I know that ふ is normally pronounced as [ɸɯ]. But ふ is sometimes used to represent a clearly different sound that occasionally appears in spoken Japanese, and I'm having trouble identifying its IPA representation.

The following is what I know about this "sound":

  • It does sound like the h consonant to me, but it can be produced with your mouth totally closed.
  • No normal Japanese word contains this sound, but a few interjections and onomatopoeias like ふーん, ふふんっ, んふふ, ふっふっふ, ふがふが are often pronounced with this "sound".
  • It's the very first sound in this video. It's written as ーん but it's obviously not [ɸɯ].
  • Japanese Wikipedia suggests this sound is 無声鼻腔摩擦音 ("voiceless nasal fricative"?).

    無声鼻腔摩擦音を「ふ」で表すことがある(例:「ふん」と鼻で笑う)。

    But the article does not explain about this sound in detail.

  • I think English "hmm" and "humph" have a similar sound, and some sources including this suggest this sound is [m̥] (the voiceless version of [m]). But other sources including this and this seem to suggest [m̥] is a rare consonant.

So what is this sound in IPA? How do you transcribe ふーん and んふふ said with your mouth closed?

up vote 3 down vote accepted

When we say //ha// or //ho//, the actual phonetic realization of the //h// sound is the same as the following vowel, but voiceless. In other words, we could potentially choose to transcribe [[hɑ]] as [[ɑ̥ɑ]], with a ring diacritic under the first vowel to show that it's been devoiced.

Likewise, English hmm //hm// can be transcribed phonetically as [[m̥m̩]]. The English interjection uh-huh //mhm// is typically pronounced [[ʔm̩m̥m̩]] when your mouth is closed, with a short voiceless period separating the two syllabic nasals. If you pronounce this word slowly, you'll notice that you're making the same sound, just stopping and starting the vibration of your vocal folds partway through. Aside from the opening and closing of the vocal folds, nothing else is changing, so it's hard to say that [[m̥]] is an incorrect transcription.

As long as we're talking specifically about interjections, [[m̥]] is not really such a rare sound, but then, interjections are special in many ways. In Japanese, the interjection うん //ɴ// is typically pronounced [[ʔɴ̩ː]] or [[ʔm̩ː]], but outside of interjections Japanese words are usually considered not to begin with //ɴ// due to phonotactic constraints. This is another way that interjections are special.

I see no reason not to transcribe the sound in question as [[m̥]] if your lips are closed, as in ふーん [[m̥m̩ːː]] and んふふ [[ʔm̩ːm̥m̩m̥m̩]].

  • Something that strikes me as different between the English hmm and Japanese ふーん is that the latter can be accompanied by a burst of air through your nose at the beginning. Does IPA having something for that? – Darius Jahandarie Apr 11 at 1:22
  • I also feel mild air pressure around my nose when saying んふふ, but I don't know if it's a burst or a fiction. Maybe it's related to why Japanese Wikipedia calls this a 摩擦音? – naruto Apr 11 at 3:15
  • When the vocal cords vibrate, it slows down the air, so the air moves much faster during the voiceless portion of the sounds. My intuition tells me that English hmm can also have a puff of air (but perhaps smaller in magnitude than in Japanese ふーん). When it doesn't, I would transcribe it without [m̥], because the rapid air movement occurs during that segment. Fricatives are typically defined as characterized by turbulent airflow, and in this sense they cannot be nasal because there is no constriction narrow enough to produce turbulence (e.g. Ladefoged and Maddieson 1996 p.103). – snailboat Apr 11 at 3:33

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