第1課: Pronunciation I: Vowels    

Japanese is spoken by over 125 million speakers, and despite largely being spoken in Japan, it is a very influential language on the international stage. Although Japanese may seem daunting, by beginning your journey with this curriculum, you will be on the road to mastering it.

To start, we will learn how to pronounce Japanese. Pronunciation is the hardest yet most important aspect of a language. To tackle this obstacle, you must first get rid of any preconceptions you have about how Japanese sounds. It will take some time to get used to the many differences it has with English, but it's important to have some understanding of how the two languages differ in this regard.


Use of Terminology: Japanese ≠ English 

As obvious as it may be, Japanese is not English and you can't assume that their sounds are the same. With that being said, creating an accurate perception of how Japanese actually sounds requires some level of linguistic terminology. However, in the course of the next two lessons, no jargon will be used without explicit explanation.

Explanations will be written in a way that can be easily understood by the average native English speaker. There is no need for you to remember what certain technical words mean once you've figured things out. At the end of the day, we must not superimpose knowledge we have about how words are pronounced from an English perspective as we move forward into the realm of Japanese.

Japanese = Pitch Accent System 

Contrary to urban myth, Japanese is not tonal like Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, or Vietnamese, nor does it sound anything remotely like these languages. In tonal languages such as these, the way one's voice goes up and down while pronouncing a vowel is encoded in the word itself. An upward "ma" and a downward "ma" are just as distinctive as the difference between /a/ and /i/. When you change the tone in any of these languages, you fundamentally change the word to something else, even if everything else is the same. 

However, Japanese is NOT a tonal language. Instead, Japanese has a pitch accent system. Every syllable is assigned a pitch height--low or high--and this assignment sometimes plays a role in distinguishing words. In the chart below, this is illustrated with the words for "chopsticks," "bridge," and "edge." Each word represents one of the four possible pitch patterns found in Modern Japanese.

 1 Pitch starts high, drops, and stays low.
 \_ shì (chopsticks)
 2 Pitch goes up, peaks, and then drops suddenly. 
 /\ shí (bridge)
 3 Pitch goes up then drops on an attached element.
 / ̄(\) otoko(man)
 4 Pitch rises from start to end. / ̄( ̄) hashi (edge)

  As is illustrated above, a word can either follow a LH, HL, LHL, or LHH pattern. For instance, ai means "love" and has a HL pitch; ue means "up" and has a LH pitch; aoi means "blue" and has a LHL pattern; uo means "fish" and has a LHH pattern, meaning the first syllable of something affixed to it will have a high pitch.

English, on the other hand, assigns stress to a syllable in every word. Also, changing the stress sometimes changes the meaning of a phrase. For instance, "pérfect" and "perfèct" have different meanings and this meaning is marked by changing which syllable is stressed.


Lesson Note: Japanese words will be transcribed in this lesson with the English alphabet. This practice is called Rōmaji. There is nothing special about English letters when used in Japanese other than what their intended pronunciations are.  

Transcription Note: In this lesson, syllables with a high pitch will be in bold. If the pitch were to fall directly after the word in question, a ↓ arrow will follow to indicate this.

The Syllabic Structure of Japanese: The Mora

 
In both English and Japanese, words are made by combining consonants and vowels. Consonants (C) are sounds that obstruct air in vocalization. For instance, /b/, /t/, /m/, etc. are all examples of consonants. Vowels (V) are the opposite of this. They're made by vibrating the vocal folds without obstructing the air coming out of the lungs. All varieties of English have many vowels, but in Japanese only five exist: /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/ and /o/.

Some of you may think that English also only has five vowels, but that line of logic is based purely on the number of letters in the alphabet allocated to vowels. Phonetically speaking, however, American English has at least fourteen vowels in its standard form.To demonstrate this fact, read aloud every sentence in this paragraph and you will notice that there are more than five distinct vowel sounds in each of them. 
 
In English, consonants and vowels can be combined in all sorts of ways to create syllables. For instance, the word "blond" has the structure CCVCC. Two consonants are put before (/b/ and //) and after (/n/ and /d/) a vowel (o) in the nucleus of the syllable itself. Consonants don't cluster together within syllables like this in Japanese. In fact, there are only three possible syllabic structures: CV, V, and C. Even when consonants happen to be next to each other, they're always in their own syllables.
 
The technical word to describe syllables in Japanese is "mora." This word implies that every 'syllable' is its own beat. Each "beat" is conceptualized by speakers as being equal in length. Every mora is assigned a high or low pitch. The rules differ from dialect to dialect and can get rather complicated, but the same can be said for English's stress accent system. To a degree, you have to learn the pitch contours of words on an individual basis. This also means that whenever a consonant is by itself a syllable, pitch may rise or fall while uttering it, and it is perceived to be separate from syllables around it. 

