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In the さしすせそ series, し is an exceptions to the pattern.

Is ''she'' easier to pronounce than ''see'' or why does Japanese have this feature?

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In the さしすせそ series, し is an exceptions to the pattern.

Is ''she'' easier to pronounce than ''see'' or why does Japanese have this feature?

This comes down to the biomechanics of pronunciation. It's the same reason we say things like "tenshun" in English for the word tension.

The specific phenomenon is called "palatalization". There are two articles about this on Wikipedia, and both are relevant:

Put simply, when you have a so-called "front vowel" -- a vowel pronounced more in the front of the mouth -- that can gradually affect the preceding consonant, eventually causing that consonant to change.

A simple example in modern English is the phrase "did you?" The ⟨ y ⟩ in "you" is sometimes called a "palatal glide", and it basically works as a front vowel. This affects the final ⟨ d ⟩ in "did", and in fast, informal speech, this shifts from "did you" to something more like "didja": that final ⟨ d ⟩ becomes palatalized, and ultimately also shifts from a stop to an affricate consonant (it gets "friction").

A similar process has happened in languages around the world. For instance, Latin had the word "centum" for "hundred", and it was pronounced like //kentum//, with a hard //k-// sound at the start. The following //e// is a front vowel, and over time, this caused a shift in that hard initial //k-//, resulting in modern Italian "cento", pronounced instead like //t͡ʃento// (where the //t͡ʃ// part is pronounced like ⟨ ch ⟩ in English words like "chain").

In Japanese, we see palatalization in a few places. し is one such example. Historical linguists theorize that this may have originally been pronounced as //si// (like English "see"), and the front vowel //i// caused the initial //s-// to palatalize, shifting the pronunciation to //ɕi// (like English "she"). Another example is ち, where again linguists theorize that this was originally //ti// (like English "tea"), and the front vowel caused a shift to //t͡ɕi// (like in English "cheese").

Historical wrinkle

Interestingly, //e// is also a front vowel, although not quite as front as //i//. It turns out that せ was also previously subject to this same palatalization as し, and せ used to be pronounced as //ɕe// (like the first three letters in English "shed"). We can tell that this used to be the case around four hundred years ago, thanks to a Portuguese-Japanese dictionary from 1603, called the Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam in Portuguese and the 日葡辞書 (Nippo Jisho) in Japanese. The compilers of that dictionary always spelled せ as ⟨ xe ⟩ (as we can see in this scan on Google Books), which was (and still is) pronounced as //ɕe// or //ʃe// in Portuguese.

I'm not sure why this palatalization reversed. It might be that //e// in Japanese was pronounced more towards the front of the mouth in years past, and gradually moved further back in the mouth. Or it might be that speakers felt more need to differentiate between し and せ. Or it might have been some social or political angle, where pronouncing せ as //ɕe// came to be seen as uncool or impolite or something otherwise negative. The reasons are lost to time, from what little I can find.


Please comment if the above does not answer your question, and I can edit to update.

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  • 2
    So, to oversimplify so much your excellent answer, the reason for this is that shi is easier and more natural to pronounce than si.
    – jarmanso7
    May 27 '20 at 18:28
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    You didn't seem to mention it, but this was the reason why つ is "tsu", not "tu", right?
    – Sweeper
    May 27 '20 at 20:27
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    @Sweeper, I didn't mention it above as the biomechanics are different -- the Japanese //u// sound isn't a front vowel -- but yes! This is similar. The linked section of the "Affricate consonant" article on Wikipedia explicitly mentions this as an instance of affrication (but not palatalization). May 27 '20 at 20:39
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    I've wondered this question as well. What really gets me is why Japanese, Korean, and Chinese all lack a 'see' sound. Before reading your answer I just assumed Korean and Japanese took part of their sound system from Chinese. But that still leaves the question of why Chinese and Korean are that way, unless it's for the same reasons you brought up. May 27 '20 at 21:54
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    The way I've tended to think about it (but I have never seen any authoritative sources state it), is that し, ち, and つ have their sounds because in general in Japanese, you form the shape of the vowel you're about to speak, before (or perhaps as) you begin to pronounce the consonant. With the tight Japanese い sound, it's easy to try that and understand that pronouncing a hard s or t is very impractical in that mouth position. With つ it's only equally obvious if you actually are pronouncing your Japanese う correctly. With an English sort of "oo" sound it doesn't work. May 28 '20 at 5:50

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