第1課: Pronunciation I: Vowels    

  Every language is composed of a unique set of sounds. When you grew up, your brain had the opportunity to master the sounds in your first language(s), but now that you're learning a new language, your brain will now have to essentially start things over.

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. Instead, by going into some detail about how Japanese sounds, you'll have solid answers to fall back on when you do have questions about pronunciation. 

   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. 

The Five Vowels


 Japanese only has five vowels: /a/ (ah), /i/ (ee), /u/ (oo), /e/ (eh) and /o/ (oh). In using these vowels to make words, we group them into units of sound called syllables. This can be done with or without consonants (sounds like k, t, and s). In English, there are lots of ways to make syllables, but in Japanese, there are only three ways: a vowel by itself, a consonant + a vowel, or a consonant by itself. Here are some loanwords from Japanese that show all three types of syllables with each of the five vowels.

 A I U E O
 Ka.ta.na Ni.n.ja Su.shi E.da.ma.me Mi.so
 Ma.n.ga Shi.i.ta.keKo.m.bu Sa.keE.mo.ji
 
※ To indicate syllable boundaries, periods have been placed between each syllable so that you can familiarize yourself with Japanese syllabification. 

Short Vowels vs Long Vowels 

In Japanese, 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 syllable. Now, regardless of how you speed up or slow down the intervals, so long as the intervals are equal to each other, you're replicating how Japanese speakers hear the language being spoken. 

When we say a vowel is a short vowel, it means that the vowel length is just one beat. When we say 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 speed at which any given word is enunciated should remain constant so that such vowel length contrasts can be made. Otherwise, you might say something unintended.

 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)

 An "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.


 How to Pronounce "ei"

 The vowel combination "ei" is usually pronounced as a long "eh" sound, but all words that have "ei" can be pronounced as is, meaning as "eh-ee." For now, it is safe for you to simply pronounce the two vowels separately as you can never go wrong there. Over time, you'll learn about the sources of Japanese vocabulary, which will be the ultimate factor between the two pronunciations.

 Clock
 "Tokei" or "Tokee"
 English
 "Eigo" or "Eego"

How to Pronounce "ou"

The vowel combination "ou" is usually pronounced as a long "o" (ō). However, there are many words in which "o" and "u" are pronounced separately. Once we introduce Japanese spelling, knowing when to decide between the two will be very easy. So for now, just relax and practice pronouncing the words below.

 Already Moo King Oo Method Hoohoo
 To think Omou Large Ookii Calf Koushi
 Action Koodoo Robbery Gootoo Sauce Soosu