Japanese Devoicing: why "desu" is des and "Yamashita" is Yamashta etc.

Here are some notes I took a few years back from reading a Wikibooks entry on Japanese pronunciation.

Pronunciation: Devoicing 1

In standard/Tokyo dialect Japanese, the vowels i and u are not usually voiced when they occur between voiceless consonants. "A consonant is produced without sound from the vocal cords" (k, s, sh, t, ch, h, f, b, p)

Yamashita (Yamashta)
Desu (Des)
Masu (Mas)

Devoicing 2
Devoicing can depend on context.
Example: "Suzuki" has no devoicing. It is pronounced su-zu-ki and not s-zu-k. But, "Suzuki san" has a devoiced "i". So, Suzuk san.

Note: Some dialects do not demonstrate devoicing, notably the Kansai dialect.

I hope that helps! :)

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December 20, 2018


Thank you for this. I thought I was losing my mind when listening to the audio in the course.

December 21, 2018

Not to be overly contrarian.

I live just outside Kyoto and I’m fairly confident most folks say des but Kansai is big and my sample size is small. Also, おはようございます gets devoiced to mas in my experience.

December 20, 2018

Hi CaseyNedry!

Thank you for contributing to the conversation. These are just notes I jotted down while reading Wikibooks. I'm not actually familiar with Japanese geography. Kyoto is in or near Kansai? As for dialects, it is not so much that everyone in a region uses it, just that it's more prevalent in one region as opposed to another. With language being fluid, rather than static, it's possible that things are changing.

Also, おはようございます gets devoiced to mas in my experience.

That makes sense according to my notes. :)

December 20, 2018

It’s in Kansai.

Completely agree with you regarding it’s prevalence in a region and the fluidity of language.. Just wanted to share my experience. For the longest time I thought I was failing to hear the -su, but a friend mentioned most folks just drop it. Made me feel better about my listening skills.

December 20, 2018

I really appreciate it. :)

December 20, 2018

Just cause it tickles my fancy, I’m going to be super attentive to folks pronunciation & the context it’s spoken in over the next several days. Might be in Osaka during that time and if so I’ll try and hear if there’s any difference between the two cities(definitely is culture wise)

I’ll post my unscientific results here.

December 20, 2018

Looking forward to it. Although, it also might make an interesting discussion on its own. :)

December 20, 2018

Hi ^^, living in Toyama and visiting Osaka every year and yes, I also notice only (some) elder people do not devoice U. oh, and we used to voice it when being 'mock-polite' to each other too!

December 24, 2018

OlgaBab1, thank you for adding your experiences to this discussion! :)

December 24, 2018

The only people I ever hear voicing the 'desu' are older women, who are being overly formal and overly polite. Everybody else just says 'des'

One interesting conversation I heard was as follows.

先生: お名前はなんですか。


まり子の母:です!(pronounced 'desu' not 'des')

まり子:まり子です。(mariko 'desu')

I found really interesting because the difference in meaning of 'desu', 'des' and not using 'desu' really sank into me.

December 21, 2018

Case in point: Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski (ミツキ) who probably at some point got tired of people calling her Mitsuuuuuki and thus chose the transliteration above. (Btw I like "Washing Machine Heart" a whole bunch.)

December 21, 2018

I'm confused. How is it pronounced Yamashta instead of Yamashita. Wouldn't it still be a sound after the H before T in Yamashita?

Sometimes I hear people pronounce Susuki san and other times Susuk san. At that point, would it matter at all?

December 21, 2018

There is some sound of air like in "shh", rather than followed by the full "i" sound. (The i sound is like ee in "sheet" when voiced. But, it is not when devoiced.).

When devoicing, it means the part that is devoiced should not vibrate the vocal chords.

Here is something you can try so you can physically experience the difference between voicing and devoicing. Ready? First, hold the back of your hand lightly against your throat. Keep it there while trying the the following:

  1. Make the "shh" sound. There shouldn't be any vibration of the vocal chords.
  2. Now say "shht". There should still be no vibration in the vocal chords.
  3. Now say "shhta". Only the "a" should vibrate the vocal chords.
  4. Now say "Shita". This time there should be vibration of the vocal chords for both the "i" and the "a".
  5. Now say "Yamashita" (Voice the "i")
  6. Now say "Yamashta" (Devoice the "i")

Did that help give you a better sense for the difference between voicing and devoicing?

December 22, 2018

Thank you! That makes a lot of sense. I finally got it now.

December 24, 2018

Yaaay! :D I'm really glad that helped. :)

December 24, 2018

Thanks, this would really help me, Japanese is really confusing, I could find any thing about it that has any similiraty with Chinese, and I'm from China. And the Hiragana is already blowing my head off.

December 23, 2018
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