Let’s Talk about Morae

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If you’ve been following along for a while, you’ve probably noticed me making asides regarding morae — namely that what we’d conventionally call syllables are actually morae.

So, what’s a mora (pl. morae)?

A mora is the phonetic dimension of a syllable. A syllable is made up of a distinctive amount of breath moving through the mouth and the obstructions, channels, and movements that one does with the throat, mouth, and tongue to create consonants and syllables.
If you want to know what a syllable sans a mora looks like, whisper really really low. You’ll notice that breath is moving in distinctive bursts, but that there’s no sound.

Japanese morae

Japanese cares more about morae than about syllables most of the time. If you’re familiar with hiragana and katakana, you’re aware of the distinctive morae of Japanese. By and large, every distinctive character is considered a mora with the exception of the small versions of や,ゆ,よ, and the vowels that serve in digraphs. The small character that does count as a mora is っ, which is, depending who you talk to, a geminate or a glottal stop. A geminate is a pause that occurs in an utterance. Say “black cat,” and you’ll notice that what you’ll say is “bla…cat.” The ellipsis is the geminate. A glottal stop is a consonant that occurs in the back of the throat (the glottis) that obstructs the movement of air. How exactly the pause generated by っ occurs is unknown to me; and it may well be the case that different people have different ways of doing it.

Importance of Morae

You may be familiar with a game called Shiritori, which is a game of morae.
For those who don’t know the rules, one person produces a word, and the second person produces a new word starting with the last mora of the first word. Players continue to do so in turn until someone produces a word ending in the mora ん [n].
For example: (Player 1) くに, (Player 2) にもつ, (Player 3) つばき, (Player 4) きのう, (Player 5) うどん [End].
What’s good to note here is that the fifth word starts with う, which is the last mora of the fourth word. If you actually say the word “Kinou,” you’ll note that it has 2 syllables, the second just being long. If this were a game of syllables, then the next word would have to begin with のう.

Most of us have seen Haiku before. These too work on the basis of morae, not syllables. The most famous example used for the syllable/morae distinction comes from Kobayashi Issa:

えどのあめ
なんごくのんだ
ほととぎす

When we have it laid out in hiragana, it’s quite clear it’s following a 5-7-5 pattern. But with the first word of the second verse, なん, when pronounced aloud as “Nan,” you realize it’s one syllable. If Haiku were based on syllables, this would violate the rules.

Also, if you ask a Japanese person to divide a word, they’ll probably do it by morae. They don’t try to make every mora a syllable, but if you slow them down they’ll make that break. And there probably some pragmatic reasons behind that. (It’s probably because slowing down is something done when someone else is writing down and mora are the basis of writing.)