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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Hiroko here. Welcome to the Ask a Teacher series, where I’ll answer some of *your* most common Japanese questions.
The question for this lesson is…
Why are there two different kana for 'O'?
You should have noticed that these two characters (お and を) are both pronounced “o” in Japanese sentences. You may be wondering whether you can use them interchangeably.
First, I will tell you the history. お and を had different pronunciations in the Nara period around 1300 years ago.
お was pronounced ‘o’ and を was pronounced ‘wo’. However, the language have been changing, so お and を have the same pronunciation ‘o’ these days. Nevertheless, their functions are different.
Let’s think about the sentence おいしい おすしを たべます.
The sentence has three ‘o’s.
The first お at the beginning is part of the word おいしい. It means “delicious.” When a お is part of a word, the お is used.
The second お comes before すし.すし is a complete word without お. おすし is a polite version of すし. The function of お here is showing politeness. It’s called the honorific prefix. We also use お here.
The third one, を, is a particle that is called the object marker. It’s independent and is put between an object and a verb, おすし and たべます. This is the only time when you would use this kana to write the 'O' sound.
Here is one more example:
おもしろいお話を聞きます。It means “I listen to an interesting story.” The first お is a part of the word that means “interesting” – おもしろい. The お in お話 is an honorific prefix and 話 means “story”. Then を is placed between an object お話 and a verb to mean “listen to” 聞きます, and it’s an object marking particle. So, the letter を is used. Their functions are different, but the pronunciations are the same.
I hope this makes sense to you.
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!