Pronunciation

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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.

Vowel sounds

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
    formal ‘you’


    atama – あたま
    head


    sakana – さかな
    fish


  • the ‘i’ (hir. い, kat. イ) sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘ink’


    migi – みぎ
    right direction


    kimi – きみ
    casual ‘you’


    nichi – にち
    day


  • the ‘u’ (hir. う, kat. ウ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘who’, or the ‘u’ in the name ‘Uma’


    uta – うた
    song


    umi – うみ
    sea


    kuruma – くるま
    car


  • the ‘e’ (hir. え, kat. エ) sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘pen’, or ‘elf’


    kesa – けさ
    this morning


    eki – えき
    train station


    ebi – えび
    shrimp


  • the ‘o’ (hir. お, kat. オ) sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘ox’


    kodomo – こども
    child


    tokoro – ところ
    place


    otoko no ko – おとこのこ
    boy


Doubling vowels

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:
     

    English
    your mother
    your brother
    week
    your sister
    ice


    romaji
    o-kaa-san
    o-nii-san
    shuu
    o-nee-san
    koori


    kana
    おかあさん
    おにいさん
    しゅう
    おねえさん
    こおり


    sounds…
    o-ka-a-sa-n
    o-ni-i-sa-n
    shu-u
    o-ne-e-sa-n
    ko-o-ri


  • in hiragana, an ‘i’ after an ‘e’ sound repeats the ‘e’ sound:
     

    English
    the English lang.
    movie
    teacher


    romaji
    eigo
    eiga
    sensei


    kana
    えいご
    えいが
    せんせい


    sounds…
    e-e-go
    e-e-ga
    se-n-se-e


    A few exceptions are:


    English
    ray fish
    sigh


    romaji
    ei
    tame-iki


    kana
    えい
    ためいき (ため息)


    sounds…
    e-i
    ta-me-i-ki


    ‘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
     

    English
    good morning
    very
    thanks


    romaji
    ohayou
    doumo
    arigatou


    kana
    おはよう
    どうも
    ありがとう


    sounds…
    o-ha-yo-o
    do-o-mo
    a-ri-ga-to-o


    A few exceptions are:


    English
    to think
    to get lost


    romaji
    omou
    mayou


    kana
    おもう
    まよう


    sounds…
    o-mo-u
    ma-yo-u


  • in katakana, a ‘ー’ (dash) repeats the previous vowel
     

    English
    ramen
    beer
    news
    cake
    cola
    coffee


    romaji
    raamen
    biiru
    nyuusu
    keeki
    koora
    koohii


    kana
    ラーメン
    ビール
    ニュース
    ケーキ
    コーラ
    コーヒー


    sounds…
    ra-a-me-n
    bi-i-ru
    nyu-u-su
    ke-e-ki
    ko-o-ra
    ko-o-hi-i


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’:


    English
    taxi
    your wife
    many

    moon
    desk
    to hold

    a little
    am, is, are
    formal verb form
    west; waist; waste


    romaji
    takushii
    okusan
    takusan

    tsuki
    tsukue
    motsu

    sukoshi
    desu
    masu
    uesuto


    kana
    タクシー
    おくさん
    たくさん

    つき
    つくえ
    もつ

    すこし
    です
    ます
    ウエスト


    sounds…
    ta-k-shi-i
    o-k-sa-n
    ta-k-sa-n

    ts-ki
    ts-ku-e
    mo-ts

    s-ko-shi
    de-s
    ma-s
    u-e-s-to


  • sometimes the ‘i’ (い) sound is faint or omitted, specially in ‘shi’ (し) and ‘chi’ (ち):


    English
    we
    tomorrow
    why


    romaji
    watashitachi
    ashita
    doushite


    kana
    わたしたち
    あした
    どうして


    sounds…
    wa-ta-sh-ta-ch
    a-sh-ta
    do-o-sh-te



    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:

    …しってる ⇒ …しってる (I know …)
    …そらとんでる (flying …)
    …とどいてます (reported …)
    …みてる ⇒ …みてる (watching)
    みてた ⇒ みてた (I saw)

Consonant sounds

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’.


    English
    color
    noon
    six


    romaji
    iro
    hiru
    roku


    kana
    いろ
    ひる
    ろく


  • 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:
     

    English
    boat
    futon
    bath


    romaji
    fune
    futon
    furo


    kana
    ふね
    ふとん
    ふろ


    sounds…
    who‘-ne
    who‘-to-n
    who‘-ro


  • the ‘n’ (hir. ん, kat. ン) is a separate syllable, so it takes an additional ‘beat’ to pronounce it:
     

    English
    teacher
    three people
    bookstore


    romaji
    sensei
    sannin
    honya


    kana
    せんせい
    さんにん
    ほんや


    sounds…
    se-n-se-e
    sa-n-ni-n
    ho-n-ya


  • the ‘tsu’ sound (hir. つ, kat. ツ) didn’t exist in English, but now we find it in some Japanese-borrowed words:
     

    English
    tsunami
    ju-jutsu
    shiatsu


    meaning
    tidal wave
    martial art
    acupressure


    kana
    つなみ
    じゅじゅつ
    しあつ


    sounds…
    tsu-na-mi
    ju-ju-tsu
    shi-a-tsu


  • when speaking casually, some ‘m’ and ‘n’ dissapear:
     

    English
    father
    mother
    excuse me


    Japanese
    o-to-o-sa-n
    o-ka-a-sa-n
    su-mi-ma-se-n


    casual
    o-to-o-sa
    o-ka-a-sa
    su-i-ma-se-n


    sounds…
    おとおさ
    おかあさ
    すいません


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:


    English
    goldfish
    hot


    romaji
    kingyo
    atsui


    kana
    きんぎょ
    あつい


    sounds…
    ki-n-gyo
    a-tsu-i


  • 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:
     

    English
    dragonfly
    stroll
    3 flat things


    romaji
    tonbo
    sanpo
    sanmai


    kana
    とんぼ
    さんぽ
    さんまい


    sounds…
    to-m-bo
    sa-m-po
    sa-m-ma-i



    Here are some examples of this special case:

    なんば (nanba) sounds ‘namba’ (src: JPRail)

    かんばら (kanbara) sounds ‘kambara’

    てんま (tenma) sounds ‘temma’

Pitch accent

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:


romaji
kami (sama)
kami

ame
ame

hashi
hashi

kaki
kaki


English
god, deity, spirit
hair

rain
hard candy

chopsticks
bridge

oyster
persimon


kana
かみ
かみ

あめ
あめ

はし
はし

かき
かき


kanji
神 
髪 

雨 
飴 

箸 
橋 

牡蠣
柿 


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.

Compound words

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) → mizuumi (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’):


English
meal
tonight
weather
telephone


1st syllable
go (honorific)
kon (this)
ten (sky)
den (electric)


2nd syllable
han (cooked rice)
ban (evening)
ki (atmosphere)
wa (talk)


compound word
go-han
kon-ban
ten-ki
den-wa


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 drink
I don’t drink
I want to drink
I don’t want to drink


nomi + masu → nomimasu
nomi + masen → nomi-masen
nomi + tai → nomitai
nomi + taku + nai → nomitaku-nai


Hence, the pronunciation tends to be correct when we treat the components of a word as separate words (e.g., nomimasu), 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.

Dialects

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:


region
Tokyo
Kansai region


thanks
arigatou
arigatou


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.