Japanese/Pronunciation

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Japanese is characterised largely by its small number of vowels and consonants (five and fourteen, respectively). Pronunciation of each syllable is highly regular with the written system and there are only a few exceptions such as vowel devoicing. This is in stark contrast to English where the written and spoken language can differ a great deal (e.g. the vowel digraph "ou" in "noun" and "cough" and the consonant "g" in "goat" and "giraffe").

Apart from a single isolated consonant (the moraic nasal, "n") and double consonants (e.g. "itte" and "kekkon") all consonants must be followed by a vowel to form syllables. Double consonants are always a pair of the same consonant, though vowel devoicing sometimes makes different consonants sound one after the other (e.g. "suki" and "suteki").

Japanese has a great deal of homophones that make correct pronunciation quite important. While language learners may have difficulty hearing the difference between nuances like long and short vowels, native speakers are used to these and might not understand incorrectly pronounced words.

The syllabary[edit]

There are five vowels in Japanese, normally transcribed into the English alphabet as: "a", "i", "u", "e" and "o".

Vowel a i About this sound u e About this sound o
Approximate sound father meaty food egg old

*This sound has no approximation in English. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_back_rounded_vowel#Close_back_compressed_vowel

Spanish and Italian speakers may note that Japanese vowels produce the same sounds as their Spanish and Italian equivalents.

Japanese vowels always represent distinct phonemes and don't form digraphs — i.e. they don't blend together or sound differently when joined. When one vowel follows another they are pronounced separately. Examples are the names Sae (sa.e) and Aoi (a.o.i)

The rest of the syllabary is formed by combining the above vowels with a consonant.

Clear   Voiced   Plosive   Clear medial y   Voiced medial y   Plosive medial y
  a i u e o   a i u e o   a i u e o   ya yu yo   ya yu yo   ya yu yo
k ka ki ku ke ko g ga gi gu ge About this sound go   ki kya kyu kyo gi gya gyu gyo  
s sa About this sound shi su se so z za ji zu ze zo shi sha shu sho ji ja ju jo
t ta About this sound chi About this sound tsu te to d da ji zu de do chi cha chu cho ji ja ju jo
n na About this sound ni nu ne no   ni nya nyu nyo  
h ha About this sound hi About this sound fu he ho b ba bi bu be bo p pa pi pu pe po hi hya hyu hyo bi bya byu byo pi pya pyu pyo
m ma mi mu me mo     mi mya myu myo    
y ya yu yo
r About this sound ra About this sound ri About this sound ru About this sound re About this sound ro ri rya ryu ryo
w wa o

Note that the sound which is written with a "y" is not considered a vowel, but a consonant. This will come as little surprise to German speakers where the same sound is written with a "j".

The -i line (ki, gi, shi, ji, chi, ni, hi, bi, pi, mi, ri) can be combined with the y- line (ya, yu, yo) to create the medial y combinations. These are just like regular consonant + vowel syllables, in that they should be pronounced as one mora (syllabic sound).

From this table one can see that the Japanese syllabary is highly systematic. There are a few exceptions, though, and these have been bolded in the table:
  • "si" becomes "shi"
  • "ti" becomes "chi" and "tu" becomes "tsu"
  • "zi" and "di" become "ji", and "du" becomes "zu"
  • "hu" becomes "fu"
  • "wo" becomes "o"

Mora[edit]

Japanese is quite regular in the timing and stress of its syllables. The basic timing unit is called mora. Each mora is pronounced with equal stress and should take about the same amount of time. Two morae should sound twice as long as a single one.

The following take up one mora:

Whereas these take up two morae:

  • a long vowel
  • a double consonant

Examples[edit]

  • a-o-i / あおい (e. blue): three morae, each vowel is short
  • mi-do-ri / みどり (e. green): three morae.
  • sha-shu / しゃしゅ (e. car model): two morae.
  • ni-n-ji-n / にんじん (e. a carrot): four morae.
  • ī-e / いいえ (e. no): three morae (note the long vowel "i", denoted by a macron)
  • a-k-ka / あっか (e. to worsen): three morae (note that the double consonant isn't pronounced twice, just twice as long).

The medial y often takes a long vowel.

  • gyūnyū / ぎゅうにゅう (e. milk): four morae.

Long vowels[edit]

A long vowel takes two morae. In rōmaji it's written with a macron: ā, ī, ū, ē and ō.

In hiragana, it's written with an extra "あ" (a), "い" (i) or "う" (u) depending on the vowel. In katakana, it's marked by appending a dash-like symbol "ー".

