第2課: Pronunciation II: Consonants

Along with a unique set of vowels, every language has its own set of consonants. Japanese doesn't have that many, but it still has a few that don't exist in English. This means that some time will be needed to get their pronunciations down.

Because you are a beginner, there is no harm in pronouncing sounds in an English fashion for the time being. You will almost certainly still be understood. As for the purpose of this lesson, our goal will be to learn how they are supposed to sound so that you have a working, basic understanding of pronunciation.  

At a basic understanding, Japanese has the following consonants: K, KY, G, GY, S, SH, Z, T, TS, CH, N, NY, H, HY, F, B, BY, P, PY, M, MY, R, RY, Y, W, and N'. These consonants can then be categorized into four types.

  • Unvoiced Consonants
  • Voiced Consonants
  • Nasal Consonants
  • Palatal Consonants

As we learn about each type, don't get caught up with the terminology. If you want to ponder a moment on the information to try to mimic these Japanese sounds more accurately, these words will be there to help organize everything in your head. Otherwise, just sit back and practice pronouncing the sounds as they're introduced. 

Unvoiced Consonants

One thing that Japanese shares with English is distinguishing consonants by the presence/lack of voicing. Without even knowing what this means, pronounce these pairs of words: "tear/dare," "pug/bug," "ten/den," etc. Now, pronounce each word again with your hand over your throat. When you pronounce "bear," "bug," and "den," you should feel the vocal folds in your throat vibrate. This is what voicing is, which makes the consonants B and D voiced consonants. This also makes the consonants P and T unvoiced consonants because this vibration does not occur when you pronounce them.

All consonants in a language are either one or the other. You can then further compartmentalize them into other categories, but first we're just going to look at the basic unvoiced consonants Japanese has to offer. Before that, though, there is one more thing to keep in mind. This time, place your hand in front of your mouth and then pronounce the English word "king." You should feel a strong puff of air hit your hand. This is called aspiration, and it accompanies all unvoiced consonants in English. In Japanese, though, this is not so prevalent, so try to mitigate the amount of air you emit when speaking. 

Now let's learn about how to pronounce these consonants in Japanese! The ones that are unvoiced can all be found in the chart below. Note that some of them change pronunciation depending on what vowel follows them, so please pay attention to those differences.

 K Made by placing the back of the tongue against the soft palate.
 T Made by placing the blade of the tongue behind the upper teeth. When followed by the vowel u, it becomes "ts," and when followed by a the vowel i, it becomes "ch."
 CH Made by having the blade of the tongue right behind the ridge of your mouth behind your upper jaw, which isn't exactly the place where it's made in English, but using the English "ch" is completely understandable.
 S Pronounced the same as English, but it becomes "sh" when followed by the vowel i. 
 SH Made by having the middle of the tongue bent and raised towards the hard palate. This isn't the same as English, but using the English "sh" is completely understandable.
 H Sounds just like the English "h" but changes to an "f" when followed by the vowel u. It also changes slightly into the h-like sound in "hue" when followed by the vowel i. 
 F The Japanese f is very different. Instead of having your front teeth touch your bottom lip, all you do is bring your lips together and blow air through them. No teeth!
 P More or less the same but not accompanied with a strong puff of air like in English.


To practice these consonants, here are some very useful words.

 Ki Tree Otoko Man Ashi  Leg/foot 
 Haha Mother Chichi Father Pan Bread
 Eki Train station Fuku Clothes Asa Morning
 Kutsu Shoes Tsuki Moon Hi Fire 

Vowel Devoicing

When the vowels i and u are in between or after unvoiced consonants, they often become devoiced (silent). However, devoicing is never required in a word. It's just important to know that these vowels are often deleted and you'll still need to identify words either way.

Practice: Pronounce the words below with the underlined vowels devoiced.

Kushami (Sneeze) Tafu (Tough) Hito (Person) 

Voiced Consonants

The unvoiced consonants mentioned above all have a voiced counterpart. 

 Unvoiced Counterpart Voiced Counterpart
 /k/ /g/
 /s/ /z/~[dz]
 /sh/ /j/
 /t/ /d/
 [ts] [dz]
 [ch] [dj]
  /b/
 /p/ /b/

There are a few peculiarities that need to be discussed. However, before going into too much detail, /j/ and /dj/ will be mentioned later in this lesson. 

1. /z/ typically becomes [dz] at the start of words. /dz/ tends to become [z] inside words, but this isn't always so. /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/ inside words. 

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 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.
 [r]

Its pronunciation varies drastically. It is typically pronounced as a flap, which is only seen in American English as the "t" in many words such as "water." At the beginning of a word, it sounds almost like /d/. Sometimes it's pronounced as a trill or like /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 is more limited. 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 Japanese, these consonants are usually limited to the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/, and they're all created with the help of the consonant /y/. First, we'll look at those palatal consonants shown below in the chart.

 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/

Terminology Note: Palatal consonants are all semi-voiced due to the use of /y/ following the initial consonant. The voicing of the initial consonant doesn't change. Thus, /gy/ would be fully voiced whereas /ky/ would not be voiced initially but become voiced by the end of the consonant. Here, /y/ acts more like a semi-vowel more so than another consonant, which is why none of these palatal consonants are treated as consonant clusters. Instead, they can be viewed as more additional phonemes in the language.   

Usage Note: In loan-words, these consonants may be used with other vowels.  

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/ and /(d)j/.

As we learned earlier, [sh] and [ch] are allophones of /s/ and /t/ respectively. They can also be treated as separate phonemes. This is because all five vowels can follow them, allowing them to become contrastive. 

The voiced counterpart for both /sh/ and /ch/ is /(d)j/. This phoneme /(d)j/ has two allophones: [dj] and [j]. The former sounds like the j-sound in "judge," and the latter sounds like the j-sound in "seizure." Many speakers pronounce this phoneme as [dj] whenever it appears at the start of a word or after another consonant but as [j] anywhere else. Others only use the [dj] pronunciation. 

 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

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. However, speakers conceptualize long consonants as being two morae.

The 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 is concerned, they will be written 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 voiced consonant in Japanese called the "moraic nasal." It counts as a mora on its own. Although usually transcribed as an "n," 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.

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 true 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


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