Pronouncing words correctly is one of the most important things in learning a language. Japanese is spoken by over 120 million people. Not everyone sounds the same way, but this lesson will teach the basics of Standard Japanese pronunciation so you can effectively pronounce any word you find.
Japanese words in this lesson will be spelled in English letters called Rōmaji. This does not mean that the letters chosen exactly reflect the actual Japanese sounds, but it's important to have a base to transition to actual Japanese writing, which we'll begin to learn in Lesson 2.
Japanese only has 5 vowels, which are always pronounced sharply and clearly like the American English approximates below. Precise pronunciation comes with experience, but to know more about the pronunciation of the words in this lesson, rises in pitch will be marked in bold and pitch drops will be marked with ↓. This is because Japanese has a pitch accent system. Devoting attention to where pitches rise and fall will help you sound more native.
|A||Like the a sound in "eye".||Not as in "cat" or "late".||Ta↓ (field)|
|I||Like the i in "police".||Not as in "hit".||Ki↓ (tree)|
|U|| Like the "oo" in mood. Don't protrude and round your lips.|
Rather, you compress your lips.
|Not as in "cut".||Uta↓ (song)|
|E||Like the e in "set".||Not as in "me".||Ike↓ (pond)|
|O||Like the o in "horse".||Not as in "hot".||Oka (hill)|
When a word only has vowels, pronounce each with equal time and don't fuse them together. This is "ideal". In reality, especially with a and i next to each other, it may sound like vowels are pronounced together like in the vowel sound in "eye". Speakers, though, hear them as being pronounced separately as pitch can rise or drive on any syllable (more correct terminology will show up soon).
| Ai||Love/indigo||Ii||Good|| Au||To meet||Uo||Fish||Iu||To say|
Exception Note: Iu is actually pronounced as "yuu". In fact, most instances of "iu" in Japanese have resulted in this same sound change. So, it is not optional to learn about this rule.
Practice: Try saying the following words out loud.
Ni↓(2) Tana (Shelf) Umi (Sea) Kage (Shadow)
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. Even if you don't accidentally say another word, you'll be essentially saying a nonexistent word. So, it's important to not mess up. Mistakes at the beginning are inevitable, but as you listen to more Japanese, take note into not just pitch going up and down but also the length of all the vowels.
|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"
Japanese is not always spelled phonetically. 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 words of non-Chinese origin, "ei" is "eh-i" and long e's are written as "ee". Knowing whether something is from Chinese or not will be discussed in a later lesson.
Practice:Try pronouncing the following words.
From Chinese: Sensei (Teacher) Not From Chinese: Mei (Niece)
"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. In fact, it's often the case that there's essentially no trace of the vowel in pronunciation. The one thing to be careful is that you don't simplify the 'syllable' count. So, if you have "de-su" and the u goes away, you don't simplify it to "des". Rather, it would be "de-s".
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)
Pronunciation approximation is based on American English. Most consonants are very similar, but 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".||Asa||Morning|
|Z||As in "zen". zi → ji.||Kaze||Wind|
|J||As in "jeep".||Aji||Flavor|
|T||Blade of tongue behind upper teeth. tu → tsu.||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 spoken with the same amount of time as everything else, all other consonants can be used with all the vowels. Just be careful with "i", which changes some consonants slightly, as is noted above.
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.
|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|
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, though, 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.
Curriculum Note: Seefor advanced coverage on pronunciation.
Morae are equal units of sound. Remember vowel length and N'? The possible morae 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