however, they will sometimes appear when a writer or graphic designer wants a certain visual impact.

  • Ebisu beer spells its name ヱビス in Katakana.
  • The character Kaworu in Evangelion spells his name カヲル. (This does not affect its pronunciation, however, which remains /kaoru/)
  • An archaic spelling for whiskey is ウヰスキー

ファ、フィ、フェ、フォ

All of these are in common use, and are rarely to never replaced with their counterparts in the ハ column (where 「フ」 resides) on the basis that they represent a sound not used commonly in Japanese. When Romanized, however, 「フ」on its own can be subject to some variation between F and H, for lack of a /hu/ sound in Japanese. The ハ column is relatively unique in this blend of two consonants.

  • ファイト (fight)
  • フィクション (fiction)
  • フェア (fair)
  • フォーカス (focus)

クヮ、グヮ

Usually used in the context of Chinese names (e.g. クヮン = Kwan) or phonetic spellings of historical Japanese words.

ヴァ、ヴィ、ヴ、ヴェ、ヴォ

ウ with a 濁点【だくてん】 added to it represents V, as in the following:

  • ヴァルブ (valve)
  • ヴィデオ (video)
  • ヴ (Vu)
  • ヴェイン (vain)
  • ヴォルテックス (vortex)

While these combinations exist, however, using the corresponding character from the バ column is preferable as it matches the pronunciation that will be used in practice (e.g. バルブ、ビデオ、ブ、ベイン、and ボルテックス)

ティ、ディ

This is used to get an explicit "ti" or "di" sound, as opposed to "chi" or "dji"

  • バプティスト (Baptist)
  • レディー (lady)

「ティ」is usually replaced with 「チ」for the same reason 「ヴ」usually becomes 「ブ」(e.g. バプチスト). 「ディ」 is in comparatively common use on the other hand, as the /di/ sound does not exist natively in Japanese. Using 「ヂ」 in its place is not common.

トゥ、デュ

Just as the previous set provided a regular alternative to "chi" and "dji", these ones add a regular alternative to "tsu" and "dzu":

  • トゥナイト (tonight)
  • デュオ (duo)

「トゥ」can be replaced with 「ツ」, and many times is (e.g. 「ツー」 “two”). Depending on the circumstances, however, it is may be left in place. This is especially the case for standardized spellings of names (e.g. 「トゥーレ」 “Touré”).

「デュ」is not usually replaced with 「ヅ」 for the same reason 「ヂ」doesn’t replace 「ディ」 above; that would require the use of the uncommon kana ヅ.

Rest from here on are almost purely academic, and most people will never encounter them in actual practice. The following add 濁点 and 半濁点 to characters that normally would not take them to allow for uncommonly-specific renderings of katakana words, as one might find in linguistic texts.

ヷヸヴヹヺ

This is another (archaic) method of rendering V. It is created by adding a 濁点 to the characters in the ワ column:

  • ヷルブ (valve)
  • ヸデオ (video)
  • ヴ (Vu)
  • ヹイン (vain)
  • ヺルテックス (vortex)

As noted with the other way of representing V, ウ acts as a stand-in for /wu/.

カ゚キ゚ク゚ケ゚コ゚

Adding a 半濁点 to kana in the カ column produces an initial "ng" sound, like can be found in a lot of Vietnamese or Cantonese words:

  • パンカ゚ー県 (Phang Nga)
  • キ゚・ロ゙ク (Nghi Lộc)
  • ク゚エン (Nguyễn)
  • ケ゚アン省 (Nghệ An)
  • コ゚ (Ngô)

In practice these words usually end up being written using the corresponding ガ行 character instead.

  • TECHNICAL NOTE: U+309a (combining handakuten) blends naturally with characters that regularly take a 濁点 such as those in the カ、サ、and ダ columns.

ラ゙リ゙ル゙レ゙ロ゙

Adding a 濁点 to kana in the ラ column is Japanese's way of distinguishing between L and R in writing.

  • ラ゙テン語 (Latin)
  • リ゙スト (list)
  • ル゙ーブル (Louvre)
  • レ゙イト (late)
  • ロ゙ング (long)

  • TECHNICAL NOTE: U+3099 (combining dakuten) will cause characters that don't normally take a dakuten (such as ラ) to bulge a bit, since it doesn't know where to place the mark.

  • 1
    "The added vowels are conventionally supposed to be written at half-size when used in this manner, however in practice it’s not uncommon to see them at full size; this has no bearing on its pronunciation." Yes, it does! ウエ is two morae and ウェ is one mora long. – Earthliŋ Mar 29 '14 at 2:46
  • I was thinking along the lines of examples I've seen (e.g. ウィナー vs. ウイナー), but point noted. I'll strike that line. – Kaji Mar 29 '14 at 2:54
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    It's not just the beer that uses ヱビス. Yesterday in Naha I found it written ゑびす in hiragana, not in any beer context I could discern. – hippietrail Mar 30 '14 at 7:28
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    wow I've never seen "ng" being transilerated by カ゚キ゚ク゚ケ゚コ゚ like that. The Japanese wiki for "Nghệ An" still use ゲアン省 – phuclv 劉永福 Jun 2 '14 at 15:22
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    As noted, these are mostly of academic interest, not things in common use. The Wikipedia link at the top is the source, the Japanese Wikipedia was used to verify the base spelling prior to generating the version using the kana. Hence it is a valid way of writing it when the distinction is required, even if it is not the preferred way of doing so in day-to-day contexts. – Kaji Jun 2 '14 at 19:03

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