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The pronunciation of Japanese is very regular; for the most part, Japanese words sound as they are written in hiragana and katakana. Altogether, there are 110 different native sounds in Japanese, a walk in the park compared to the thousands that we have in English.
In Japanese, the order of the vowels is ‘a, i, u, e, o’; their sound is pure and sharp, similar to the vowels in Spanish, except for the ‘u’, which is sharper in Spanish than in Japanese.
- the ‘a’ (hir. あ, kat. ア) sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘axe’
anata – あなた
atama – あたま
sakana – さかな
- the ‘i’ (hir. い, kat. イ) sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘ink’
migi – みぎ
kimi – きみ
nichi – にち
- the ‘u’ (hir. う, kat. ウ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘who’, or the ‘u’ in the name ‘Uma’
uta – うた
umi – うみ
kuruma – くるま
- the ‘e’ (hir. え, kat. エ) sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘pen’, or ‘elf’
kesa – けさ
eki – えき
ebi – えび
- the ‘o’ (hir. お, kat. オ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘ox’
kodomo – こども
tokoro – ところ
otoko no ko – おとこのこ
There are no diphtongs in Japanese so each appearance of a vowel is pronounced as part of a different syllable, e.g., ‘tooi’ (とおい, ‘far’) has three syllables, and is pronounced in three beats: ‘to-o-i’.
- in hiragana, doubling the vowel doubles its length:
- in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound:
A few exceptions are:
the English lang.
‘tame-iki’ (ため息) is a word composed of two words that we pronounce separately: ‘tame’ (ため- to collect) and ‘iki’ (いき- breath).
- in hiragana, a ‘u’ after an ‘o’ sound repeats the ‘o’ sound
A few exceptions are:
to get lost
- in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
Vowel special cases
For the most part, every vowel is pronounced. However, it has become the norm to whisper or drop the ‘u’ and the ‘i’ in some cases; this is called devoicing:
- sometimes the ‘u’ (う) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘ku’, ‘tsu’ and ‘su’:
am, is, are
formal verb form
west; waist; waste
- sometimes the ‘i’ (い) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘shi’ (し) and ‘chi’ (ち):
Another example is the disappearance of the い from the えい combination that forms when we follow a ‘te’ form verb, i.e., a verb that ends in て, って or んで, with いる/います or any or its conjugations, e.g., -ている becomes -てる, -っています becomes -ってます, -んでいた becomes -んでた, etc. The following vanishing acts of い are courtesy of the manga ふらいんぐうぃっち:
Most Japanese sounds approximate an English sound. Here are a few unusual ones.
- the ‘r’ is like the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘cara’ or ‘toro’, not like the English ‘r’ in ‘ram’ or ‘car’.
- fu (hir. ふ, kat. フ) sounds like a mix of ‘fu’ and ‘hu’, like the English word ‘who‘ spoken just blowing air, without changing the shape of the mouth:
- the ‘n’ (hir. ん, kat. ン) is a separate syllable, so it takes an additional ‘beat’ to pronounce it:
- the ‘tsu’ sound (hir. つ, kat. ツ) didn’t exist in English, but now we find it in some Japanese-borrowed words:
- when speaking casually, some ‘m’ and ‘n’ dissapear:
Consonant special cases
- ha (は) is always pronounced ‘wa’ when used as a particle
- he (へ) is always pronounced ‘e’ when used as a particle
- wo (を) is often pronounced ‘o’ when used as a particle
- We might think that ‘kingyo’ is pronounced ‘king-yo’, or ‘atsui’ is ‘at-sui’, but the sounds ‘ing’ and ‘at’, as well as many others, don’t exist in Japanese:
- the ‘n’ (ん) before a ‘b’, ‘m’, or ‘p’ sounds like an ‘m’, so in these cases, the roman version of such ん is not ‘n’ but ‘m’; this is an example of euphony, i.e., making a sound both pleasing to the ear and easier to pronounce:
3 flat things
Here are some examples of this special case:
Many Japanese words truly have no pre-defined pitch accent, e.g., the word ‘ichi’ (one) is normally pronounced ‘ichi’ (flat), but it might be ‘ichi’ or ‘ichi‘ depending on the context, or the dialect. However, some words do have a specific pitch [wikipedia]. For example:
god, deity, spirit
The kana do not have accents that indicate pitch; the kanjis do not give a clue either; thus, there is no alternative but to listen to a native speaker and memorize the pitch, if any. Still, there are a few hints that can help in certain cases.
In English, when we put together two or more words to form a compound word, the compound word preserves the pitches of its component words, e,g,
belly + button → belly-button
carry + over → carry-over
In spite that these compound words are now single words, we still pronounce each of its components with their original pitches, as if we were pronouncing two different words. Japanese does the same, i.e., the components of compound words are pronounced as if they were individual words:
kami (God) + sama (lord) → kami-sama (God)
ashi (foot) + kubi (neck) → ashi-kubi (ankle)
mizu (water) + umi (sea) → mizu–umi (lake)
If the component words happen to be one-syllable long, then we might end up with what appear to be different pronunciations of the same word, when in reality all we are doing is stressing one of the component words. In English, suppose that we have the word ‘twenty-five’; we could stress ‘twenty’ or ‘five’ to draw attention to that component of the word, or pronounce them flat. This is more difficult to see in Japanese where the compound words can be so small that we tend to think of them as single words (e.g., ‘gohan’) instead of multiple words (e.g., ‘go-han’):
han (cooked rice)
However, Japanese takes this a bit further. If we have a single word that is being modified, say, with a suffix, both the word and the suffix keep their pitches:
I don’t drink
I want to drink
I don’t want to drink
nomi + masu → nomi–masu
nomi + masen → nomi-masen
nomi + tai → nomi–tai
nomi + taku + nai → nomi–taku-nai
Hence, the pronunciation tends to be correct when we treat the components of a word as separate words (e.g., nomi–masu), each with its own pitch (if any), instead of considering the word as a single unit (e.g., nomimasu) and attempting to single out a particular syllable.
Finally, native speakers from different regions of Japan might pronounce words in different ways. For example, the Japanese spoken in Tokyo, which is considered the ‘standard’ Japanese, tends to stress the first syllable, while the Kansai dialect (e.g., Kyoto, Osaka) tends to stress the last one:
The differences between dialects go way beyond pitch, though. A kansai-dialect speaker would pronounce ‘arigatou’ different from a Tokyoite but, actually, he or she is more likely to give thanks using the local dialect word, i.e., 大きに (ookini); even different regions with the same dialect will speak in different ways, e.g., we could say that the kansai dialect covers, say, Osaka, Hyogo, and Kyoto, but there are marked differences among their speech. Dialects like those of Hokkaido, Okinawa, and many others, have yet their own idiosyncrasies.