They have created many new Katakana words such as ファ フィ ヴァ ヴィ ティ テゥ to write foreign sounds. But why didn't they create a new combination for "hu" such as ハゥ or ホゥ? Instead they use the same kana for "hu" and "fu" and make the situation sometimes more confuse.

It's not because most of them can't pronounce it since they can't pronounce "V" either, replaced with ヴイ for differentiation, and in most cases it's still being pronounced as "B". Even if to Japanese it's /hu/ as they have /ha hi hu he ho/ then why don't create a special case for /fu/ when they had created /fa fi fe fo/. In other words why don't they write /fu/ and /hu/ differently like in the case of /va/ and /ba/

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    This question looks strange to me, because I, as a native Japanese, think there are Hu (=フ) and Bu (=ブ) sounds in Japanese. The sounds that does not exist in Japanese are consonants F and V -- or at least that's what I have learned at Japanese school. Sometimes Japanese use Fu to write フ sound as in "Fukushima (福島)", but フ in this word is actually pronounced as Hu.
    – naruto
    Jun 2 '14 at 16:01
  • As I learn, there are "ha hi fu he ho". Although Japanese people don't pronounce the sound F, they use ファフィフフェフォto represent fa fi fu fe fo so I don't think there's a reason for not be able to represent "hu" Jun 2 '14 at 16:15
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    Well, after some googling, I found that Japanese "ふ" is pronounced differently than "は, ひ, へ, ほ" and sounds more like "fu" to foreigners. (See Japanese Wikipedia article, and this FAQ) The wikipedia article says you can use 「ホゥ」 to represent "hu" sound (if pronounced in the same way as ハヒヘホ). Well... all I can say now is that ordinary Japanese are not aware of difference between "hu" and フ...
    – naruto
    Jun 2 '14 at 16:36
  • @naruto when I was in Japan, ふ sound like more fu to me although some people do pronounce it more like hu. And sometimes ha sound neither /h/ or /f/ too but somewhere between /h/ and /f/ Jun 3 '14 at 1:05

Phonemes and Allophones

In English, we have two different /p/ sounds. When you say pin, you use an aspirated [pʰ] sound, and when you say spin you use an unaspirated [p˭] sound.

This may come as a surprise! English speakers generally think of them as being the exact same sound. That's because English doesn't have any pair of words which are distinguished with [pʰ] and [p˭]. When we're small children learning the sounds of English, we don't have any reason to train our ears to hear the difference, so we never learn to tell them apart.

To a Thai speaker, however, the situation is very different! Their language demands that they be able to tell the difference, and so to Thai ears, /pʰ/ and /p˭/ are obviously different sounds. They learn to tell them apart as small children, so to them words like ปา /p˭ā/ and พา /pʰā/ are as different as night and day. They can hear a difference English speakers cannot.

Here are a couple terms we can use to talk about this kind of language difference:

  • The set of phonemes in a language is the set of sounds a native speaker needs to recognize to tell apart different words. Every language has a different set of phonemes.

  • Phonemes can be pronounced different ways in different contexts. Each individual pronunciation of a phoneme is called an allophone, and these too vary from language to language.

So in Thai, /pʰ/ and /p˭/ are two different phonemes. But in English, there is only phoneme /p/ with two different allophones [pʰ] and [p˭]—two different ways of pronouncing /p/ in different contexts.

The "F" sound in Japanese

English distinguishes /f/ and /h/ sounds. We can tell apart hat and fat, for example. For this reason, we say that English has both /f/ and /h/ as phonemes.

Japanese, however, doesn't have a true [f] sound. What it does have is a voiceless bilabial fricative, represented in IPA with the symbol ⟨ɸ⟩, a sound Wikipedia describes this way:

For English-speakers, it is easiest to think of the sound as an f-sound made only with the lips, instead of the upper teeth and lower lip.

And because English speakers are used to telling the difference between /f/ and /h/, a lot of us think of this [ɸ] as being a separate /f/ phoneme. Unfortunately, that's not how most native speakers think of it!

The problem is that Japanese doesn't distinguish any two words like hat and fat, so Japanese ears aren't trained to listen for the difference. And what difference is audible is small, and subject to variation; sometimes the [ɸ] sound is blended with an [h] sound, and sometimes [h] is used where [ɸ] is expected. (See An acoustic study of the Japanese voiceless bilabial fricative for details.)

Instead, what we find is that we have a single phoneme /h/, which can be pronounced three different ways in different phonetic contexts:

  は     /ha/     [ha]
  ひ     /hi/     [çi]
  ふ     /hu/     [ɸɯ]   ← The "F" sound is an allophone!
  へ     /he/     [he]
  ほ     /ho/     [ho]

In column one, we have kana; in column two, a phonemic representation (notice that all five use the same phoneme /h/); and in column three, a phonetic representation showing the allophonic differences between the /h/ sounds in different contexts.

