第1課: Pronunciation I: Vowels    

To begin our journey with Japanese, we will first learn about the fundamentals of pronunciation. To accomplish this, we will first learn about vowel sounds. Vowel sounds are sounds like "ah" and "eh." Then, in Lesson 2, we'll learn about consonant sounds, which are sound like "k" and "m." 


Use of Terminology: Japanese ≠ English 

As Japanese is not English, you cannot assume that its sounds are the same as those in English or that its sounds will be used the same way. Because creating an accurate perception of how Japanese is pronounced requires knowing some terminology, technical language will always be accompanied with an explanation when it's first used. 


Lesson Note: Japanese words will be transcribed in this lesson using 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.  

The Sound Structures of Japanese

  
In both English and Japanese, words are made by combining consonants and vowels. Consonants (C) are sounds that obstruct air in vocalization (ex. /k/, /s/, /t/, /m/, /n/ etc). Vowels (V) are sounds made by vibrating the vocal folds without obstructing air from the lungs. The ways English and Japanese put vowels and consonants aren't the same, so it's important that we understand the sound structures of both languages


The 5 Vowels of Japanese

In Japanese, only five vowels exist: /a/ (ah), /i/ (ee), /u/ (oo), /e/ (eh) and /o/ (oh). To familiarize yourself with these vowels, below are actual Japanese words that found their way in English. Try not to pronounce the vowels like they would be in English!

 /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ /o/
 Katana Ninja Sushi Edamame Miso
 Manga Hibachi Tanuki Sake Koi
 Tanka Shiitake Fugu Kamikaze Emoji
 Karate Yakitori Shabu-shabu Ikebana Udon
 Wasabi Sashimi Kombu Zen Soba
 
By realizing that there are actually many words you already know in Japanese minus minor differences in pronunciation, the vowels of Japanese shouldn't seem as foreign as they otherwise would. Although it may take time to train yourself not to pronounce vowels in an English-like fashion, starting with the Japanese words you actually know is a good starting point for practice.


The Syllabic Structures of English  

syllable is a unit of sound(s) composed of a vowel that is with or without surrounding consonants. In English, there are many possible syllabic structures. Below is a sampling of the existing syllabic structures of English with example words. "V" stands for "vowel" and "C" stands for consonants. Note that vowels and consonants are counted not by how many letters are used to write the word but by how many phonetically distinct sounds compose the word.  
 
 V CV CVC CVCC CCVC CCVCC CCCVCC
 Ah See Seat Salt Black Slugs Streams
 Oh Tea Teach Pink Flight Frogs Strokes
 Eh Bee Beach Song Steam Treats Springs
 C(C) VC VCC VCCC CCVCCC CCVCCCC CCCVCCC
 Shh Ache East Orbs Twelfth Prompts Strengths
 Mm Each Orb Ends Dwarfs Glimpsed Splints
 Hm Oak Odds Ants Tracts Twelfth's  Sprints
 
As an English speaker, none of these words are difficult to pronounce. Syllables are more often complex than simple, which makes the language incredibly difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce.   

 
The Syllabic (Moraic) Structures of Japanese
 
In Japanese, on the other hand, there are major restrictions on creating syllables. For one, consonants cannot cluster together. This means that most syllabic structures in English are not possible in Japanese. Secondly, consonants cannot end syllables. In fact, there are only three possible syllabic structures in total: V, CV, and C.
  
The word "syllable," though, is not the right word to describe sound combinations in Japanese. For Japanese, the technical word to describe syllables is what's called a "mora." A mora is a unit of sound that is equivalent to a single beatEach "beat" is conceptualized as being equal in length, and each beat is assigned a high or low pitch (see below). This is what allows a single consonant to be treated as a single mora even when it would otherwise be grouped with a neighboring sound into a more complex syllable. 
 
 V CV C
 A (ah) Ka (mosquito) Ka.n (can)
 I (stomach) Ni (two) Ki.n (gold)
 U (cormorant) Su (vinegar) U.n (good fortune)
 E (picture) Me (eye) Me.n (noodles)
 O (tail) Ko (child) To.n (ton)
 
For the "V" column, each vowel is shown to be an existing word, though not all of them are practical. Nonetheless, vowel-only morae are very common in Japanese words. It's just that such words will also usually contain the other kinds of mora. As for the "C" column, /n/ is seen separated from preceding sounds with a period, indicating that it makes up its own mora. Since this deals with consonants, we'll return to this topic in Lesson 2.

Transcription Note: "//" indicates a sound that is treated as a separate sound (phonemes) within the confines of Japanese. Variations of the same sound (allophones) within the confines of Japanese are marked with "[]." These terms will make more sense in Lesson 2.

Pitch Accent 

In Standard Japanese--the form of the language any Japanese speaker will understand and the form that you are beginning to learn--there is what is called a pitch accent system. In the pitch accent system of Japanese, every mora of a phrase is assigned a pitch. This assigned pitch may either be high or low. In a full sentence, you will hear pitch go up and down as phrases are strung together. 


