Every language is composed of a unique set of sounds. This may sound obvious, but what you perceive as meaningful sounds will be determined by what language(s) you have been exposed to so far in your life. If you've never heard Japanese before, or if you've never heard Japanese in a meaningful way, you're likely not going to recognize the sounds it has that don't exist in the languages you know, or perhaps even those that differ from what you're used to. Even if every sound corresponds to something in your language(s), it will still likely be interpreted as a meaningless stream of noise because the sounds are being used in a foreign way to you.
At first, this mysterious noise called Japanese may remain cryptic to your brain for some time, but by studying the basics of what Japanese sounds are and how they should be perceived, your brain will have that boost of knowledge to have a fighting chance at learning how to process Japanese auditorily.
Over the course of the next two lessons, our goal will be to figure out the unique sounds of Japanese. You won't be expected to sound Japanese on day one, nor should you place that goal on yourself. After all, you may not know a single word of Japanese yet, so it's important to learn how to pronounce words correctly as you learn them so that you're understood.
With that, let's look at the vowels of Japanese. Vowels are sounds like "ah" and "eh," but every language--including Japanese--will have its own quirks to them. Our mission will be to find out what those quirks are.
|/a/||Katana (Sword)||Sakana (Fish)||Aka (Red)||Atama (Head)||Anata (You)|
|/i/||Ichi (One)||Ni (Two)||Imi (Meaning)||Mimi (Ear)||Shichi (Seven)|
|/u/||Kutsu (Shoes)||Mizu (Water)||Yuki (Snow)||Ikutsu (How many?)||Umi (Sea)|
|/e/||Eki (Station)||Mise (Store)||Kaze (Wind)||Tegami (Letter)||Pen (Pen)|
|/o.||Otoko (Man)||Okane (Money)||Koko (Here)||Soto (Outside)||Ocha (Tea)|
|Aa (Ah!, Oh!)||Ai (Love/Indigo)||Ao (Blue)||Asa (Morning/Hemp)|
|Yama (Mountain)||Watashi (I)||Aki (Fall)||Hana (Flower/Nose)|
|Higashi (East)||Nishi (West)||Hashi (Bridge/Chopsticks)||Kita (North)|
|Ima (Now)||Ki (Tree)||Itachi (Weasel/ferret)||Minami (South)|
|Kuni (Country)||Niku (meat)||Yuube (Evening/Last night)||Basu (Bus)|
|Natsu (Summer)||Fuyu (Winter)||Haru (spring)||Tsunami (Tsunami)|
|Megane (Glasses)||Eki (liquid)||Kaze (Cold/Illness)||E (Painting/Picture)|
|Ho(h)o (Cheek)||Soko (There/Bottom)||Sora (Sky)||Tokoro (Place)|
As we've touched on a little, vowel length is crucial in distinguishing words. To understand what vowel length means, imagine clapping your hands in intervals of three seconds. Each clap equates to one beat. Now, regardless of how you speed up or slow down those intervals, so long as the intervals are equal to each other, you're replicating how speakers conceptualize Japanese pronunciation.
When we say that a vowel is a short vowel, it means that the vowel length is just one beat. When we say that a vowel is a long vowel, it means that the vowel length is two beats. The speed at which someone is talking may vary as a conversation progresses, but the each part of a word should be enunciated with syllables of equal length. Such syllables are called morae, which is synonymous to the concept of beats.
|Vowel Type||Example||Mora(e)||Vowel Type||Example||Morae|
|Short "a"||Obasan (aunt)||4||Long "a"||Obaasan (grandma)||5|
|Short "i"||Ie (house)||2||Long "i"||Iie (no)||3|
|Short "u"|| Yuki (snow)||2||Long "u"||Yuuki (courage)||3|
|Short "e"||E (painting)||1||Long "e"||Ee (yes)||2|
|Short "o"||To (door)||1||Long "o"||Too (ten things)||2|
※ Again, "oo" should never be pronounced as a long "u" sound. In the context of Japanese, it should always be viewed as an elongated "oh" sound.
※Using a macron to indicate a long vowel is always good practice when romanizing Japanese words for more accurate pronunciation. However, to prepare you for how things will be spelled in Japanese writing itself, doubling the vowel is also just fine. Remember not to base your pronunciation on English words with similar spelling as even "oo" can have multiple pronunciations in English, whereas that's not the case in Japanese.
