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I recently learned that バレー is the short form of バレーボール and the word for ballet, on the other hand is typically spelled バレエ. I'm wondering whether this difference in spelling reflects a phonetic contrast.

At least according to Wikipedia, the pronunciation of バレー and バレエ is the same, but when I asked a native speaker she told that she thinks that the pronunciation does differ, although she admitted that both words "kinda" sound the same.

  • 1
    This question leads me to wonder what the hypothetical sport of "ballet ball" would look like... – Eiríkr Útlendi Feb 1 '17 at 20:52
  • From my previous experience learning another language, there are some situations like this where you will get a different answer depending who you ask....some will tell you "definitely different, no question" and then the next person will laugh and tell you the previous person is just old and finicky and they're all but identical-sounding, then the next person tells you "No, definitely different..." It's tricky. – temporary_user_name Feb 1 '17 at 21:21
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(Disclaimer: The following is my personal understanding; I could not find authoritative reference about this, and I don't own an accent dictionary.)

  • バレー (volleyball): almost always バレー【HLL】 (unless it's in a compound word such as バレーボール【LHHHLL】)
  • バレエ (ballet): either as バレエ【LHH】 or バレエ【HLL】.

For ballet, I feel バレエ【LHH】 sounds somewhat more "modern" or "jargon-like", while バレエ【HLL】 may be the "orthodox" pronunciation. (The same goes for ドラマ【LHH】 vs ドラマ【HLL】, クラブ【LHH】 vs クラブ【HLL】, etc)

This means when you hear バレエ【LHH】をやっています, you can usually assume it means ballet, while when you hear バレー【HLL】をやっています, you have to guess or ask. And I have definitely heard native speakers ask どっちのバレー? ("Which バレー do you mean?") several times.

By the way, from what I understand, バレエ is conventionally spelled as such so that it can be visually distinguished from バレー(ボール). Ballet is sometimes spelled also as バレー, and I think it's not wrong.

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Firstly, as a learner of Japanese I have personally only heard them pronounced in the same way, and I have not been able to find any contrasting example on Forvo or Youtube (only a couple of searches).

(But I guess a possible explanation for any perceived deviations in pronunciation may come from the fact that the longer form of volleyball has another accentuation pattern, which perhaps may influence some speakers to pronounce the short form of volleyball (slightly) different than ballet.)

All resources I have checked also give the pronunciations as the same. I have taken the liberty to convert the various accent visualisations to the format of Japanese.SE, see below.

Kenkyusha’s New Japanese—English Dictionary (4th ed., 1974):

バレー{HLL} ballet, volleyball
バレーボール{LHHHLL} volleyball

English Wiktionary (as of 2017-02-02):

バレー{HLL} volleyball, ballet
バレエ{HLL} ballet
バレーボール{LHHHLL} volleyball

OJAD (as of 2017-02-02):

バレエ{HLL}
バレーボール{LHHHLL}
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They definitely sound different. (I would say for バレー, the sound is a bit extended on the "re") As to "how big of a difference," that's a matter of opinion. (By the way, there are a lot of words that are spelled exactly the same and have different sounds as well! e.g: 地震(じしん)と自信(じしん))

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