第2課: Pronunciation II: Consonants

In our second lesson on pronunciation, we will learn about what consonants exist in Japanese and how to pronounce them. Quite a few of them are unique in that they don't exist in English. These sounds will especially take some time to acquire properly. Just as was the case in Lesson 1, English letters will be used to transcribe Japanese words (Rōmaji). 

Unvoiced Consonants

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. Overall, all these consonants are less aspirated than their English counterparts. Pronounce words like "king" or "touch" with your hand in front of your mouth, and you'll feel a puff of air hit your hand. This is aspiration. In Japanese, this puff of air won't be as prominent is it would be for English.

Pronouncing /k/

Just as is the case in English, /k/ is made by placing the back of the tongue against the soft palate in the back of the mouth. 

 Kuki Kaki Oyster Keika Progress

Pronouncing /t/

/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/.  

 Take Bamboo Tochi Land Tsuki Moon

Pronouncing /s/ 

Similarly, although /s/ is pronounced just like the "s" in English, it becomes [sh] when followed by /i/. Its pronunciation is almost identical with the Japanese [s] with the only difference being that [sh] is palatalized, meaning that the middle of the tongue is bowed and raised towards the hard palate of the mouth. 

 Isu Chair Keisatsu Police Shiitsu (Bed) sheet(s)

Pronouncing /h/ & /p/ 

/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.

 Hako Box Hifu Skin Futsuu Ordinary Penki Paint

More Example Words

Below are some more example words with these consonants. 

 Asa Morning Te Hand(s) Koko Here Sake Alcohol
 Ashi Foot/leg Shiai Match/game Pasupooto Passport Sake Salmon
 Katsu To win Tsuaa Tour Aka Red Pai Pie/pi
 Ka Mosquito Suutsu Suit Soto Outside Tsuchi Dirt/earth
 Ase Sweat Satoo Sugar Tako Octopus/kite Chika Underground
 Kako Past Heishi Soldier Hoshi Star Kutsu Shoes
 Hi Fire/day Kotatsu Kotatsu Tsukau To use  Kasa Umbrella

Vowel Devoicing 

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

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
 /k/ /g/
 /s/ /z/
 /sh/ /j/
 /t/ /d/
 /ts/ /dz/
 /ch/ /dj/
 /h/ (and allophones) /b/
 /p/ /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 this doesn't have to be the case. 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.

 Sokudo Speed Baka Idiot Zutsuu Headache
 Tsu(d)zuki Continuance Kaze Wind Deeto A date
 Kazu Number Kage Shadow Gitaa Guitar
 Bataa Butter Toge Thorn Doku Poison

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. 

 Fune Boat Neko Cat Mune Chest
 Yowai Weak Yakusoku Promise Kawa River
 Mura Village Umi Sea Tana Shelf
 Kami God Kami Hair/paper Yubi Finger
 Wana Trap Karada Body Rei Example/zero

Palatal Consonants

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/
 /y/ /ya/ /yu/ /yo/
 /ky/ /kya/ /kyu/ /kyo/
 /gy/ /gya/ /gyu/ /gyo/
 /ny/ /nya/ /nyu/ /nyo/
 /hy/ /hya/ /hyu/ /hyo/
 /py/ /pya/ /pyu/ /pyo/
 /by/ /bya/ /byu/ /byo/
 /my/ /mya/ /myu/ /myo/
 /ry/ /rya/ /ryu/ /ryo/

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.

 Hyoo Vote Kyaku Customer Kyuu Nine
 Myoo Weird Hyaku 100 Kyoo Today
 Myaku Pulse Ryuu Dragon Byooki Illness
 Gyaku Reverse Ryoo Quantity Ryaku Abbreviation

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.

 Shuu Week Kaisha Company Ocha Tea
 Choosa Investigation Chero Cello Shefu Chef
 Shooko Proof Shima Island Jiko Accident
 Kaji Housework/fire Jookyoo Situation Jukyoo Confucianism

Pronunciation Note: The Japanese /j/ is like the j-sound in "seizure." /dj/, on the other hand, sounds more like the j-sound in "judge."  /j/ and /dj/ are merged completely as [dj] for most speakers, with [j] becoming a less common pronunciation. [j] is usually not used at the start of words or before the moraic nasal (see below). 

Long Consonants

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
 Happa Leaf/leaves Kokka Nation Shuppatsu Departure Hassoo Conception
 Kassooro Runway Satchi Inferring Sakka Author Sakkaa Soccer

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.

The Moraic Nasal

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.

  • Pronounced as [m].

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/. 

 Sampo A walk Shimpai Worry Kampeki Perfect
 Bimboo Destitute Kambu Executive Sembei Rice cracker
 Sammyaku Mountain range Tammatsu Device Chimmi Delicacy
  • Pronounced as [n].
When /N/ is before /t/, /d/, /n/, /r/, it becomes [n]. When before /t/, /d/, and /n/, the blade of the tongue is used, and when before /r/, the tip of the tongue is used, but in any case, the natural pronunciation of these consonants will result in you pronounce [n] correctly. Incidentally, by using this sound change, /n/ can become long.

 Sontoku Loss and gain Sentaku Choice/laundry Kantoo The Kanto Region
 Kondate Menu Shindai Bed Kandoo Impression
 Minna Everyone Tennai Inside store Tennoo Emperor
 Shinrai Faith Kanri Management Shinri Mentality
  • Pronounced as [ng].
When /N/ is before /k/ and /g/, it becomes [ng]. Because /n/ is pronounced the same way in English under these circumstances, this [ng] will be spelled as "n" for simplicity.
 Shinka Evolution Kankaku Feeling Sanka Participation
 Kingyo Gold fish Kango Sino-Japanese word Kangae Idea
  • Pronounced as [ny].
When before /ch/ or /dj, it is pronounced in the same place of the mouth as these consonants. This technically makes it an [ny] with the "y" only indicating that it's palatal. Remember that /ch/ and /dj/ are pronounced by temporarily stopping the flow of air at the gum line in the mouth. This is where [ny] is produced. If a vowel were to follow /ny/--separate from the [ny] of /N/ being discussed now--you'd hear the "y." Since the "y" here is only meant to indicate where in the mouth this variant is pronounced, it will simply be denoted as "n."
 Shinchuu Brass Tanchiki Detector Sanchoo Summit
 Kanja Patient Tanjoobi Birthday Shinjuku Shinjuku

Transcription Note: Typically, /dj/ is spelled as "j" since /j/ is largely pronounced as [dj].

  • Pronounced as [ũ].   

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.

 Taũ'i Unit Koũwaku Perplexity Deũsha Train
 Kaũzei Tariff Kiũyuu Finance  Kaũsai The Kansai Region

Pronunciation Notes:

1. When before /z/, some speakers pronounced /N/ as [n].  
2. /Deũsha/ may also be pronounced as [deũsha].

  • Pronounced as [N]/[m]/[ũ]. 

  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."

 NihoN Japan KaN Can  HoN Book

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.

Next Lesson → 第3課: Hiragana ひらがな