Word Japanese Meaning Soundbyte
Ōsaka 大阪 Osaka city About this sound Ja-Osaka.ogg
Tōkyō 東京 Tokyo city About this sound Ja-Tokyo.ogg
dēta データ data About this sound Ja-deeta-data.ogg
gyūnyū 牛乳 milk About this sound Ja-gyuunyuu-milk.ogg
cheek About this sound Ja-hoo-cheek.ogg

Devoicing[edit]

In standard Japanese the vowels i and u are not usually voiced when they occur between voiceless consonants (k, s, sh, t, ch, h, f, b, p). The phenomenon seems to have developed to facilitate the falling pitch intonation in the Kanto dialect. The mouth forms shape of the vowel and lasts for one mora, but the sound is not voiced. For final [su] in 'desu' and '-masu', all vestiges of the vowel have disappeared in standard Japanese, leaving a naked sibilant. Devoicing is not otherwise standard for word terminal i or u. Consecutive devoicing is rare, although exceptions exists (e.g. futsuka, 2nd day of the month, pronounced f-ts-ka). Devoicing can depend on context. E.g. 'Suzuki' has no devoicing; 'Suzuki-san' has a devoiced i: Suzuk-san. Some dialects do not demonstrate devoicing, notably Kansai.

Some examples:

Spelled Pronounced Meaning
kushi k-shi comb
ta-be-ma-shi-ta tabemash-ta ate (to eat, past tense)

Consonant variation[edit]

There are a couple of consonants that are pronounced differently from English:

Consonant Approximate sound Notes
g give or sing approximately halfway between these sounds, it is made almost like ng depending on the age of the speaker and, in certain cases, dialect. Nowadays, it is beginning to sound more like our guttural g, but the older folks may still say ng, which was also taught in many Japanese grammar classes.
sh, ch, j   sound is made further back along the tongue than in English
ts bats try saying "fatso" without the "fa"
f who (in British English) blown between the lips, not between the lips and teeth; as if it were a combination of both H+F
r   similar to a rolling r, but only trilled once making it sound deceptively like a D to untrained listeners. The sound is often described as being between "r" and "l".

Except for the doubled consonants and the n (which we will cover later), consonants can never end a syllable. They can only begin it.

Moraic nasal[edit]

Normally, Japanese consonants must be followed by a vowel except where double. There is an exception to this; the moraic nasal which is transliterated as n. It is usually found at the end of words, but can be found in the middle of composite words.

The difference between the moraic nasal and the syllables "na", "ni", "nu", "ne" and "no" can be difficult for language learners to spot, while native speakers may have difficulty understanding incorrect pronunciation.

  • kin'en (ki-n-e-n) no smoking vs. kinen (ki-ne-n) commemoration.
  • hon'ya (ho-n-ya-) bookstore (not ho-nya)

The pronunciation of the moraic nasal changes depending on what sound follows it. This is not so much an irregularity as a shortcut to bridge the sounds between the two morae. When followed by the bilabial plosives, "b" and "p", the moraic nasal is pronounced like an "m". An example:

  • "shinbun" is read as: shimbun

About this sound Listen to the audio (OggVorbis, 151 KB)

  1. At the end of a word:
    • dan 段 "level"
    • kin 金 "gold"
    • fun 糞 "dung"
    • zen 善 "goodness"
    • hon 本 "book"
  2. Directly before a consonant:
    • banzai 万歳 "hurrah", "long live (the Emperor)"
    • kingyo 金魚 "goldfish" (pronounced like "ng")
    • kunrei 訓令 "directive"
    • zenchi 全知 "omniscience" (pronounced like "n")
    • honten 本店 "main office" (pronounced like "n")
  3. Before m, b, p
    • genmai 玄米 "unmilled rice"
    • honbu 本部 "headquarters"
    • tenpura 天ぷら (battered and fried vegetables or fish)
  4. Before a, i, e, y
    • zen'aku 善悪 "good and evil"
    • ken'i 権威 "authority"
    • han'ei 反映 "reflection"
    • sen'you 専用 "exclusive use"
  5. Note that before a, i, e, and y, moraic n is written n' (with an apostrophe). This is to distinguish it from the regular consonant n, which is pronounced differently and can produce different words. Some examples of cases where this becomes important are:
    • kani 蟹 "crab" vs. kan'i 簡易 "simplicity"
    • kinyuu 記入 "fill in" vs. kin'yuu 金融 "finances"
    • konyakku コニャック "cognac" vs. kon'yaku 婚約 "engagement (to be married)"

Consonant doubling (gemination)[edit]

There are four consonants that can become geminates (get doubled) in native Japanese words: /p/, /t/, /k/, and /s/. The geminate (represented linguistically as "Q") takes up an extra mora, with the general effect being to insert a pause that sounds as long as a regular syllable with a short vowel. The geminate is /t/ before ch and ts, /s/ before sh.

Word Meaning Soundbyte
takk table tennis About this sound Ja-takkyuu-table_tennis.ogg
Hokkaido Hokkaido prefecture About this sound Ja-hokkaido.ogg
makka bright red About this sound Ja-makka-bright_red.ogg
gakkō a school
dotchi which (informal) About this sound Ja-docchi-which.ogg
kuttsuku to stick About this sound Ja-kuttsuku-to stick.ogg }
settei setting About this sound Ja-settei-setting.ogg
chotto a little
kissaten a tea house
hissori quiet(ly) About this sound Ja-hissori-quiet(ly).ogg
juppun ten minutes
Sapporo Sapporo city About this sound Ja-Sapporo.ogg

In the Japanese pronunciation of foreign loan words, the voiced consonants /b/, /d/, /g/, and /z/ can also be doubled.