Stress in English

  Proper pitch in Japanese is not absolutely necessary for pronunciation. In theory, you could still be understood even if you were to completely mess up which morae are supposed to be high and low. Getting pitch correctly, however, will make your speech sound more native-like, and in turn, easier to understand. 

 In English, syllables acoustically have both pitch alternation as well as different degrees of emphasis in enunciation, which is known as stress. This is in contrast with Japanese which only has pitch alternation, causing Japanese to sound monotone to the English ear despite pitch going up and down. Theoretically, it is similarly the case in English that a speaker could be understood even if the stress of every word were placed on the wrong syllable.

This is not to say that stress allocation never changes the meaning of words in English. In fact, there are some rather systematic ways in which this is true. As examples of this, below are three words that differ in part of speech as well as subsequently in meaning due to the placement of pitch. In the left-hand column, the words are understood as nouns due to stress being placed on the first syllable. In the right-hand column, the words are understood as verbs due to stress being placed on the second syllable.   

 1st-Syllable Stress Meaning 2nd-Syllable Stress Meaning
 ADD-ict A person who is addicted to a particular substance.  add-ICT To cause to become dependent.
 OB-ject A thing. ob-JECT To state disagreement.
 RE-cord To make a record. re-CORD To set down.

Despite many such words existing in English, it would be wrong to claim that pronouncing the majority of words with the wrong accent would result in a different word or non-word. For instance, if you were to pronounce the word "English" with the stress on the second syllable instead of on the first syllable, any native speaker should still be able to recognize the word and understand you.

  Of course, such a pronunciation would not be a native pronunciation, but this is the point where English and Japanese match on. As you learn Japanese, you will come across phrases that are distinguished by their pitch accent, but those instances are on a case-by-case basis, and the overall number of phrases distinguished by pitch are not substantial enough to stress over too much if you're having difficulty perceiving and mimicking pitch accent.

Just as is the case with various English accents, pitch accent will differ based on where a person is from. So, although it's important to understand the basic framework of pitch in Japanese, and although you will be exposed to the pitch contours of many phrases as you progress through this curriculum, don't let this hamper your studies if the minute details of pronunciation become overwhelming. 


 Pitch Accent in Standard Japanese

In Standard Japanese, there are four kinds of pitch contours that a phrase can have. Regardless of how short or long a phrase is, the pitch contour will always be one of the four patterns with no exceptions. This predictability will allow you to quickly pick up on how Japanese should sound, and in turn, it may help you more quickly acquire the system as a whole. 

Think of an entire sentence as being a pitch roller coaster. Every mora isn't an individual ride with its own loops and turns. Rather, a mora is only one loop of the ride--nothing more. You must put the loops (morae) together so that the segments (phrases) of the ride come together to make a complete ride. Lastly, the loops that make up the ride only come in 4 varieties. 

In the chart below, each of the four pitch patterns are laid out. In the far-right column, you will find an example word for each pattern. All four examples happen to be homophonous (sound the same), only differing in pitch. This is to demonstrate that, though not a widespread phenomenon, phrases are still occasionally distinguished with pitch accent.

"L" and "H" stand for "low-pitch mora" and "high-pitch mora", both standing for one mora each. This means that H-L stands for two morae, H-L-L stands for three morae, etc. As a reminder of this, a mora-count is placed after each such contour notation. 

Sometimes, a single word is not the only component to a phrase. Most phrases are made with one word along with an add-on that attaches to it, and it is the resultant combination that is treated as a "phrase." This is important to understand because pitch allocation is done at the phrasal level, NOT the individual word level. As such, "L" and "H" are seen in parentheses to indicate what the pitch accent of a phrase would continue to be if it were made longer. 

 1 Pitch is high for the first mora, drops on the second mora, and stays low for any remaining morae that follow.
 Ex. H(-L) ①, H-L(-L) ②, H-L-L(-L) ③, H-L-L-L(-L) ④
 hashì (chopsticks)
 2 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks at high pitch on the middle mora(e), drops back to low pitch on the third morae, and stays low for any following morae after the word. 
 Ex. L-H-L ③, L-H-H-L ④
 hanasu (to speak)
 3 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks at high pitch on the last mora, and then drops to low pitch on any morae that follow the word.
 Ex. L-H-(L) ②, L-H-H(-L) ③ 
 hashi↓ (bridge)
 4 Pitch starts low on the first mora, becomes high pitch on the second mora, and then the pitch stays high even once the word is over unto anything that follows. 
 Ex. L(-H) ①, L-H(-H) ②, L-H-H(-H) ③, L-H-H-H(-H) ④
 hashi (edge)

 To further ensure that you do not confuse what should have a high pitch and what should have a low pitch, the example words to the right each have the high-pitch mora in bold and the low-pitch mora not in bold. Lastly, to indicate that the pitch  would drop if the phrase were extended in some way, a ↓ will be placed at the end of the word. These notations will be used from here on out, so don't forget them.
 

