Continuing my weekly series. The third kana is “u” as in… well, that is actually a subject of debate. Different books list different sounds, but the sound never quite matches up, hence the debate. Lets just say “u” as in “who”, but do not round your lips; better yet, don’t move your lips at all.
This is a good time to mention again that most native speakers hardly move the middle half of their upper lip when speaking. A few people don’t move the middle 90 percent or so. Some speakers place their lip about even with the bottom edge of their teeth, but some still (I say still because I think this habit was more common in the past) keep their upper lip nearer the tops of their teeth. This practice can be seen parodied (?) by Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. While he would probably get labeled as racist if he played that part today, my faint memory is that he did it accurately. I’d watch the movie again to check, but it wasn’t that good. But, I digress: bottom line – don’t move your lips a lot when trying to speak Japanese well.
Back on track – the characters are: hiragana, う; and katakana ウ. Today’s words are:
う (u), also written in kanji as 鵜, means “cormorant”; how’s that for short and sweet? Here’s a bonus; albeit, related.
うかい (ukai), also written in kanji as 鵜飼い, literally “keeping cormorants” as in pets. This term refers to the traditional practice of fishing for ayu (鮎) using cormorants. (If you are in PETA, don’t read the next sentence.) This process is very fascinating and I recommend going on a night tour to see them in action.
ウイルス (uirusu), means “virus”. In practice I haven’t heard people use this to refer to anything other than computer viruses. When I use it to refer to medical conditions people just get confused. “Cold”, “Flu”, “AIDS”, etc., (names of specific viral diseases) are used instead. I suppose I should use virus around my doctor friends and see if they take it in stride, or if this really means “computer virus”. Note that there is no “v” sound in Japanese, so various approximations are used, ui being one of those. The name of the letter “v” is usually bui to differentiate it from “b”. My students hate that I use the proper names of the letters and expect them to learn to hear the sounds (however, the names of letters are only important when spelling out loud; otherwise they are useless). A relatively new trend in writing “v” has been to apply sound change accent marks meant for other characters to the ウ – like this: ヴ. This is non-ideal because these characters are supposed to represent sounds, not letters.