※You may be wondering why obasan has four morae and why obaasan has five morae. This is because the final "n" is treated as a separate mora. There are only three valid syllablic/moraic structures in Japanese: vowel (V), consonant + vowel (CV), and consonant (C). We'll learn more about this in Lesson 2.
Pronouncing long vowels is straightforward. If anything, an English native learner is more likely to mess up short vowels as long vowels. However, there are two main sources of confusing when it comes to the actual pronunciation of certain vowel combinations that trip up the average learner.
Have you ever known someone who can't spell their native language(s) well? It isn't necessarily the case that they don't know how to pronounce their own language(s), you are now the foreign learner. Naturally, you lack that inclination as to how things are spelled or pronounced. With that being said, we will learn about two pairs of distinctions that are crucial to get right: "ee" vs "ei" and "oo" vs "ou."
"ee" vs "ei"
"ee" is always equivalent to a long /e/ sound. Not that many words will ever be spelled this way, but the ones that are will be words of native Japanese origin. Ex. "oneesan" (older sister).
In Standard Japanese pronunciation, how to pronounce "ei" is not so set in stone. Pronouncing any instance as separate vowels (eh + ee) is always "correct," but so long as the vowels don't cross a word boundary*, "e" is usually pronounced as a long /e/ sound. For example, the word for clock is "tokei," but it's usually pronounced as "tokee." Aside from certain dialects, singing, or careful speech, "ei" is typically "ee."
Though it is correct to pronounce "ei" as it is spelled, it is not suggested to a learner whose native language is English. The reason for this is that an English speaker will likely pronounce it with a strong accent as a diphthong. A diphthong is what's called a "gliding vowel" in which two adjacent vowel sounds combine to form a single syllable. The syllables/morae of Japanese don't allow for diphthongs, and so fusing the "e" and "i" together would sound very foreign. When you do hear a speaker slow their speech down, for whatever reason, you may hear them pronounce "ei" not as a long /e/ but as /e/ and /i/ next to each other. Even so, the vowels are pronounced as separate syllables/morae.
Below are some common words that are spelled with "ei" but get pronounced as "ee." Note that they'll still be spelled as "ei" so that you don't misspell them in Japanese later.
"oo" and "ou"
The next sound pairs to address is the difference between "oo" and "ou." There are words spelled and pronounced as "oo" (long /o/ sound), there are words spelled and pronounced as "ou" (the vowels separate, of course), but there are also words spelled as "ou" but pronounced as "oo." To see how they differ, let's look at sets of words from each scenario separately.
Words Spelled and Pronounced as "OO"
Words Spelled and Pronounced as "OU"
|Omou||To think||Ou||To chase|
Words Spelled as "OU" but Pronounced as "OO"
|Koucha||Black tea||Kouban||Police box||Tanjoubi||Birthday|
|Douzo||By all means||Reizouko||Refrigerator||Otousan||Father|
As you can see from these charts, of the most common and important words of Japanese, there are lots of words spelled with "ou" but pronounced as "oo." Except for verbs in their basic dictionary form, which you'll learn about later on, almost all instances of "ou" are pronounced as "oo" or if the vowels cross a word boundary*.
※To know what is meant by word boundary, consider ko'ushi (calf) vs koushi (lecturer). These are very different words, their pronunciations are different, but their phonetic spelling in Japanese is the same. Each word happens to be composed of two parts, but the breakup of those parts is not the same. "Calf" is literally composed of ko- (small) and ushi (cow) whereas "lecturer" is composed of kou (Chinese root meaning "lecture") and shi (Chinese root meaning "expert"). If a resource doesn't use macrons, such word boundaries will often become obscured because they are meant to be obvious to someone that has enough understanding of the writing. For now, that lack of knowledge can't be helped, but it is important to know that there will be words in which "ei" and "ou" must be pronounced individually.
Another aspect of Standard Japanese pronunciation is that the vowels /i/ and /o/ often become voiceless when placed between or after certain sounds. For instance, the word for "shoe" mentioned earlier, kutsu, is pronounced with an accent on the second /u/ but with the first /u/ devoiced. However, rather than being described as silent, the sound is simply pronounced without vibrating the vocal cords in the throat. This sound change occurs in so many words that you can't go one sentence from a Tokyo native without hearing it.
