Pronunciation is the hardest yet most important aspect of a language. Good grammar can be rendered incomprehensible from poor pronunciation alone. Not every sound in Japanese will exist in the language(s) you speak, which may cause a lot of difficulty.
This lesson will introduce the fundamentals of pronunciation. Some terminology is introduced to provide accurate descriptions of what is going on, but they are all defined. To begin speaking with Japanese's 120+ million speakers, we need a base line for spelling words in a familiar way. We can't go over Japanese script in a day because there is no alphabet and the script is totally different to anything found in Europe. We'll instead use English lettering (Rōmaji). This will not completely reflect the actual sound of words, but once we get to Lesson 2, we'll begin to learn Japanese writing.
We'll now learn the sounds behind the (C)V structure. Unlike English, which has many vowels, Japanese only has 5! They're pronounced clearly and sharply like the American English approximates below.
Note: Rises in pitch will be marked in bold and pitch drops will be marked with ↓. This is because Japanese has a pitch accent system. This will be used for ALL WORDS. We will not focus heavily on pitch accent after this lesson, but it is not an arbitrary part of pronunciation.
|A||Like the a sound at the start of the word "buy".||Ta↓ (field)|
|I||Like the i in "police".||Ki↓ (tree)|
|U||Like the "oo" in mood. Compress your lips without protruding them.||Uta↓ (song)|
|E||Like the e in "set".||Ike↓ (pond)|
|O||Like the o in "oh".||Oka (hill)|
No form of English actually has the Japanese u, but pronouncing it as instructed will result in a similar sounding vowel. The Japanese "a" only shows up in diphthongs in English (a vowel that starts out as one vowel but ends as another). Example words have been chosen as being those which are generally pronounced the same across the English speaking world.
When a word has two vowels side by side, try to enunciate them separately. Though they do bleed together in faster speech, native speakers hear them as two morae.
| Ai||Love/indigo||Ii||Good|| Au||To meet||Uo||Fish||Iu||To say|
Exception Note: Iu is actually pronounced as "yuu". Exceptions are not fun, but this is one that just cannot be ignored. So, this rule is not optional to learn!
Long vowels are twice as long as short vowels. This may not seem like a big deal, but vowel length contrasts words in Japanese like in the words below. Mistakes at the beginning are inevitable, but recognizing these contrasts becomes easier over time.
|Short A||Obasan (aunt)||Long A||Obaasan (grandma)|
|Short I||Ie (House)||Long I||Iie (no)|
|Short U|| Yuki↓ (snow)||Long U||Yuuki (courage)|
|Short E||E↓ (Painting)||Long E||Ee/ee (yes)|
|Short O||Ton (ton)||Long O||Toon (tone)|
Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.
1. Koohii (Coffee) 2. Chiizu (Cheese) 3. Chuugoku (China)
Spelling Issues: "ei" & "ou"
Sometimes, what is spelled as "e+i" is normally pronounced as a long e, but it can always be pronounced as "e" followed by "i". Similarly, "ou" is often a long o, but it is often just "o+u"! When we get into Japanese writing, we'll learn exactly how to know when to use which!
Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.
"Long e" or "e+i": Sensei (Teacher)
Always "e+i": Mei (Niece)
Always "long o": Ou (king)
Always "o+u": Omou (to think)
Pronunciation approximation is based on American English. Most consonants are very similar, but you should pay attention to those in bold. More example words of all these consonants follow the chart along with more detailed information about how to say the sounds.
Terminology Note: Voiced sounds--g, z, d, etc.--are made by vibrating your vocal folds.
|K||As in "kite"||Ka↑||Mosquito|
|G||As in "go". It can sound like ng inside phrases.||Kage||Shadow|
|S||As in "sad". Before i, it becomes SH.||Asa||Morning|
|SH||As in "shin". It's closer in the mouth than English.||Ashi↓||Foot/leg|
|Z||As in "zen". zi → ji.||Kaze||Wind|
|J||As in "jeep".||Aji||Flavor|
|T||Blade of tongue behind upper teeth. tu → tsu; ti → chi.||Te↓||Hand|
|D||Voiced form of t.||Sokudo||Speed|
|CH||As in "chin".||Ocha||Tea|
|TS||As in "its".||Tsukau||To use|
|DJ||Voiced form of ch but now just a j.||Hana(d)ji||Nosebleed|
| DZ|| Voiced form of ts but now just a z.||Tsu(d)zuki||Continuance|
|N||As in "not".||Neko||Cat|
|H||As in "high". As in "hue" with i or y. hu → fu.||Hada||Skin|
|F||Blow air through your lips. No teeth!||Fune||Boat|
|B||As in "big".||Baka||Idiot|
|P||As in "pig". Not as much air comes out.||Pajama||Pajama|
|M||As in "mat"||Mune↓||Chest|
|Y||As in "you".||Yakusoku||Promise|
|R||Like the t in water.||Karada||Body|
|W||Compress the lips rather than protrude them outward.||Yowai||Weak|
1. N is made with the blade of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth with a, e, and o, behind the ridge of the mouth with i (like in news), and behind the teeth with u (like in noon).
