A Quick Guide to Pronouncing Japanese Words

Jay Yencich · March 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

The Basics

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.”

Advanced Stuff

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.

Comments

23 Responses to “A Quick Guide to Pronouncing Japanese Words”

  1. loveMeSomeStats on March 23rd, 2012 4:31 pm

    Good job on a non-baseball topic!

    Having learned Japanese and having done a lot of singing… I always thought it funny that the sounds in Japanese were the exact same as the latin sounds we did in vocal drills.

    In vocal singing, it was ma, me, mi, mo, mu.

    A quick web search reveals it’s the “long” latin vowel sounds.

    http://www.wheelockslatin.com/chapters/introduction/introduction_vowels.html

    In hearing people say Japanese words, they always want to make it a more complex language than it is. But it’s basically a relatively limited language soundwise.

  2. Westside guy on March 23rd, 2012 4:34 pm

    Up next – a baseball fan’s guide to Kanji! :-)

  3. Mariners35 on March 23rd, 2012 4:51 pm

    Awesome reference! Arigato!

  4. gerrythek on March 23rd, 2012 5:30 pm

    I also love it when announcers talk about the Ham Fighters (stress on “ham”) as if the team was made up of angry birds.

  5. PackBob on March 23rd, 2012 6:02 pm

    Jay – great post, good stuff to know.

    Tonal languages, such as Chinese Mandarin, aren’t so bad once you recognize that a different tone (or inflection) represents a different meaning, and are represented by different characters (“spelled” differently) in writing. However, it pays to get the tonal inflections right, otherwise in Mandarin you might call someone’s mother (ma) a horse (ma).

  6. Typical Idiot Fan on March 23rd, 2012 6:24 pm

    Some clarifications from a fellow Japanese language student:

    Vowels next to each other can be weird, but it gets even weirder when trying to deal with localizing the sound. Typically when trying to write Japanese words or names in western languages, the way can fluctuate depending on who is doing it. For example, the Japanese language textbook Genki prefers to write the word with the long vowel sound duplicated. For example, for “student” or today it would be written “gakusee” and “kyoo” respectively. Whereas the Japanese language textbook Nakama prefers to write it as “gakusei” or “kyou”. Both establish their method for pronunciation, so it comes out to the same thing, but it can get confusing.

    Besides that, the double vowel sound may be a completely separate sound or elongating a previous vowel sound depending on the situation. For the former, words like “ookii” (big) would be “oh-oh-kee”, with two separate “o” sounds at the beginning, but a longer “i” sound at the end. The name Iijima is “ee-ee-gee-mah”, etc. What it really boils down to, aside from memorization, is seeing how it is written. Double vowel sounds are often written with the same hiragana proceeding the first hiragana or the kanji (unless the kanji already has a double sound) with longer sounds typically carrying either an “i” after an “i” or “e” vowel and a “u” after a “o” or “u” vowel (“a” only has “a” after it in all cases of a double or long vowel). Examples: “ee” (like with oneesan [older sister]), “ei” (like with the aforementioned “gakusei”), “ou” (like with the aforementioned “kyou”), “uu” (like with “jyuu” or “juu” [10]), or “aa” (like with “saa” [more of a verbal nudge to get someone to do something than a word, like "c'mon"]). Some people will pronounce gakusei phonetically (gah-koo-say-ee), which makes things even more confusing, but it is the same thing. You gotta pronounce your long or double vowels right, tho. Go find a Japanese-English online dictionary and type in “shujin” then type in “shuujin”. It matters. A lot.

    Vowel dropoffs are even more weird at times. Hitotsu can be pronounced as either “hee-toht-su” or “hee-tohtss” with sort of a long “sss” sound there, and a barely whispered “oo”. Generally the whispering “u” sound happens when it comes before another consonant sound (such as in Yokosuka, which is “yoh-koh-ss-ka”) but verbs get a ton of it. You already mentioned -masu (which is more like “mass” than “moss” really), but another big one is desu (“dess”). Some Japanese girls think it’s cute to pronounce the “u” when they’re no supposed to. Some elongate it, for the same reason. Guys don’t. Ever.

    That “m” is a killer for most folks, because it doesn’t actually exist. Shinbun is newspaper, but almost all Japanese online and westernized newspapers put “shimbun” (which I assume is actually either a combination word or someone’s terrible misspelling eons ago gone awry). The same problem exists with the word senpai (cultural term for someone’s direct superior or upperclassman, it basically means “someone who knows”) which most westerners pronounce as “sempai”. Hell, it even sounds like that in anime sometimes. But there’s a very simple reason why it doesn’t exist: “N” is the only consonant character that stands on it’s own; “M” is always with a vowel (ma, mi, mu, me, mo).

