Some speakers, mainly middle-aged and older males, sometimes pronounce ねえ as [ne:], i.e. with a more closed variant of the usual /e/-sound, let's call it [ɛ]. There are also speakers for the same approximate group who sometimes pronounce そう as [sɔ:], i.e. with a more open variant of the usual /o/ sound, let's call it [o], usually when going そうそうそうそう.

Usually this just strikes me as slightly amusing, and it seems to have the same effect on other speakers of my approximate age group (early thirties).

However, on further thought, this is actually interesting. Some of these speakers otherwise speak standard Japanese and don't use (as far as I can tell) these vowel variants in other words.

So my questions are:

  • Do these vowel variants appear in other words that I am missing?
  • What is the history of these vowel variants (if any)? Are they by any chance remnants from historical phonemic mergers, or are they just one-off phenomena?
  • As a speaker of standard Japanese, I have no idea on what you are talking about...
    – nodakai
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


You have such a good ear, don't you?

According to my personal observation, in this case it's not that like free or conditional variants, but rather loose (lax) pronunciation of interjections. And I suspect what you heard are not more open but more mid-centralized (there may be generation gaps, but I'm not sure...).

While the regular //e// and //o// in Japanese are the (true-)mid vowels, people tend to utter ねえねえねえねえ closer to [[ɘ]] or [[ɜ]], and そうそうそうそう or おいおいおいおい, [[ɞ]] (for //o//). Emphasized ねーえ may indeed become closer to [[ɛ]] as you said (or even to [[æ]]), but this usually gives flirting impression. A very impassioned そう as in そうなんだよ! would rather go more closed but more tense (more like true [[o]]), that may strike you "more open" or "deeper".

Compared with them, え? is more likely to be pronounced like [[ɛ]], but it generally sounds rude. I remember a friend of mine is always saying え~? (very reluctantly) as [[ɛ̃ː]].

I also remembered expressions of joy such as やったー or わーい are usually fronted being [a] instead of usual [ɐ].


I have not particularly noticed this [ɛ] or [ɔ:]. So I cannot comment on them.

What is the history of these vowel variants (if any)? Are they by any chance remnants from historical phonemic mergers, or are they just one-off phenomena?

In Middle Japanese, there were both [ɔː] and [oː]. The former derive from /au/ or /eu/ (-->Note), while the latter from /ou/ and /oo/. While kana does a poor job of distinguishing them, the Portuguese in the 15-16 century regularly distinguished them in their works on Japanese language.

During Early Modern Japanese, [ɔː] further reduces to [oː], and are no longer distinguished. Perhaps what you are hearing is a remnant of this. Note that そう was originally さう, so it would have developed as sau > sɔː > soː.

Note: While /eu/ results in an long vowel, it is prefixed with an initial approximant: [joː].

  • Thanks! Yes, I was aware of the sɔː > soː for そう, which is why I wondered if my observation could have anything to do with this phonemic merger.
    – dainichi
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 5:06
  • The thing from MJ could be in fact influencing this, especially considering that the OP mentioned that generally older people slightly change the vowels.
    – ithisa
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 3:10
  • I thought that /eu/ became [joː]? As in the phonological evolution of, for example, volitional つけう → つきょう → つけよう, or 今日 changing like けふ → けう → きょう. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 7:26

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