Friday, April 8, 2011

Basic Japanese Sounds

LetterPronunciationEnglish Word
with the Sound
aaaaobasan (o-ba-san; aunt)
aa-obaasan (o-ba-san; grandmother)
eeebedSeto (se-to; a city in Japan)
eehh-seto (seh-to; pupil)
iifeetojisan (o-ji-san;uncle)
iiii-ojisan (o-ji-i-san; grandfather
0odometori (to-ri; bird)
0oo-tori (to-o-ri; street)
uufootyuki (yu-ki; snow)
uuu-yuiki (yu-i-ki; courage)

In Japanese, any two vowels can appear next to each other in a word. You may hear them as one vowel sound, but to the Japanese, they sound like two vowels. For example, ai (ah-ee; love) sounds like one vowel - the English i (as in eye) - but to the Japanese, it's actually two vowels, not one. The word koi (koh-ee; carp) sounds like the one-syllable English word coy, but in Japanese, koi is a two-syllable word.

Table below lists some other common vowel combinations. Some of them may sound awfully similar to you, but Japanese speakers hear them differently. Try saying them aloud so that you can hear the differences.

Vowel Combinations

Vowel CombinationPronunciationTranslation

The vowels i (ee) and u (oo) come out as a whisper whenever they fall between the consonant sounds ch, h, k, p, s, sh, t, and ts or whenever a word ends in this consonant-vowel combination. What do those consonants have in common? They're what linguists call "voiceless," meaning that they don't make your vocal cords vibrate. Put your hand over your vocal cords and say a voiceless consonant like the k sound. Then say a "voiced" consonant like the g sound.

Words with Whispered Vowels

So desuso-du-suthat's right

Words without Whispered Vowels

SugoiSu-go-iamazing; wow

Consonant sounds

Fortunately, most Japanese consonants are pronounced as they are in English. Table below describes the sounds that you need to pay attention to.

Japanese Consonants Different from English

ConsonantDescription of the SoundExamples
rHere you tap your tounge on the roof of your mouth just once - almost like an English f-somewhere between an f and an h sound.rakuda (ra-ku-da; camel); toca (toh-rah; tiger); tori (toh-ree; bird)
fA much softer sound than the English f-somewhere between an f and an h sound. Make the sound by bringing your lips close to each other and gently blowing air through them.Fujisan (foo-jee-sahn; Mt. Fuji); tofu (tohh-foo; bean curd); fufu (fu-fu; married couple)
tsThe combination is hard to pronounce at the beginning of a word, as in tsunami, although it's easy anywhere else. Try saying the word cats in your head and then saying tsunami.tsunami (tsoo-nah-mee; tidal wave); tsuki (tsu-ki; the moon)
ryThe combination of rand yis difficult to pronounce when it occurs before the vowel o. Try saying ri (ree) and then yo (yoh). Repeat many times and gradually increase the speed until you can pronounce the two sounds simultaneously. Remember that the rsounds almost like a dm English.ryo (ryohh; dormitory); ryokan (ryo-kan; Japanese-style inn)

Like most other languages, Japanese has double consonants. You pronounce these double consonants - pp, tt, kk, and ss - as single consonants preceded by a brief pause. Check out the following examples:

  • kekkon (kehk-kohn; marriage)
  • kippu (keep-poo; tickets)
  • kitte (keet-teh; stamps)
  • massugu (mahs-soo-goo; straight)


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