    The best way to describe the double consonant sound is to simply say it. Roku (6) is just “roh-koo”. Rokku (rock [English borrowed word]) is “rohk-koo”.

    Hope this helps. Double hope the hiragana characters come through okay, otherwise there’ll be some weirdo appearances on some of y’alls browsers. And nope, they didn’t. Erasing them.

  7. Mid80sRighty on March 23rd, 2012 7:06 pm

    Roku is actually pronounced “loh-koo.” R’s are pronounced as L’s…for those that don’t know. Go Ichilo!

  8. japaneseguy on March 23rd, 2012 7:12 pm

    Disagree with how E is pronounced.
    I am half Japanese and have lived in Japan for 8 years and have grown up speaking Japanese and English.
    E is not pronounced like neigh in neighbor.
    It is pronounced like the eh in meh or the e in Edward.
    The neigh pronunciation contains this eh sound plus the eee sound (e as in eat). The eee sound should not be made.
    Other than that it looks ok.

  9. Typical Idiot Fan on March 23rd, 2012 7:38 pm

    That is also incorrect. The actual sound for “r”s and “l”s in Japanese is more of a sound we don’t actually have in English. The best way to do it is to put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and slide it forward while trying to say an “l”. It comes off more of an “ld” sound.

  10. Mid80sRighty on March 23rd, 2012 7:56 pm

    @Typical – Yeah, I thought about that right after I posted. I still believe it’s an L pronunciation, but they say it so quick it comes out more like you describe. Kind of like an L sound if you were to pronounce it like a D…if that makes any sense. Haha

  11. texasmarinerfan on March 23rd, 2012 8:16 pm

    Jay, you said you took Japanese in High school. Where did you go? Because at my high school they only offer Spanish, German and Latin. Having lived in Japan for a year and seeing Ichiro in the 2009 WBC in Tokyo, I have to say your description of Japanese was spot on.

    Next post- Japanese cheering sections at baseball games.

  12. Westside guy on March 23rd, 2012 8:33 pm

    Hey, maybe everyone already knew this but – ROOT is definitely televising the Tokyo Dome games. One’s at 3am, and the next one is at 2am.

    I’m still trying to figure out how well I can work the next day(s) if I stay up and watch the games… I’d be going on 2 hrs sleep, and I’m not the young guy who used to do that regularly.

  13. gag harbor on March 23rd, 2012 9:15 pm

    Flying up (from Taiwan) to see the Ms play in Tokyo. Can’t wait to eat/drink and watch baseball again!

  14. Jay Yencich on March 24th, 2012 1:47 am

    Thanks for stopping by, TIF. I was hoping that you or IceX would be able to make it and smooth out some of the rougher spots in my explanation. To touch on a few things, I don’t know, I the double vowel versus to distinct vowels seems like a personal preference. Most of the time I see it in English, it ends up being ignored (“Kyushu” etc), but you can probably imagine that I had some fun rendering my own name when I was in class (settled on “jei”, and the last name is too complicated to mention). Beyond that, yeah, there’s a lot of weird case-by-case stuff on when to pronounce all the vowels, but I wasn’t sure if this week would even provide the material for that. The vowel dropoffs are also weird, since I’ve heard it happen with foreign words on -o as well, usually with -to. As for the m/n issue, I’m glad that it is actually supposed to be “n” because I’ve never been comfortable with that “m” for some reason. I also can’t remember any other cases of the “m” as I’ve always heard it “senpai” but maybe it’s come up in other places that I just hadn’t been paying attention to.

    One last thing I need a second or third or even fourth opinion on, there’s a comment sitting in the mod queue right now that says “e” is closer to “eh,” like in the name “Ted” or some such. This was one of those spots that I wasn’t too sure about when I was going over it on my own since I’m used to hearing it in my mind as the more drawn out “hee” or in things like “gakusei,” so what say you? Is what I had above closer to the “ei” or “ee” than the singular “e”?

    Jay, you said you took Japanese in High school. Where did you go? Because at my high school they only offer Spanish, German and Latin. Having lived in Japan for a year and seeing Ichiro in the 2009 WBC in Tokyo, I have to say your description of Japanese was spot on.

    I was at Inglemoor High School up in Kenmore. I think it was the only school in the district that offered Japanese, and that there weren’t any other options for it nearby either. It was one instructor doing all the classes, which went down I think from two first-year courses to one second-year course and finally a split third-fourth year course with different homework, assignments, etc. No one taught Latin (at least not that I remember), but we had French and American Sign Language in addition to Spanish, German, and Japanese.

  15. KaminaAyato on March 24th, 2012 2:43 am

    Finally got around to reading this, and I can’t see anything you’ve missed.

    Writing in romaji is always difficult. I tend to write romaji as you were writing each hiragana/katakana in English (i.e. yakyuu, Koushien, etc.). I also tend to avoid using the h for a long “o” sound, like Ootsuka, or the like, much to the chagrin of my fellow Japanese baseball fans.