2. Sh, j, ch, dz, and dj are all made by placing the tongue right behind the alveolar ridge in your mouth, which is the ridge that you can feel where the sockets of your teeth are.
3. Y is only used with a, u, and o. W is only used with a and o, but most people replace "wo" with "o". Excluding N', which is special because it's a mora on its own, all other consonants can be used with all vowels.
|Kami||God||Kami||Hair; paper||Shimbun||Newspaper|| Pan|| Bread|
|Inu↓||Dog||Yubi↓|| Finger||Kangae|| Idea||Kawa↓||River|
| Katsu||To win||Baka|| Idiot||Mura↓|| Village||Muda||Useless|
Practice: Try saying the following words out loud.
Ni↓(2) Tana (Shelf) Umi (Sea) Kage (Shadow)
N' is pronounced as m before p, b, and m, n before t and d, ng before k and g, and elsewhere like an n-sound made in the back of the throat. Pronounce N' with the same amount of time as any other sound. It does not start any words in Standard Japanese.
|Kin'en = No smoking||Kinen = Commemoration|| Kan'i = Easiness ||Kani = Crab|
Questions (1): Describe how the following words are pronounced.
1. Shimbun 2. Kangae 3. Kin 4. Sensei
Additional Consonants: Palatalized Sounds
The palatalized (made with contact with the roof of the mouth) sounds are ky, gy, sh, j, ch, ny, hy, by, py, my, and ry. Except for sh, j, and ch, they're only used with a, u, and o.
っ: Long Consonants
っ doubles the length of a consonant, making it sound harder. It may also show an audible stop at the end of a word. For romanization, consonants will be doubled with exceptions to sh (ssh), ch (tch), and ts (tts). When showing an audible stop at the end of a word, it will be left in Kana, which is why it's shown.
|Shippai||Failure||Kitchin||Kitchen||Yokka|| 4 days ||Zasshi||Magazine|
Usage Note: Don't double n or m. G, z, d, h, f, b, r, w and y are only doubled in loan words or exaggerated spellings.
Devoiced vowels are vowels that sound silent. The vowels i and u may sound silent between and or after k, s, sh, t, ch, ts, h, f, and p. They are more likely devoiced the faster you speak. For example, "good morning" sounds like "o-ha-yo-o go-za-i-ma-s". However, not all speakers do this.
Practice: Try pronouncing the words with the underlined vowel(s) devoiced.
Kushami (Sneeze) Tafu (Tough) Sukiyaki Hito(↓) (Person)
Words are often distinguished by pitch (height/depth of a sound). Ame means "rain" when the high pitch is on a but "candy" when on me. Although pitch-accent varies in Japan, knowing the basics will help you sound more natural. There are four basic patterns that affixes (things attached) + words can take.
|1|| The pitch starts high, drops, and stays low.||＼＿||háshì (chopsticks)|
|2|| The pitch goes up, peaks, and then drops suddenly. ||／＼||hàshí (bridge)|
|3|| The pitch goes up then drops on an attached element.||／￣（＼）||otoko (man)|
|4||The pitch rises from start to end.||／￣（￣）||hashi (edge)|
Pitch gets more complicated in full sentences. It's important to learn the pitch of new words, but imitating others is perhaps more efficient and productive than strict memorization.
|3|| Akarui↓|| Bright||4|| Empitsu ||Pencil|
Questions 1 (Free-Response):
1. It sounds like shimbun.
2. The n in kangae sounds like ng. So, it's more like /ka.ng.ga.e/.
3. It sounds like /ki.n/, but the n is not the English n because it doesn't stop air flow.
4. The n is like a nasal vowel and "ei" can make a long e. So, it sounds like /se.n.sē/.
1. 4 morae 2. 3 morae 3. 3 morae 4. 4 morae