Kyoto Dialect: 8 Distinctive Characteristics That Put a Cool Twist on This Variant of Japanese

The Kyoto dialect or Kyoto-ben (京都弁) is a variant of the Kansai dialect, which is spoken throughout the southeast region of Japan (including Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe).

Although there are a lot of similarities between the various Kansai-ben, I can tell you from firsthand experience that Kyoto-ben almost sounds like a different language altogether.

Even if you’re fluent in standard Japanese or 標準語 (ひょうじゅんご), you’ll find that many words in Kyoto-ben don’t come up in your 標準語 dictionary, and verb endings don’t match any of the formal and informal Japanese you’ve been taught in class.

Still, Kyoto-ben is seen as the most royal, polite and relaxed of all the dialects in the Kansai region. Its nonchalant flow and easy cadence give a relaxed feeling that isn’t present in standard Japanese. The dialect reflects the rich history and culture of Kyoto, owing to its status as the old capital of Japan and the strong presence of geiko (芸子 or げいこ), the Kansai equivalent of geisha, in the area.

And since Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, knowing its dialect will help you better appreciate the place, its people and its culture.


1. Usage and Conjugation of ~はる

Although used in other Kansai sub-dialects as well, ~はる is used much more often in Kyoto and in different ways.

In other parts of Kansai, ~はる is used primarily by women, while in Kyoto, men use it as well. (Even elderly people use ~はる for their family members and animals!) Whereas other Kansai dialects treat it as a form of 敬語 (けいご) or polite speech, Kyoto-ben uses ~はる so often that it’s lost much of its formality in the area.

Also, Kyoto-ben conjugates ~はる a bit differently from other Kansai dialects. Instead of using the preceding te- form, the ta- form is often used before ~はる in Kyoto.

What are you eating?
Standard Japanese: 何を食べているの?(なにをたべているの?)
Kyoto-ben: 何を食べたはるの?(なにをたべたはるの?)

People from the countryside are relaxed.
Standard Japanese: 田舎の人達はのんびりしている。(いなかの ひとたちは のんびりしている。)
Kyoto-ben: 田舎の人達はのんびりしたはる。(いなかの ひとたちは のんびりしたはる。)

2. Adding the い Sound in Negative Irregular Verbs

In regular Kansaiben, negative verbs are replaced with ~へん. For example, the phrase “I don’t understand” or 分からない (わからない) becomes 分からへん (わからへん). This is also a staple of Kyoto-ben.

However, in Kyoto, when you make the irregular verbs する and 来る (くる) negative, instead of becoming せえへん and けえへん, they turn into しいひん and 来いひん (きいひん).

At that time, he didn’t reply.
Standard Japanese: あの時、彼は返事しなかった。(あのとき、かれは へんじ しなかった。)
Kyoto-ben: あの時、彼は返事しいひんかった。(あのとき、かれは へんじ しいひんかった。)

Mr. Yamada isn’t coming.
Standard Japanese: 山田さんが来ない。(やまださんがこない。)
Kyoto-ben: 山田さんが来いひん。(やまださんが きいひん。)

3. Adding ~なぁ Instead of the ~ねん in Other Kansai Dialects

In the Kansai area, ~ねん is a typical sentence ending particle with no particular English equivalent. Instead of this, Kyotoben often uses ~なぁ.

He’s a great guy, isn’t he?
Standard Japanese: 彼は偉い人だね。(かれは えらい ひとだね。)
Kyoto-ben: 彼は偉い人やなぁ。(かれは えらい ひとやなぁ。)

4. Pronouncing the ~う in Certain Particles

The soft melodic cadence of Kyoto-ben is highlighted in the pronunciation of the う sound in ます or です.

Instead of the usual pronunciations of mahss and dess, the people of Kyoto softly pronounce the final u sound. This is a classic characteristic of Kyoto-ben.

5. Emphasis on Syllable Repetition and Onomatopoeia

Kyoto-ben, more than the other Japanese dialects, relies heavily on syllable repetition and onomatopoeia.

For example, people from Kyoto tend to repeat the same word twice for emphasis instead of using words like とても or すごく, both of which roughly translate to “very” or “really.”

It’s really hot today.
Standard Japanese: 今日はとても暑い。 (きょうは とてもあつい。)
Kyoto-ben: 今日は暑い暑い (きょうは あついあつい。)

6. Using どす Instead of です

While Kyoto-ben is used by people of all ages, there are some expressions that aren’t so common anymore but are still used by the elderly. You’ll still hear them while living or traveling in Kyoto, and they seem to express a classic form of Kyoto-ben that sounds elegant to Japanese speakers.

For example, どす is how some older Kyoto residents say です. This traditional accent is highlighted by the geiko and maiko (舞妓 or まいこ) of Kyoto. (Maiko are apprentice geiko.) They still use this expression often.

Is that so?
Standard Japanese: そうですね。
Kyoto-ben: そうどすなぁ 。

7. Indirect Expressions

People from Kyoto are known for their politeness and indirectness.

This is often illustrated by the sentence ぶぶ漬けでもどうどすか? (ぶぶづけでも どうどすか?), which means, “How about some (rice) soup?” This expression is used to ask guests to leave after a particularly long stay. Only people from Kyoto would know its true meaning and make a quick excuse to leave.

Nowadays, it’s used in an exaggerated way, but it still highlights an important difference between Kyoto-ben and the other dialects.

8. Using よし Instead of ~なさい

よし is a light command used toward people of equal or lower rank. It’s used in almost the same way as ~なさい but without as much emphasis.

You should study.
Standard Japanese: 勉強しなさい。 (べんきょうしなさい。)
Kyoto-ben: 勉強しよし。 (べんきょうしよし。)

Other Resources for Learning Kansai-ben and Kyoto-ben

  • Kansai Dialect Self-study Site – A self-study site for Japanese learners, this site has all the basic grammar and phrases you need to start your journey into the world of Kansai-ben.
  • Colloquial Kansai Japanese Book – This book covers the differences between regions, useful expressions and hundreds of example conversations that will have you familiar with Kansai-ben quicker than you think.

As a bonus, let me introduce you to the language learning platform FluentU, where you can watch Kyoto-ben in action.

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You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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Now get out there and start using all these great tidbits of information and resources! You’ll be speaking like a Kyoto local in no time.

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