In the English alphabet, each letter has a pronunciation (or many) as well as a name (that is used when referring to the letter as an entity, when spelling, etc.). As far as I know, in Japanese, the kana have a pronunciation only and each kana's name is its pronunciation.

So my question is, "How do you verbally refer to a specific kana in Japanese?"

Specifically, I'm particularly interested in how to refer to (given that it represents a nasal sound and has no pronunciation by itself) and (given that it sounds the same as お).

For example, how would one speak the following sentence:


How do you read "ん" and "を"?

By the way, if the above sentence is not grammatical or unnatural, please correct me.

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    Isn't there some kind of catch-22 happening if you're verbalising ん or を while asking how it's read? Suppose you know the proper way they're read, then the question is moot. Suppose you don't know the way they're read, then the question serves some purpose, but is impossible to verbalise in a way that the listener can understand. – Flaw Dec 20 '16 at 16:39
  • @Flaw Well, hahah, probably just a bad example, isn't it. – obskyr Dec 20 '16 at 16:47
  • @Flaw I did that intentionally to be ironic : ) – G-Cam Dec 20 '16 at 19:06

We usually call individual hiragana by its pronunciation. If it can be confusing, we can clarify that we're talking about hiraganas by saying, for example, "ひらがなの「あ」".

When we have to confirm that there is no mistake, we use words that include a certain hiragana. For example, we say "りんごの「り」". There is a standardized way to do this in radio communication. This is the same technique as we use to orally tell kanjis.

As you mentioned, 「を」 is special since it has same pronunciation as 「お」. There are various ways to refer to 「を」. I have heard "わ[行]{ぎょう}の「を」" and "くっつきの「を」". See Japanese Wikipedia article of を for more examples.

However, 「ん」 is not such a special hiragana, in that we can distinguish 「ん」 and others with pronunciation. Saying "ひらがなの「ん」" is enough.


How do you read "ん" and "を"?

I'd say:


I used the techniques described above to refer to 「ん」 and 「を」.

"読み方は何ですか" is not wrong but it sounds like asking "What is the way to pronounce ...?". In this case asking "How ...?" is better, so I use the word どう that means "how."

Also, どう読めばいい(ん)ですか is more natural than どう読みますか. いい means "good" or "correct", so it sounds like "How to pronounce correctly ...?", which matches the context.

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    Great answer! Thanks. It's basically like in English, then - "ひらがなの〇" is like saying "the letter [x]", and the radio communication alphabet is like using the NATO alphabet. Seems fairly painless; nice! – obskyr Dec 20 '16 at 16:46

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