    The only exceptions are ones where they’re so recognized that if I wrote them that way, people would go, “Nani kore?”. For example, Toukyou, or Kyuushuu. No way people would read that. However, I see no problem with writing “Oomi” instead of “Oumi” or “Toukai” instead of “Tokai” despite that the latter is exactly what is written on their uniforms.

    And as for cheering sections, I can refer the Koushien tournament that is going on which you can see live at (http://www.mbs.jp/senbatsu/live/). Sunday’s game (Saturday here) start at 16:30. Ichiro’s alma mater Aikoudai Meiden is slated for the 3rd game of the day tentaively set for 21:30 our time.

    HS oen-dans at Koushien can rival that of NPB teams. For instance, in my video here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeSxRsDwmvE), the music that is playing is coming from the opposing oen-dan, that one with the “C” in the background.

    This one (not mine) was part of the rally song for the eventual winners Nichidai-san (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfdxNnP0P7k)

    Otherwise, you can probably catch an open-sen game on Justin.tv somewhere. The oen-dan’s are not up to regular season par yet, they’re still in their spring training too.

    But if you want an example from prior years, here’s this one for Chiba Lotte Marines player Koube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXrw5Z2yEIo). The neater thing is that they were the AWAY team, and that’s the designated spot for the away oen-dan.

  16. Jay Yencich on March 24th, 2012 5:48 am

    I jumped in on the “E” myself after having a “eureka” moment in the middle of the night, so nevermind on that.

  17. dchappelle on March 24th, 2012 8:05 am

    Good reference, thank you. After reading the article, it still took me a minute to realize what your complaint over how Hanshin was pronounced. I realized I was using the Spanish “pan” (for bread) and it sure seemed to rhyme with how Hanshin should be pronounced. Hah!

  18. Typical Idiot Fan on March 24th, 2012 8:27 am

    Jay,

    Sorry to get back to you late, but japaneseguy’s take on “e” isn’t inaccurate. Though I’m not sure it sounds more like “eh” anymore than “neigh” or “Edward”. I think the issue is that “neigh” sounds like “nay” which is caused by the “igh”, not the “e”. The concern is probably with making “e” sound longer than it should be. The reason is that “ee”, with a longer “ey” is actually a word (a way of saying “yes”). But, really, if you’re careful to pronounce each vowel sound with the same emphasis as you do any of the other syllable/vowel combo sounds then you should be fine.

  19. Jay Yencich on March 24th, 2012 11:05 am

    Right, it’s a tricky little thing to parse. I think that a clipped version of the “neigh” sound was kind of close, but we lack good parallels in English. I’d rather err on the side of people shortening the “e” sound rather than have people drag it out into an “ei” and thereby say things they don’t intend to.

  20. Sane on March 24th, 2012 12:10 pm

    For clarification, a Japanese “R” is NOT exactly pronounced like an “L”. “Ichiro”, for example, is accurately pronounced neither “ee-chee-ro” OR “ee-chee-lo”. However, the true pronounciation of an “R” is more difficult to describe. It’s somewhere between what Spanish does with a rolling “R” and what you’d imagine a combination of “r” and “d” sounds to make, and it takes practice. So if you can manage to sound out “ee-chee-rdo” with the “rdo” being a single instantaneous sound, you’re close.

  21. nvn8vbryce on March 25th, 2012 4:11 am

    Thanks for this guide, Jay. I’m trying to get a friend to read this, as he says Ichiro as eye-CHAI-row. Yeah, good times for Bryce when this friend talks about the Mariners.

    (for the record, he also said Pulley-up and taco ma.)

  22. Boz on March 25th, 2012 4:23 am

    Interesting. If I’m understanding it correctly then vowels in Japanese are pronounced very similarly to vowels in Spanish. Now, if only everyone could start pronouncing Spanish names accurately since there are so many players in MLB with Spanish names.

  23. deadball on March 25th, 2012 12:01 pm

    I appreciate your helping fans pronounce Japanese correctly, as mispronunciation hurts my ears, too. To quote Manuel in Faulty Towers, “is same in Espanish”, but it was a lot worse when I was growing up.
    The only thing I’d say about the lesson is that it might be a bit more complex than necessary for beginners. For example, Japanese isn’t tonal, so why mention it? With regard to the “ei” in “sensei”, your pronunciation rules work just fine. If you pronounce the “e” and the “i” correctly and quickly, the result is the correct sound. You don’t have to remember to pronounce it like “say”. (Similarly, “yes” is Ha ee in kana; you don’t remember to say “high”.)I mention this only because nobody should be scared of pronouncing Japanese. It’s very simple to get 95% of it right just by knowing the vowel sounds.

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