Devoicing doesn't happen when a mora is accented, and it only happens with consonants like are /k/, /t/, etc. which also don't vibrate the vocal cords of the throat. In a way, this sound change makes the vowels in question more like their surrounding consonants. The mora breakup of a word does not change because of devoicing. So, kutsu is still two morae. Whether it be music, the news, or your friend from Tokyo, listen in closely to how they're pronouncing words with /i/ and /u/, and you will hear devoicing occur everywhere.
The most defining difference between Japanese and English accents is that Japanese is said to have a pitch-accent system whereas English has a stress-accent system. Rather than placing more stress on one syllable than another like in English, a word can have one of its morae bearing an account, or not at all. An accented mora will have a relatively high tone which is then followed by a drop in pitch on the next mora.
This may sound simple enough, but that does mean a learner will have to essentially learn where the accented morae are in any given phrase. Of course, there are general patterns and rules that govern where accents go, but these rules are all relative to knowing the basic accent pattern of each word. This doesn't mention the fact that Japanese dialects have different pitch-accent systems, but for the purpose of studying Japanese as a foreign language, the ability to master Standard Japanese pitch accent will greatly improve your fluency and ability to be understood by others.
The Four Patterns of Japanese Pitch Accent
There are three locations in which an accent may fall on a word, and there are words which have no accent at all, resulting in four patterns to the pitch-accents system.
|Pattern 2||LHL(L)||LHHL(L)|| ／(￣)＼|
|Pattern 1||Pattern 2||Pattern 3||Pattern 4|
|[ákà] (red)||[àká] ↓ (dirt/filth)|
|[ásà] (morning)||[àsá] ↓ (hemp)|
| [kákì] (oyster/firearm/the following/|
summer season/summer term/
flowering season/flower vase/
|[kàkí] ↓ (hedge)||[kàkí] (persimmon)|
|[níhòn] (two cylindrical things)||[nìhón] (Japan)|
|[sákè] (salmon)||[sàké] ↓ (alcohol)|
|[íchì] (location/market)||[ìchí] ↓ (one)|
|[ákì] (fall/autumn)||[àkí] ↓ (tedium)||[àkí] (space/vacancy)|
|[ímà] (now)||[ìmá] ↓ (living room)|
|[úmì] (ocean)||[ùmí] ↓ (pus)||[ùmí] (birth)|
|[hánà] edge||[hàná] ↓ (flower)||[hàná] (nose/snivel)|
| [kí] (tree/yellow/period/undiluted/|
|[háshì] (chopsticks)||[hàshí] ↓ (bridge)||[hàshí] (edge/start)|
|[shìtá] ↓ (tongue)||[shìtá] (below)|
|[kítà] (came)||[kìtá] ↓(north)||[kìtá] (north)|
|[ékì] (station/liquid/war campaign/gain)||[èkí] (divination/gain)|
|[áì] (love)||[áì] (indigo)||Both Pattern 1|
|[sòkó] (there)||[sòkó] (bottom)||Both Pattern 4|
|[tákò] (kite)||[tákò] (octopus)||[tákò] (callus)||All Pattern 1|
|[kàrá] (shell)||[kàrá] ↓ (empty)||Both Pattern 3|
|[gán] (cancer)||[gán] (wild goose)||[gán] (prayer/wish)||All Pattern 1|
|拍数||Type 1||Type 2||Type 3||Type 4|
In this lesson, you not only learned about /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/, you learned about how exactly they sound and the most important features they exhibit in word formation. Short and long vowel distinctions are so crucial, even with the most basic vocabulary. Knowing what might cause you to sound like an English speaker in Japanese, and knowing how pitch accent can help you sound more Japanese, will all go a long way to making sure you are understood from the beginning.
If you thought that not much Japanese was learned in this lesson, almost all the words in this lesson, minus the showcasing of extreme homophones, come from the JLPT N5, which is the elementary level proficiency test that a foreign learner may choose to take. If you were to memorize just the commonly used words, you would already know a few dozen words to start out with, not including the Japanese loanwords that coincidentally exist in English that you can use for conversation starters. Now, let's begin learning about consonants!