The Five Vowels in Detail

As mentioned earlier, there are only five vowels in Japanese: /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/. 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 fact, 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 like the one in Japanese.  

Although the other vowels are almost 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.


Juxtaposed Vowels

In English, complex vowel sounds called diphthongs are created by beginning a vowel sound with one quality but ending it with another. For instance, in the word "kite," the vowel starts out as "a" but ends as "i." The opposite of a diphthong is a monophthong, which is a vowel whose quality doesn't change during its pronunciation. This is what all vowels in Japanese are thought to intrinsically be.

In Japanese, diphthongs are said not to exist because of how the moraic structure of the language dictates how sounds are organized. Instead of treating a word like hai (yes) as one syllable, you treat it as two morae: /ha/ + /i/. 

Acoustically, juxtaposed vowels do slightly blend together. However, native speakers still conceptualize them as two separate entities. This is because pitch can fall or rise without needing an intervening consonant. Even in words just composed of vowels, pitch contours cannot be ignored, as is demonstrated below.

 Love/indigo
 Ai To meet Au Ue
 Starvation
 Fish
 Uo Blue Ao Ue Above
 Nephew Oi Hey! Oi Iu  To say

Exception Note: The word iu is 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. A short vowel is a vowel utterance equal to one mora in length. If a vowel is elongated to take up two morae, it becomes a long vowel. Pitch can consequently rise or drop inside long vowels because they're treated as two morae.

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/ 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 (yes)
 Short /o/ To (door) Long /o/ Too (ten things)

Pronunciation Note: Do not pronounce "oo" as a long /u/ sound. This is incorrect! 


 False Long Vowels

What makes a long vowel truly a long vowel and not just the same vowel next to each other is there being nothing that obstructs the pronunciation of the vowel as it spans two morae. In both English and Japanese, the pronunciations of vowels begin with glottal stops. Whenever you say the phrase "uh-oh", you should feel an audible release of air after completely stopping airflow from the glottis (Adam's apple) at the start of "uh" and "oh."

In Japanese, long vowels are always contained in a single element of a word. If one element of a word only ends in the same vowel as the first sound in the following part of the word, the vowel of that second element will begin with a glottal stop like any other word-initial vowel sound. This glottal stop insertion also helps determine the pitch of the phrase. 

Transcription Note: In the words below, to show where elements of a word begin and end, periods will be inserted to indicate these boundaries.

 Scene Shiin Consonant/Cause of death Shi.in

Trivia Note: Vowels are called boin in Japanese.


 The Pronunciation of "Ei": [ei] or [ē]

 In Japanese, the vowel combination "ei" is usually pronounced as a long /e/ (ē). All such words come from Chinese roots. Because this sound change is technically optional, you don't have to worry so much about whether to pronounce an "ei" as [ei] or [ē]. After all, we haven't even learned about what exactly words made from Chinese roots look like. For this lesson, alternative pronunciations of a word are listed for you.

Transcription Notes:
1. Long /e/ are written as "ee" so that pitch contours can be designated. However, do not be confused by this spelling and pronounce "ee" as a long "i" sound. 
2. To show where elements of a word begin and end, periods will be inserted to indicate these boundaries. "Ei" can only be pronounced as [ē] if it's within the same element of a word, so these boundaries are very important.
3. If a word is not derived from Chinese roots, /ei/ is always pronounced as [ei].

 Plan Kei.kaku
 Kee.kaku
 Student Sei.to
 See.to
 Stingray Ei
 English Ei.go
 Ee.go
 Native Neitibu Cellphone Kei.tai
 Kee.tai
 Management Keiei
 Kee.ee
 Clock To.kei Correct answer Sei.kai
 
See.kai
 Proclamation Sei.mei
 See.mee
 Process Kei.ro
 Kee.ro
 Hair color Ke.iro


The Pronunciation of "Ou": [ou] or [ō]? 

In Japanese, the vowel combination "ou" is usually pronounced as a long /o/ (ō). Most such words come from Chinese roots, but this is not always the case. This sound change, unlike the one above, is not optional for the words it affects. 

Knowing which words are and aren't affected by this sound change is a luxury that comes about from knowing a lot about word origins. For this lesson and the next, any word in which a word that would be spelled as "ou" but is instead pronounced as a long /o/ will be spelled as "oo." This means if you do see "ou," you should pronounce it literally as such. Try not to read "oo" as a long "u" sound because this is incorrect. 

Transcription Note: To show where elements of a word begin and end, periods will be inserted to indicate these boundaries.  

 Already Moo King Oo Method Hoo.hoo
 To think Omo.u Large Ookii Calf Ko.ushi
 Action Koo.doo Robbery Goo.too Sauce Soosu