Cooori — Japanese Pronunciation Tips
By Cooori (www.cooori.com)
6 tips to understanding Japanese pronunciation and the sound system
Upon first starting to learn Japanese, or even before that, the Japanese language can seem pretty daunting. So many new sounds, so many different characters, three different writing styles — there is definitely a lot to take in in the beginning.
However, the Japanese writing system and pronunciation system are actually quite simple.
Regarding possible sounds in the Japanese language, in exception to the “n” sound, all Japanese sounds end with a vowel and may or may not be preceded by a consonant, e.g. “u” “ka” “so” “ni” “mu” etc…
** Even though we will not be going into it in this mini-lesson, two out of the three writing styles, hiragana and katakana, are just phonetic representations of the possible sounds. The last writing system, Kanji, is the harder one, where a single character represents its own meaning and can be pronounced a single syllable like 「気」”ki” (spirit), or upwards of five syllables like 「志」”kokorozashi” (will, intention, motive).
There are 5 vowels and 9 primary consonants, and therefore, most of the consonants have 5 different sounds in Japanese, for example, the “k” + “a, i, u, e, o” = “ka, ki, ku, ke, ko”. However the “y” consonant is only paired with the “a, u, o” vowels and thus only has the following three sounds: “ya, yu, yo.” In addition, the “w” consonant is only paired with the “a” and “o” vowels, creating just “wa” and “wo”. However, the “wo” is pronounced as “o” and is used only as an object particle in a sentence, never as part of a word. Lastly, there is only one consonant that is a stand alone sound, the “n” sound, like in the word “nihonjin” (Japanese person)
In addition, the sounds never change. For example, the “a” or “ka” or “sa” sound will always be pronounced the exact same way, unlike in English, where spelling and pronunciation seem to never follow any logical rules.
Regarding the sounds, the consonants are very straightforward sounds, and very similar to English (except for the “r” sound, which will be covered). First, let’s learn the vowel sounds.
“a” in Japanese is similar to the English “a” in “car” “i” in Japanese is similar to the English “ee” in “feet” “u” in Japanese is similar to the English “oo” in “moo” (like the cow sound) “e” in Japanese is similar to the English “e” in “let” “o” in Japanese is similar to the English “oa” in “coat”
Regarding the Japanese “r” sound, it is more similar to an english “flap T” sound, like in the natural American English pronunciation of the words “letter” or “water”. Your tongue gently “flaps” against the top of the backside of your upper teeth. For example, the Japanese “ri” sound, is very similar to the “die” sound in the name “Eddie”.
In order to abide by “naturally easy to pronounce human sounds”, some consonant sounds change depending on which vowel they are paired with. You will notice in the chart down below that the “s” becomes a “shi” when paired with the “i” = “shi”, and that the “t” sound changes as well with the “u” and “i” becoming “tsu” and “chi” respectively. Look through the chart to see if you can find some more.
Here is the basic Japanese sound chart, with the hiragana on the left, katakana on the right, and romaji (romanized alphabet) written below.
There are actually more sounds that are not listed in the above chart. Again, in order to abide by the linguistic fact that humans are more naturally able to pronounce some sounds in certain situations, some of the Japanese sounds undergo a minor transformation. Also, there are no other characters. You take the original character and add a tiny bit to indicate the change in sound. Please see the list below:
Voiceless to Voiced counterparts: “k” sounds become their voiced counterparts, “g + vowel = ga, gi, gu, ge, go” sounds か き く け こ → が ぎ ぐ げ ご
“s” sounds become their voiced counterparts, “z + vowel = za, zi (ji), zu, ze, zo” さ し す せ そ → ざ じ ず ぜ ぞ
“t” sounds become their voiced counterparts, “d + vowel = da, dzi , dzu (du), de, do” た ち つ て と → だ ぢ づ で ど
“h” sounds become their voiced counterparts, “b + vowel = ba, bi, bu, be, bo” は ひ ふ へ ほ → ば び ぶ べ ぼ
Voiceless to Aspirated counterparts: “h” sounds become their aspirated counterparts, “p + vowel = pa, pi, pu, pe, po” sounds は ひ ふ へ ほ → ぱ ぴ ぷ ぺ ぽ
Lastly, there are some sounds that are made from combining the various “(consonant) + i” sounds with the “ya” “yu” and “yo”. Please refer to the full hiragana and katakana charts below.
Hiragana and Katakana Chart
Download the full Hiragana and Katakana chart here — Download
Now that you have gone through the 6 tips, can you pronounce the following words? “Amerika jin” (an American) “nihongo” (Japanese) “eiga kan” (movie theater) “ryokou” (vacation) “gyuu don” (beef rice bowl)
Originally published at cooori.com on May 18, 2015.