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Do Japanese actually pronounce the "v" sound? They do have a kana character (ヴ) dedicated to transcribing foreign "v" sounds, but do they actually pronounce them like the English phoneme /v/ (using the upper teeth and the lower lip)? Or is it like a "weak" /b/ in Spanish, which is actually /β/ (using both lips)?

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    "dee-bwui-dee". – istrasci May 25 '15 at 2:46
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    As a side note, I was interested to learn that there are technically katakana characters for va (ヷ), vi (ヸ), ve (ヹ), and vo (ヺ) - they're written as ワ/ヰ/ヱ/ヲ + dakuten to make them "voiced". They aren't ever actually used, but they are included in the Unicode standard. I don't know if hiragana versions exist, but if they do then they'd probably be written in the same way: わ/ゐ/ゑ/を + dakuten. – GoBusto May 25 '15 at 7:37
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    @GoBusto We have those letters in Unicode much thanks to Apple. Otherwise they're likely to remain as composed characters like their hiragana counterpart or Ainu kana. – broccoli forest May 25 '15 at 15:56
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I think on reading ヴァ, ヴィ, etc., people usually try to pronounce it differently from バ, ビ, etc., but with varying success. In fact, I think most Japanese that try to distinguish ヴァ and バ pronounce what would be //v// indeed like the Spanish [[β]], a voiced bilabial fricative (or like a combination like [[bβ]]). That seems to make sense since the voiceless bilabial fricative [[ɸ]] is already present in Japanese (in フ [[ɸɯ]] and as ファ, フィ, etc. in loanwords).

I think one should point out, though, that while the katakana ヴ exists and is gaining ground, there is no particular standard of spelling words with ヴ and one will most often encounter the spelling with バ etc. and only rarely encounter the spelling with ヴ. Loanwords that were loaned a long time ago are usually much more resistant to respelling. For example, バージョン is rarely spelled ヴァージョン:

BCCWJ corpus, accessible via http://www.kotonoha.gr.jp/shonagon/

バージョン  1366 results
ヴァージョン  107 results

Major monolingual dictionaries, such as 大辞林, in fact still don't use ヴ at all and just note:

外来語の[v]の音を書き表すのに用いられる片仮名表記。 〔本辞典では「ヴァ」「ヴィ」「ヴ」「ヴェ」「ヴォ」の表記は用いず,原則としてバ行の片仮名を用いた。「ヴァージン→バージン」「ヴィオラ→ビオラ」「ヴント→ブント」「ヴェール→ベール」「ヴォリューム→ボリューム」。なお「ワイマール」「ウィーン」のように「ワ」「ウ」を用いたものもある〕

That is, ヴ is taken to be a particular katakana notation to indicate that a loanword was spelled with V. 大辞林 writes all loanwords containing V (e.g. ヴァージン, ヴィオラ, etc.) with バビブベボ (like バージン, ビオラ, etc.).

tl;dr

In any case, I think it can be said that the //v// phoneme doesn't (yet) exist in Japanese and for those speakers that do recognize it as different from //b//, it's almost never the voiced labiodental fricative [[v]], but rather the voiced bilabial fricative [[β]].

  • I admit I'm a lazy one who usually pronounce word-internal //b// much like [[v]]. – broccoli forest May 25 '15 at 16:01
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    lol It's not. I think it rather explains how we don't distinguish [[b]] and [[v]]. – broccoli forest May 25 '15 at 16:09
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    @dainichi Sometimes [[β]] but sometimes [[v]]. I also sometimes use [[f]] for //ɸ// especially when to emphasize it. Add to it, I have an acquaintance who pronounces [[θ]] for Japanese //s//, but distinguishes them when he speaks English. – broccoli forest May 26 '15 at 3:31
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    @Earthliŋ I had thought they would have too. But scouring the MEXT site has yielded little results. Maybe I am looking in the wrong placce, however the text books have definately changed this school year with many parents confused, as the names they have learnt are different in pronounciation to the new ones. One can hope that Japan as a whole starts adopting this "closer to native" pronounciation across the board as some things still grind my ears every time I hear them. – The Wandering Coder Aug 29 '16 at 5:33
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    Since [β] was mentioned, I'll just elaborate slightly. /b, d, g/ may weaken to [β, ð, ɣ] between vowels in rapid speech, and sometimes they weaken even further to [ʋ, ɹ, ɰ]. That doesn't mean the weakened sounds are becoming phonemes, though. It's purely allophonic. Similar weakenings can be observed in other languages as well – it's a natural phenomenon due to how the sounds are produced physically. – snailboat Jun 10 '17 at 13:10
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tl;dr: It varies, but it is usually a weak "b".

It varies from person to person, so some may pronounce it like the English "v", but others may use a strong "b" sound.

Originally, Japanese had no ヴ character so they used variations of ビ (bi). I think some Japanese might be able to do it, but they find it quite awkward. That's why television is called テレビ (terebi), it's hard for them to pronounce so they changed the sound. It's in the same vein as why they stick vowel sounds on the end of borrowed foreign words that end in constanants.

ヴ was probably introduced in order to reduce confusion and to retain accuracy when transliterating.

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