Transcription Note: "//" indicate sounds/phonemes or a collection of sounds within the confines of Japanese. Variations of a single sound--within the confines of Japanese--are marked with "[]." Sometimes, the variant of one sound may end up sounding the same as a separate sound, which is why these two separate kinds of brackets are needed. 

The Five Vowels

Below you will see how the five vowels of Japanese are roughly pronounced. The vowels are pronounced clearly and sharply like the American English approximates provided. However, it cannot be stressed enough that these are approximates. 

 A Like the a sound in 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)

Although the chart says that /u/ is like the "oo" in the word "mood," this isn't quite accurate. In actuality, there is no form of English that has the /u/ found in Standard Japanese. However, by compressing your lips rather than protruding them forward, the resulting /u/ will be something similar to the one in Japanese.  

Although the other vowels are more or less identical to the ones found in American English, the Japanese /a/ actually only shows up in diphthongs in American English. A diphthong is when two vowels blend together to form a complex vowel sound. You start off pronouncing one vowel sound but at the end it sounds like something else. For example, the vowel sound in the word "height" is an example of a diphthong, and the onset of this word is exactly how the Japanese /a/ is pronounced.


Vowels Next to Each Other 

In Japanese, diphthongs are said not to exist. This is because of the moraic structure that governs how sounds are organized. Instead of viewing something like hai (yes) as one syllable, you would view it as two morae: /ha/ + /i/. However, there are plenty of instances in which Japanese speakers pronounce consecutive vowels similarly to how they would be in English.

Although acoustically it sounds that vowels next to each other blend together, native speakers do not conceptualize them as being joined together, even if they do. This is because pitch can fall or rise without the need of consonants from mora to mora, and if two vowels next to each other count as two morae, then there is room for pitch to change. 

 Ai
 Love/indigo Ii Good Au
 To meet Uo Fish Iu  To say

Exception Note: The word iu is actually pronounced as /yuu/. Exceptions like this, though, are few and far between in Japanese. 

Short Vowels vs Long Vowels 

In Japanese, short vowels are distinguished from long vowels. Long vowels are simply a vowel which is pronounced over two morae instead of one. Although in real life it isn't always this way, the rule of thumb is that a long vowel is pronounced with twice the amount of time as its "short" counterpart. Regardless of how fast or slow you're talking, this dynamic holds true. One major reason for this is because pitch has to be assigned to each mora of a phrase. If long vowels by nature increase the mora count, that means one more mora has to be accounted for. Pitch could very well rise or drop inside the long vowel.

Needless to say, we treat long vowels essentially as two instances of the same vowel put next to each other but are treated as separate entities. Consequently, vowel length contrasts thousands and thousands of words. Mistakes at the beginning are inevitable, but recognizing distinctions like this now will spare you a lot of potential heartache. 

 Short A O.ba.sa.n (aunt) Long A O.ba.a.sa.n (grandma)
 Short I I.e (house) Long I I.i.e (no)
 Short U Yu.ki (snow)
 Long U  Yu.u.ki (courage)
 Short E E↓ (painting) Long E E.e (yes)
 Short O To (door) Long O To.o (ten things)

Transcription Note: Morae are separated with periods in this chart to help remind you of the three types mentioned earlier.  


Spelling Issue: "ei" or "ee"? 

Using Rōmaji to transcribe Japanese is usually straightforward, but this isn't always the case. In Japanese, the vowel combination "ei" can be pronounced as a long /e/ (ē) in many words. Earlier, macrons weren't used to indicate long vowels because this would ignore pitch changes inside long vowels . For personal transcription, know that /ē/ is the same thing as /ee/.  

The words that exhibit this sound change from /ei/ to [ee] all come from Chinese. Of course, it's impossible for you to know where things come from at this point, but not too long from now, you'll be able to tell words from Chinese and native words apart with ease.

Since spelling the same word two different ways can be confusing, and because the non-contracted form is how the word is written within the Japanese writing system, writing words with "ei" as such remains important. 

Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.

"Long e" or "e+i": Sense(Teacher)                 

Always "e+i"Mei (Niece)


Spelling Issue: "ou" or "oo"? 

Once you actually learn about how to write in Japanese, you will be bombarded with many words that are spelled with "o" and "u" next to each other. However, most instances of "ou" are pronounced as a long /o/ instead. This happens with words from Chinese, but because our Japanese journey has just begun, knowing which words do or don't come from Chinese is a luxury that will come about later on. For this lesson and the lesson that follows, a long /o/ will be written as such. This means if you do see "ou," you should pronounce it literally as such.

Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.

 Moo Already  Oo King Hoohoo Method