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The Nintendo character Kirby's name in Japanese is 「星のカービィ」, pronounced "Hoshi no Kābī". For the カ, a ー is used for extending the vowel sound. For the ビ, though, a small イ is used.

I thought the small vowels were used for modifying the vowel in an existent sound without extending it, for example in ティ, to make "ti", or in ヴィ, to make "vi". With ビ, however, that is of course not necessary, as the vowel is already "i". In hiragana, normal vowels are used for extension, but those are 1) not small, and 2) not used in katakana.

So why is this? And how does it work? Under what grammatical rule does the small vowel extend the sound, and why is ー used for カ and not for ビ (which I think it normally would, such as in 「ビール」)?

  • On this topic, using the Japanese IME in Windows, does anybody know of a way to write ビィ other than by typing 'bixi' or 'bili'? I know there are some 'shortcuts' like 'thi' for ティ and 'who' for ウォ, but I haven't found one for ビィ. – Quppa Apr 10 '16 at 14:29
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When a small vowel is added to a kana with the same vowel sound, it does indeed work the same as a [長音符]{chōonpu}. (If the kana has a different vowel sound, then the sound is not extended.)

There are no hard and fast rules about this, but it seems that the ィ here is used in proper nouns to indicate that the English spelling ends with "y" instead of being written "ii", "i" or "ī". Other examples include

  • In this case it does seem to affect the length, though. All romanizations I've seen are written as "Kābī" - not "Kābi", as you may expect. In addition, listening to some Japanese people say it, it does sound like they're saying it with a long i. What's up with that? Is it an exception? Something else? – obskyr Apr 10 '16 at 12:56
  • Sorry, I meant that it is a long i! – Avery Apr 10 '16 at 13:31
  • But in the case of ティ and ヴィ, the sound is not extended. Is it always extended in the case of i-character + small i specifically? – obskyr Apr 10 '16 at 13:36
  • That's correct, I'll add an explanation. – Avery Apr 10 '16 at 13:38

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