Word Meaning
gubbai goodbye
guddo good
doggu dog
kizzu kids

Practice[edit]

Simply words[edit]

Word Japanese Meaning
aka Red
iro color
egaku 描く draw (a picture)
utsu 打つ hit, beat
osameru 治める govern
oya parents
wabi 侘び (the Japanese aesthetic of subdued refinement)
pari パリ Paris (France)
tomodachi 友達 friend
hana flower
shiji 指示 instruction
hiza knee
tsumori 積もり intention

Long and double vowels[edit]

About this sound audio for practice 2 (OggVorbis, 125 KB) Note in particular that "deiri" and "koushi" are not long vowels since the vowels are split between composite words.

Word Japanese Meaning
さあ come now
ai love
au 会う meet
hae fly (insect)
aoi 青い blue, green
ī いい good
iu 言う say
ie house
shio salt
shurui 種類 type, kind
縫う sew
ue above
uo fish
example
supein スペイン Spain
urei 憂い grief
deiri (de + iri) 出入り coming and going
dēta データ data
oi nephew
そう that way, so
omou 思う think
koushi 仔牛 calf (baby cow)
moeru 燃える burn
cheek (facial)

Compound consonants[edit]

Audio missing

Word Japanese Meaning
toukyou 東京 Tokyo
gyouza 餃子 pot-stickers (Chinese dumplings)
gyuunyuu 牛乳 milk (from a cow)
hyou chart
byouin 病院 hospital
denpyou 伝票 voucher
myou strange
muryou 無料 free (as in beer)
ryuu dragon
takkyuu 卓球 table tennis
happyou 発表 announcement

Moraic nasal[edit]

Word Japanese Meaning
tenki 天気 weather
renshuu 練習 practice
zangyou 残業 overtime (work)
anshin 安心 relief
sunnari すんなり slender
denpa 伝播 reception (cell phone, etc.)
senbei 煎餅 Japanese hard rice cake
genmai 玄米 unprocessed rice
sen thousand
hon book
sen'you 専用 exclusive use
hon'ya 本屋 bookstore
san'en 三円 three yen
tan'i 単位 unit, (course) credit

Comparisons of similarly pronounced words[edit]

About this sound audio for practice 6 (OggVorbis, 190 KB)

  1. yuki 雪 "snow" and yuuki 勇気 "courage"
  2. soto 外 "outside" and souto 僧徒 "Buddhist disciple"
  3. soto 外 "outside" and sotou 粗糖 "unrefined sugar"
  4. soto 外 "outside" and soutou 相当 "suitable"
  5. soto 外 "outside" and sotto そっと "softly"
  6. sotto そっと "softly" and sottou 卒倒 "fainting"
  7. maki 巻 "scroll" and makki 末期 "last period"
  8. hako 箱 "box" and hakkou 発行 "publish"
  9. issei 一斉 "all at once" and isei 異性 "opposite sex"
  10. tani 谷 "valley" and tan'i 単位 "unit", "(course) credit"
  11. san'en 三円 "three yen" and sannen 三年 "three years"
  12. kinyuu 記入 "fill out" and kin'yuu 金融 "finances"
  13. kinen 記念 "commemoration" and kin'en 禁煙 "no smoking"

Normal speech[edit]

The narration of the following excerpt of Natsume Soseki's classic novel Botchan is spoken at a natural pace which may be difficult to follow for unaccustomed listeners.

Oyayuzuri no muteppou de kodomo no toki kara son bakari shite iru. Shougakkou ni iru jibun gakkou no nikai kara tobiorite isshuukan hodo koshi o nukashita koto ga aru. Naze sonna muyami o shita to kiku hito ga aru kamoshirenu. Betsudan fukai riyuu demo nai. Shinchiku no nikai kara kubi o dashite itara, doukyuusei no hitori ga joudan ni, "Ikura ibatte mo, soko kara tobioriru koto wa dekimai. Yowamushi yaai," to hayakashita kara de aru. Kozukai ni obusatte kaette kita toki, oyaji ga ookina me o shite "Nikai gurai kara tobiorite koshi o nukasu yatsu ga aru ka," to itta kara, "Kono tsugi wa nukasazu ni tonde misemasu," to kotaeta.
Shinrui no mono kara seiyousei no naifu o moratte kirei na ha o hi ni kazashite, tomodachi ni misete itara, hitori ga "Hikaru koto wa hikaru ga, kiresou mo nai," to itta. "Kirenu koto ga aru ka, nandemo kitte miseru," to ukeatta. "Sonnara, kimi no yubi o kitte miro," to chuumon shita kara, "Nan da yubi gurai kono toori da," to migi no te no oyayubi no kou o hasu ni kirikonda. Saiwai naifu ga chiisai no to, oyayubi no hone ga katakatta node, imadani oyayubi wa te ni tsuite iru. Shikashi kizuato wa shinu made kienu.