Japanese speakers pronounce the language quite differently depending on where they come from, but it is best for you to know standard pronunciation. Japanese words in this lesson will be spelled in English letters (Rōmaji). You will start to learn about the writing systems in Lesson 2.
Japanese has 5 vowels, which are always pronounced sharply and clearly like the American English approximates below. More accurate pronunciation comes with experience. Japanese has a pitch accent system. Things attach to words a lot in Japanese, so the system reflects this. Pitch can rise or fall, so accented parts will be in bold and an ↓ indicates a drop in pitch following it.
|Like the a sound in "eye".||Not as in "cat" or "late"||Ta↓ (field)|
|Like the i in "police".|| Not as in "hit".||Ki ↓(tree)|
|Like the oo in "mood" but don't round lips.|| Not as in "cut".|| Uta↓ (song)|
|Like the e in "set".|| Not as in "me".|| Ike ↓(pond)|
| Like the o in "horse".|| Not as in "hot".|| Oka (hill)|
Many common words are only made of vowels. Pronounce them separately rather than fuse them. Each is pronounced with equal time. Though this is an ideal principle, some words like the first often do sound somewhat fused. Sometimes pitch can help differentiate words, but like in the first example, sometimes it doesn't.
| Ai||Love/indigo||Ii||Good|| Au||To meet||Uo||Fish|
Practice: Try saying the following words out loud.
Ni↓(2) Tana (Shelf) Umi (Sea) Kage (Shadow)
Exception Note: The verb "to say" is iu but is pronounced as "yuu".
Long vowels are twice as long as short vowels. Vowel length distinguishes many words. In the following chart, you will see how a particular vowel in words that would otherwise sound the same makes all the difference.
|Vowel||When short||When long||Vowel||When short||When long|
|A||Obasan (aunt)||Obaasan (grandma)||I|| Ie (house)||Iie (no)|
|U|| Yuki↓ (snow)||Yuuki (courage)||E|| E↓ (painting)||Ee/ee (yes)|
|O||Tori (bird)||Toori↓ (avenue)|
Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.
1. Koohii (Coffee) 2. Chiizu (Cheese) 3. Chuugoku (China)
Spelling Issues: "ei" & "ou"
As with iu, Japanese is not always spelled as it sounds. There are two instances that are really important for when you learn the Kana writing systems in the next three lessons.
In words from Chinese, "e+i" is normally pronounced as a long e, but it can still sound like "eh+i", especially in singing. For other words, "ei" is "eh-i" and long e's are written as "ee". How can you tell if something comes from Chinese? This will be returned to later on, but the practice sections below tell you whether they are or not.
1. Try pronouncing the following words from Chinese words.
Heiwa (Peace) Sensei (Teacher)
2. Try pronouncing the following non-Chinese words.
Mei (Niece) Keeki (Cake)
"O+u" is a long o in most words. The vowels are separate when o and u are at the end of a verb. "Oo" is a long o and is found in native or loan words (words from other languages). The second o in native words was originally ho or wo, which is why there are two spellings for the same thing.
Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.
1. Ou (king) 2. Koori (ice) 3. Sooda (soda) 4. Omou (to think)
Devoiced vowels are vowels that sound silent. 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)
Most consonants are essentially the same as they are in English, but pay close attention to f, r, and w as they are quite different in articulation. The ones in bold are different enough for you to take closer note. Example words of all these consonants follow the chart.
|K||Like the k in "kite"|
|G||Like the g in "go". Like ng or g inside phrases.|
|S||Like the s in "sad".|
|Z||Like the z in "zen". Becomes j with i.|
|J||A softer j like the j in "jeep". It's sometimes harder at the beginning phrases.|
|T||Made with the blade of the tongue behind the upper teeth.|
|D||Voiced form of t. A voiced sound is made with the vocal cords vibrating.|
|CH||Like the ch in "chin".|
|TS||Like the ts in "its" and is made behind the teeth.|
| DJ|| Originally the voiced forms of ch but now just a j.|
|DZ||Originally the voiced form of ts but now just a z.|
|N||Like the n in "not". See the note on how to properly make it.|
|H||Like the h in "high" with, , and with or y. With u it's f.|
|F||Pronounced by bringing the lips together and blowing air through. Don't use your teeth!|
|B||Like the b in "big".|
|P||Like the p in "pig".|
|M||Like the m in "mat".|
|Y||Like the y in "you" and is only used with a, u, and o except in loan words.|
|R||Made by flicking one's tongue behind the upper teeth. It's like the t in water in American English.|
|W||Made by compressing the lips rather than protruding them.|
|N'||M before b, p, and m, n before t and d, ng before k and g, and elsewhere an n-like sound made in the back of the throat, which is not like an n.|
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. This is different from the English equivalents which are made in various places in the mouth farther back than these Japanese sounds.
Don't mix up d and r. Also, don't mess up tsu with su. The following chart shows some pairs of these showing how costly a mistake it would be to mix them up.
|Pan||Bread||Shimbun|| Newspaper||Baka|| Idiot|
|Kasu||To lend||Katsu||To win|
Pronouncing N' incorrectly may cause you to say another word. It is pronounced just as long as any other sound combination like ka or shi. It also happens to be the only sound that cannot start a word, but it also happens to be the only consonant that can end a word.
|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.
Curriculum Note: Seefor advanced coverage on pronunciation.
Morae are units of sound equal in length. N' is just as long as any other sound combination. Remember that consonant and vowel length are very important in distinguishing words. The possible morae in Japanese are below.
Questions (2): How many morae are in the following words?
1. Kangae (idea, thought) 2. Wahei (peace) 3. Kitto (surely
4. Hakken (discovery)
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 rises, peaks, then drops suddenly. ||／＼||hàshí (bridge)|
|3|| The pitch rises 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.
Curriculum Note: Pitch notes will be added over time to the site. See pitch for full coverage.
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 doesn't make a full stop to 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