Since Japanese speakers aren't trained to listen to the difference, all three allophones [h], [ç], and [ɸ] sound very similar. When most native speakers hear ふ, they hear the same /h/ sound as in は or ひ. And loanwords like フープ from English hoop naturally fall into the same bucket. Since there's no /f/ phoneme and no contrast between [hɯ] and [ɸɯ], there's no reason for Japanese speakers to transcribe the former with ⟨ホゥ⟩. And if they did write the difference, few speakers would observe it in pronunciation.

It's true that English is influencing Japanese, and that these phonemic categories may be changing over time, or may change in the future. For example, younger speakers may be acquiring a ティ sound that didn't exist a hundred years ago, a contrast that exists only in loanwords.

But in many cases there's still no contrast. Even with your example of V, where the ヴ kana is in fairly widespread use, few speakers have a phonemic /v/, a contrast between [v] and [b] sounds. Instead, we find that バイオリン and ヴァイオリン are both very common spellings, and there's no real contrast to be observed.

In short, there's no need to distinguish フ from ホゥ in writing because the distinction isn't relevant to speaking Japanese.

  • One set of terms that begins to illustrate the emerging phonemic differences using /f/ in Japanese are ファン, はん, and ふあん. That said, ファン is used primarily (maybe almost only?) by younger speakers, perhaps in reflection of this term's newer status within the Japanese lexicon. Jun 2 '14 at 23:41
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    But why do they write the difference for "ha" and "fa" or "va" and "ba"? I don't know if they can differentiate "hat" and "fat" or not but if they write it different, why don't write "hu" and "fu" different too? Jun 3 '14 at 1:01
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    I mean in writing, not speaking, because as I said, they write it different even though they don't pronounce that consonant. That will me more correct when transliterated from foreigne languages Jun 3 '14 at 1:11
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    We learn in jr. high schools how Fa and Ha are different, and Va and Ba are different, well, at least theoretically. So many Japanese can distinguish ヴァ and バ when writing 外来語. However we don't usually distinguish ホゥ [hu] and フ [ɸɯ]; I don't know why, but maybe because "hu" is not used very often in English? Anyway, this question and the similar one about L/R is the two questions that struck me most in this site. I've long believed Japanese are good at pronouncing H and L, and not good at pronouncing F and R. Thank you!
    – naruto
    Jun 3 '14 at 1:57
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    Maybe the answer lies in the fact that [ɸ] does occur in Japanese, even if only as an allophone, while [v] doesn't - maybe Japanese speakers are trained to consider [ɸ] the same as [h], but they have no training at all when it comes to [v], so as much as they might struggle to pronounce it, they can still tell that it's different from [b].
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 3 '14 at 3:42

Snailboat's answer is based more on "conservative" Japanese where /ɸ/ is not a phoneme. However in younger people's Japanese, /ɸ/ and /h/ are distinguished before all vowels other than /u/: ハ ≠ フア ≠ ファ. This is of course a loanword-only distinction, and could probably be thought of half-phonemic and restricted to the "Anglo-Japanese" sublanguage. (One similar situation might be with -t in Middle Japanese: 日{にち} was pronounced by educated people as [nit] rather than [niti])

Why, then, is /h/ and /f/ not distinguished in front of /u/, even by young people who know a bit of English? This is likely due to the acoustic value of the Japanese /u/. Unlike the European /u/, the Japanese vowel is 1. a bit fronted 2. compressed, not rounded. The sound is narrowly transcribed [ɯᵝ]. This means that /u/ has the same mouth shape as [ɸ]. So when you try to pronounce /hu/, [ɸɯᵝ] naturally comes out of your mouth. It is acoustically meaningless to distinguish [hɯᵝ] and [ɸɯᵝ].

In fact, if you try hard to say [hɯᵝ] without making a [ɸ] sound you make a [xɯᵝ] ([x] as in Bach) sound, which is incorrect.


It's because Japanese language doesn't differentiate hu from fu. And フ is in reality neiter fu or hu.

  • They do differentiate ha from fa, ho from fo... Theo do write va and ba differently in some cases so that's not the reason Jun 3 '14 at 1:02
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    Well it really is the reason, it's just complicated and changing. Jun 3 '14 at 7:29

There is, actually.


This follows a common pattern for these lenition-blocked foreign syllables:

  • Take a syllable with the same initial consonant but a different vowel. (hu-->ho)
  • Add the lowercase form of the syllable's intended vowel.

There is also トゥ (TO+u=tu), ディ (DE+i=di), デュ (DE+yu=dyu), etc.


ディオ・ブランド DEiO-BURANDO -> dio-burando (Dio Brando)

カルトゥーシュ KARUTOu=SHIyu -> karutūshu (cartouche)

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