A Quick Guide to Pronouncing Japanese Words
Edit: I’ve made a few corrections, most importantly on “E,” but there are also clarifications on the “n/m” and double consonants. I’m just some gaijin who hasn’t had any practical outlet for the knowledge in the past ~ten years, so thanks to those of you who dropped by with comments.
I’ve been listening to the Mariners spring training games on the radio this past week [ed. note: when they aren't preempted by the 24-hour football news cycle] and it’s been bugging me. I know, the team is in Japan now, and the announcers were obligated to make some references to Japanese baseball, but when I’m sitting here and the “Han” in “Hanshin” rhymes with “pan” in English or the “Yom” in “Yomiuri” rhymes with “mom,” it’s like daggers in my ears. So, to ease us through this period, I’m drafting this based off of my four years of taking Japanese in high school. I’m sure someone with actual fluency could do a better job, but I’m the one with the keys to… the keyboard. Yeah.
Unlike a lot of the other languages in the region, Japanese is not tonal as spoken, which means that you can generally count on vowels doing the same predictable things over and over [with a few exceptions I'll get to later]. Therefore, there’s no straining your ears over the difference between the third and fifth inflection of any given sound and trying to determine what that means for the whole sentence. It’s easy.
Where English tends to group things around letters, in Japanese it tends to be organized around syllables. Vowels are syllables on their own, and vowels preceded by consonants are also unique syllables. Again, there are a few exceptions here which we’ll arrive at in the advanced portion, but for the most part, that’s what you need to know to move forward to pronouncing these syllables. English would have us go the aeiou method, but Japanese as it was taught to me goes aiueo and I’m going to follow that.
A – This one should be somewhat familiar from the days when we had Sasaki closing for us, and Kawasaki making the team, it may still be present in your mind. When the doctor makes you stick out your tongue and say “ah,” it’s the same idea, shorter sound. As an English reference point, think of the a in “father” and you’ll be as close as you need to be.
I – It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone try to pronounce it Itchiro, so I think we’ll be okay here. “I” in Japanese is a long “e” in English. “Ichi” rhymes with “peachy” (or “Pee Chee” if you’re still in primary school). I don’t know if Ichi is generally peachy, but here we are.
U – I’d expect that this one shouldn’t be too hard either. “Suzuki,” right? Both of those u’s are doing the same thing. My clever baseball analogy is that some people have been known to “boo” certain players and the “oo” is the same sound the “u” makes in Japanese. Or, when you “ooo” and “ahh” over something, you’re approximating the Japanese sounds for “u” and “a,” respectively.
E – This one is a little less common, and the exposure we’ve had to it so far is the “e” in “Munenori.” The important thing to remember is that we already have something making the long “e” sound, so it’s clearly not that. In this case, it’s the short “eh” that you hear in words like “bed,” or “head,” or the “eh” one uses as an interjection to indicate disinterest in a given topic (not at all like the Canadian “eh?”). What I had written previously fell apart on a pretty common word, “sensei:” the “sen” is the same as it is in “sent,” whereas the “sei” sounds more like “say.”
O – We have the “ro” in “Ichiro” to help us out here. The Japanese “o” is pronounced like the long “o” in English, so “row,” “go,” etc are all applicable here.
Combinations! – Of course, you’re not always going to see the vowels in isolation. Sometimes they’re sitting right next to each other! What then? Generally, the same rules apply. If you see two of the same vowel, as happens in some cases, it’s just a longer version of the same sound. The exception here is the “o” sound which, when drawn out, usually takes a “u” next to it, but this doesn’t really change how you say it (there are a few exceptions to take on a case-by-case basis). The only areas that people might trip up on are the “ai” and the “ei,” where the pronunciation has become so close that it’s not as distinct anymore, but has become a unit of sound. “Ai” sounds like “eye” does to the English speaker, whereas “ei” is the same sound you get in “play” or “neigh.”
What’s written above will get you through the next week or so without any issues. But it won’t get you all the way there, so if you really want more, here are some additional bits.
Dropped Vowels – This comes up most frequently in the formal case of the verbs, which all end in “-masu,” but it appears in other places often enough to at least make mention of it. The “u” in “-masu” isn’t pronounced consistently, and in some cases the ending sounds more like “moss” would to an English listener. At the same time, don’t expect other “u’s” to disappear like that; the ending “u” for the island of “Shikoku” is still pronounced.
N’s and M’s – Alert readers would have picked up on the fact that I referenced “Hanshin” and then talked about syllable groupings around the consonant-vowel pattern. “But what are those N’s doing there?” someone asks, still scratching their head. N is the only consonant that has its own little character in the two syllabic forms of writing, which you might also see come up with the main island of “Honshuu.” If I were to write “hanshin” using one of syllabaries, it would come out as ha-n-shi-n. “Han” is not a thing unto itself. One weird feature of this system is that there are cases where you might see the “n” transcribed as “m,” as happens with “shimbun,” which is the word for “newspaper.” This is probably some error of messy handwriting or typography that we foolishly persist in; there are no actual stand-alone “m”s.
Other Consonant Groupings – This is another thing that you probably noticed going through. In Japanese, you also have substitutions and replacements going on within the consonant-vowel tree, so instead of there being a “ti,” you have “chi” instead. “Tsu” takes the place of “tu,” “shi” replaces “si” as “ji” replaces “zi,” and “fu” takes the spot of “hu.” In traditional Japanese, “a,” “u,” and “o” are used most frequently and some consonant trees lack the other pieces. The “y” tree doesn’t have a “yi” or “ye” in the system used for native sounds, nor is there anything in the “w” tree beyond “wa” and “wo,” which is basically a particle where the “w” isn’t really pronounced.
There are also syllables that combine two sounds, like “kyu,” which is represented with “ki” and then a subscript “yu” (as you would find in “yakyuu,” their word for baseball). You can also get “shu” this way with a “shi” a subscript “yu.” This eventually extends to such sounds as “rya,” “ryu,” and “ryo” which are really difficult for English speakers to make. My geographic examples here are “Ryuukyuu” and “Kyuushuu,” the former an island chain and the latter the island in the southwest corner of the four main islands.
Double Consonants – This is sort of misleading and I lack the linguistics background to do it proper justice, but here’s a shot. I looked it up in the Wikipedia and they described it as a “gemination,” which probably does not mean much to any of you, but it has to do with consonant length. Say you’re stringing words together and one word ends with the same consonant that the next word begins with (Wikipedia gives me the example of “calm man,” someone else later suggested “bookcase,” which I think works better). You don’t elide that, but pronounce both the ending “m” and the beginning “m” distinctly. In Japanese, there’s a little subscript character that they use to indicate this, such as in the case of the northern island of “Hokkaidou.” TIF says that “hok-kai-dou” is probably a good approximation, but it’s not easy to explain without hearing it.
That’s it for today’s lesson. I hope that you found it helpful, or at least that you are not more confused now than you were coming in.