In our second lesson on pronunciation, we learn about what consonants exist in Japanese and how to pronounce them. Quite a few of them are unique, which means you will need to pay attention to get them down. Just as was the case in Lesson 1, English letters will be used to transcribe Japanese words (Rōmaji).
What are Unvoiced Consonants?
A consonant is a speech sound that obstructs airflow from the lungs in some fashion. A "voiced" sound is a sound that causes the vocal folds in the throat to vibrate. You can verify this by putting your hand over your Adam's apple when you speak. Vowels are also examples of "voiced" sounds. Conversely, an "unvoiced" sound is a sound that does not cause the vocal folds to vibrate. Because consonants like "k" are not voiced, you can pronounce something like /ka/ to feel the contrast between non-voiced and voiced sounds.
In English, unvoiced consonants are typically pronounced with a lot of aspiration. Aspiration is a strong burst of air that accompanies the release of certain kinds of consonants. For example, pronounce the word "king" with one hand directly in front of your mouth. If your pronunciation is native(-like), you should notice a puff of air hitting your hand. This is what aspiration is. In Japanese, unvoiced consonants do not have aspiration as a key component to pronunciation. Although aspiration is not encoded into the pronunciation of Japanese, unvoiced consonants tend to be slightly more aspirated than they are in languages like Spanish but not nearly as noticeable as in English or Korean.
The Unvoiced Consonants of Japanese
The basic unvoiced consonants of Japanese are /k/, /s/, /t/, /h/, and /p/. Other than aspiration being less than as in English, their pronunciations are very similar, but there is still a lot to mention about them. Although /k/ is pronounced the same as in English (minus less aspiration) with no need for further explanation, the other consonants are special in their unique ways.
/t/ is made by placing the blade of the tongue behind the upper teeth. When the vowel /u/ follows it, it undergoes a change and becomes pronounced as [ts]. This is called an allophone. An allophone is a variation of the same consonant in the confounds of a particular language. This [ts] is the same as the /ts/ found in the word "its" in English; however, you must never drop the "t" whenever a word starts with [ts] in Japanese. This means that "tsunami" is not pronounced as /sunami/. It's pronounced as /tsu.na.mi/.
In addition to this, /t/ becomes [ch] when followed by /i/. The [ch] in Japanese is not like the "ch" in "chair." It is produced by first stopping air flow in the mouth entirely. Then, you place the blade of your tongue right behind the gum line, and the middle of your tongue also touches the hard palate of the mouth as you pronounce it. This technically makes it a palatal sound, a group of sounds that we will look at more closely later on in this lesson. For now, know that /t/ becomes [ch] when followed by /i/.
Similarly, although /s/ is pronounced just like the "s" in English, it becomes [sh] when followed by /i/. However, it is not the "sh" in words like "share" in English. Its pronunciation is identical with the Japanese [sh] with the only difference being that [sh] is not pronounced with an initial total stop of airflow. Although airflow is constricted to create a hissing like noise, the airflow doesn't completely stop.
/p/ isn't all that common in Japanese words. In fact, most words with /p/ come from other languages. This is because the historical /p/ of Japanese turned into /h/ over time. /h/ is pronounced the same as in English, but it too has two allophones. When followed by /i/, /h/ has a strong hissing quality to it and sounds most like the "h" in "hue." When followed by /u/, it becomes [f]. The Japanese [f], though, is very different. It is created by bringing your lips together and blowing air through them without using your teeth.
Below are some more example words with these consonants.
When the vowels /i/ and /u/ are in between and/or after the unvoiced consonants above, they become devoiced (sound silent). Devoicing is more common the faster one speaks and is a very distinctive feature of Standard Japanese pronunciation. An example of this is the phrase for "good morning," which sounds like "o-ha-yo-o go-za-i-ma-s". However, it is important to note that many speakers, especially those that don't come from the eastern part of Japan (where Tokyo is), do not devoice vowels.
Practice: Try pronouncing the words with the underlined vowel(s) devoiced.
Kushami (Sneeze) Tafu (Tough) Hito(↓) (Person)
Voiced consonants are the opposite of unvoiced consonants because they do cause the vocal folds to vibrate. In Japanese, voiced consonants are fully voiced, which is actually not the case in English. English's voiced consonants such as /b/ are only partially voiced. In other words, the voiced consonants in Japanese are pronounced by fully vibrating the vocal folds.
The unvoiced consonants and their allophones mentioned above have a voiced consonant counterpart as is illustrated in the chart below. Everything about pronunciation is the same other than the fact that these consonants are voiced.
|Unvoiced Counterpart||Voiced Counterpart|
|/h/ (and allophones)||/b/|
There are a few peculiarities that need to be discussed. However, before we go into too much detail, /j/ and /dj/ will be mentioned later as they are palatal sounds.
1. /z/ typically becomes [dz] when at the start of a word. /dz/ tends to become [z] inside words but doesn't have to. This is all thanks to the two sounds collapsing into one single sound. In fact, many speakers cannot tell the difference between the two despite sounding different. /z/ sounds like the "z" in "zoo" whereas "dz" sounds like the "ds" in "kids."
2. /h/, its allophones, and /p/ correspond with /b/. /b/ is made by bringing the lips together and then releasing them. This means its articulation is the same as /p/ but not as /h/.
3. /g/ can be pronounced as /ng/ whenever it appears inside of a word. This pronunciation is particularly common in the north and east of Japan and is traditionally a part of Standard Japanese.
Try pronouncing the following example words.
