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第1課: Pronunciation I: Vowels    

Japanese is spoken by over 125 million speakers, most of whom live in Japan. Despite largely being spoken in one country, it is one of the world's most important languages. Japanese is a language unlike no other. Its beauty and its immense expressive power are awe-inspiring. Although many aspects about it may be daunting to you, by beginning your journey with this curriculum, you will be on the road to mastering the fundamentals of Japanese.

To begin, we must first learn how to pronounce Japanese to some degree in order to converse with Japanese speakers. Pronunciation may be the hardest aspect of any language, but it's also the most important aspect of a language. Even if you were to somehow memorize Japanese grammar in its entirety without knowing how to passingly pronounce words, your efforts would be in vain when trying to speak with native speakers.

To learn how to pronounce Japanese, however, you must first get rid of any preconceptions you might have about how Japanese sounds. To the English ear, Japanese  sounds very different, and it will take some time to get used to the many differences it has with English. However, it's important to know beforehand that things won't be the same and at least have some understanding of how it's different.


Use of Terminology: Japanese ≠ English 

As obvious as it might sound, Japanese is not English. Because Japanese is not English, you can't learn how to pronounce it by assuming the sounds are the same. It takes some investment of time and energy to get it right. With that being said, creating an accurate picture of how it all works is important for you to have a foundation to build on. This requires some level of linguistic terminology to describe how the Japanese system of sounds works. In the course of the next two lessons, no jargon will be used without explicit explanation.

Explanations will be written in a way that is well within the range of common understanding to the average English native speaker. There is no need for you to remember what certain words mean once you've figured out how to pronounce the Japanese sounds at the center of discussion. At the end of the day, Japanese isn't English, and so we must not superimpose and facet of knowledge that we have about how to say words from English as we move forward into the realm of Japanese. 

Japanese = Pitch Accent System 

Contrary to what you may have heard about Japanese, it 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 The pitch starts high, drops, and stays low.
 \_ shì (chopsticks)
 2 The pitch goes up, peaks, and then drops suddenly. 
 /\ shí (bridge)
 3 The pitch goes up then drops on an attached element.
 / ̄(\) otoko(man)
 4 The pitch rises from start to end. / ̄( ̄) hashi (edge)

  As is illustrated above, a word can either follow a LH, HL, LH, 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 as a LHL pattern; uo means "fish" and has a LHH pattern. Although the word is only made up of two parts, when anything attaches to it, the first syllable of that affixed element has a high pitch.

English, on the other hand, assigns stress to a syllable in every word. Changing the stress sometimes changes meaning. For instance, "pérfect" and "perfèct" have different meanings, and this meaning is marked by switching where stress is placed.


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 their intended pronunciations.  

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

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 speech. For instance, /b/, /t/, /m/, etc. are all examples of consonants. Vowels (V) are the opposite. They're made by vibrating the vocal folds without obstructing the air coming out of your lungs. English has many vowels, but in Japanese only five exist (a, i, u, e, and o). For those of you who may think that English only has five vowels too, know that that line of logic is based purely on the number of letters in the alphabet allocated to vowels, but phonetically speaking, American English has at least fourteen vowels depending on how you count things.  
 
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 together at the beginning and end of the word. Consonants don't cluster together like this in Japanese. In fact, there are only three possible syllabic structures: CV, V, and C. Even whe 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 implies 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.

Transcription Note: "//" are using to mark 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 pronounced. They're pronounced clearly and sharply like the American English approximates provided

 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 nearly identical to the one in Japanese if done properly.  

Although the other vowels are more or less identical to the ones found in American English except for /a/. 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 to not exist. This is because of the moraic structure that governs how sounds are organized. Instead of viewing something like hai (yes) as one syllable, it is seen as being 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 it is also a fact that pitch can just as easily fall or rise without the need of consonants in the picture from mora to morae, and if consecutive vowels count as two, then there is room for changes in pitch. To make matters more interesting, words can just as easily be composed of two vowels next to each other and nothing else. 

 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 things put next to each other that happen to be the same thing but are treated as separate entities. As such, the logical conclusion of this is that words are contrasted with short and long vowels. In fact, thousands and thousands of words are contrasted in this way, and so it would be bad if you were to neglect vowel length with pronouncing 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 have 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 /ee/.  

As far as knowing which instances of "ei" can be pronounced as a long /e/, you need to know a more about Japanese than spelling. 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 confused, and because the non-contracted form is how the word is written with in the Japanese writing system, the use of writing such words with "ei" remains important. In the future, we'll similar issues with spelling, but for now, this is the main issue that faces you simply because you know that vowels can be next to each other and that vowels can be short or long.    

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

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