More Voiced Consonants
There are also voiced consonants that do not have unvoiced counterparts. These consonants are either nasal or some flap, semi-vowel like sound. These sounds are listed in the chart below.
|[n]||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).|
|[m]||Pronounced by bringing the two lips together just as in English.|
Its pronunciation varies drastically depending on the environment and dialect. It is typically pronounced as a flap, which is only seen in American English as the "t" in many words such as "water." When at the beginning of a word, it sounds harder and more like the Spanish /r/. Sometimes it's pronounced as a trill or very similarly to an /l/.
|[y]||Pronounced the same in English by bringing the tongue up to the hard palate. This means it is a palatal consonant.|
|[w]||Its pronunciation is very similar to the Japanese /u/. Rather than protruding your lips, you compress them. It is only used with the vowels /a/ and /o/, but its use with /o/ won't even become important until later on in your studies.|
The differences in pronunciation detailed above make Japanese sound significantly different from English. Many sounds tend to be closer to the teeth, which is the case for [n] and [r], and movement of the tongue and parts of the mouth are more limited in range. To practice pronouncing these consonants, try saying the following words out loud.
Palatal consonants are made by the body of the tongue touching against the hard palate of the mouth. In English, the only consonant that is considered palatal is "y," but in Japanese, there are a lot more, many of which do happen to use "y" to be made. These consonants are limited to the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/.
|Consonant||C + /a/||C + /u/||C + /o/|
Note: In loan words, /y/ may be used with other vowels, but it is typically limited to the three vowels above.
Most of these combination are very common in Japanese. They are most frequently found in words that come from Chinese. Below are some examples.
Other Palatal Consonants
The remaining palatal sounds that have yet to be looked at are /sh/, /ch/, /j/, and /dj/. These palatal consonants started out as being allophones of either /s/, /t/, /z/, or /d/ when followed by the vowel /i/. These sounds, though, have become full-fledged consonants that can be used with any vowel.
Pronunciation Note: It's important to note that /j/ is usually pronounced as [dj]. Only inside words can it be pronounced as the voiced version of the Japanese /sh/.
Consonants may be lengthened in Japanese just like vowels. When you make a long consonant, the sound is perceived as sounding harder. The length of time you use to pronounce it increases from one mora to somewhere in between one and two morae. Speakers conceptualize long consonants as two morae, but in reality, it's not really the case most of the time. However, this conception influences how Japanese speaker perceive their own language, which becomes important to honor and follow once we start learning how to write in Japanese.
The only consonants that are typically doubled in Japanese are non-voiced consonants. These consonants include /p/, /k/, /t/, /s/, /sh/, /ch/, and /ts/. As far as transcribing them with English lettering is concerned, we will write them as /pp/, /kk, /tt/, /ss/, /ssh/, /tch/, and /tts/ respectively.
|Shippai||Failure||Matchi||A match||Yokka||Four days||Zasshi||Magazine|
Usage Note: Voiced consonants are only voiced in a handful of loanwords from other languages, but even then they're usually pronounced as their long unvoiced counterparts.
There is a special consonant in Japanese that is called the "moraic nasal." It counts as a mora on its own, meaning that it's its own syllable. The problem is how to pronounce it. Although usually transcribed as an "n" in some fashion, its pronunciation varies depending on the environment. In its basic understanding, it is what's called a uvular "n" that is best transcribed as /N/. The uvula is back in the mouth, but when you pronounce it, the mouth constricts as if you were producing a regular /n/, which makes it sound more like the /n/ you're used to hearing but not quite.
What gets tricky is that this sound has a lot of allophones because it assimilates (becomes more similar) with the sound that follows. Because things can get quite complicated, we'll go over each situation separately with plenty of examples along the way. In Standard Japanese, this sound can't start words, but it is still quite complicated.
When /N/ is before a /p/, /b/, or /m/, it becomes [m]. This means that /m/ can in fact be a doubled with the aid of /N/.
|Sontoku||Loss and gain||Sentaku||Choice/laundry||Kantoo||The Kanto Region|
|Kingyo||Gold fish||Kango||Sino-Japanese word||Kangae||Idea|
Transcription Note: Typically, /dj/ is spelled as "j" since /j/ is largely pronounced as [dj].
When before vowels, /y/, /w/, /s/, /sh/, /z/, /h/, and /f/, /N/ sounds like a nasal vowel from the back of the mouth. At any rate, the vowel before /N/ is always nasalized, but when /N/ is followed by a vowel, all you may hear is a really nasal vowel and then the following vowel. Typically, this /N/ is usually just a very nasal ũ. Although this is usually spelled as "n" for simplicity, it'll be spelled as "ũ" below.
|Kaũzei||Tariff||Kiũyuu||Finance||Kaũsai||The Kansai Region|
1. When before /z/, some speakers pronounced /N/ as [n].
2. /Deũsha/ may also be pronounced as [deũsha].
At the end of words, /N/'s default pronunciation is [N]. However, there are plenty of speakers that pronounce it like a nasal vowel as seen above in this position. In singing, it will even be pronounced as [m]. This is actually the case for any instance of /N/ in singing. For the purpose of this section, [N] will be written below as "N."
Although this all looks daunting, many of these sound changes should come naturally since the English /n/ undergoes similar changes under the same environments. By listening to natives, you'll gradually acquire this complicated sound. One thing is certain, though. You should not replace /N/ with the English /n/ except in the situations described above where they are in fact the same. Of course, regardless of the situation, remember to pronounce it as its own mora.