Thursday, August 19, 2004

Pronunciation

Japanese can be an extremely difficult language to learn, but luckily the pronunciation is easy.

All words in Japanese are made up of distinct syllables, normally of two or three letters each. Most common are the two letter syllables, consisting of a consonant and a vowel. However there are also three letter syllables, such as "chi" and "ryu," but even these will always end in vowels. In Japanese, syllables end with a vowel, or the letter "N." Never with any other consonants. (Actually, as with everything, there are a few exceptions to every rule, see the section on "double consonants" below.)

Concerning the Vowels:

Unlike English, the vowels in Japanese have only one sound, compared to the two, three, or more ways they can be pronounced in English (such as the "i" in "machine," and "knit"). The Japanese vowels are pronunced thusly:

A = ah, as in "hah" or "law"
I = ee, as in "free" or "machine"
U = oo, as in "boo" or "moo"
E = eh, as in "met"
O = oh, as in "so" or "mow"

(Note: I'm having something of a dilemma on how to describe the "e" sound. All the books say "e is pronounced eh, as in met or pet," but then when they go on to describe how to pronounce words the "e" is always pronounced more as "ay," as in "day." I've noticed even Japanese people pronounce it more as "ay.")

When consonants are added to these vowel sounds, syllables are created which follow the same sound pattern (with only a few exceptions to the rule, noted later): Ka (kah), Ki (kee), Ku (koo), Ke (kay), Ko (koh). If you simply pronounce all the syllables in a Japanese word according to these rules, it will come out sounding "Japanese."

Also, in Japanese, there are long and short vowels, but these aren't the same as English long and short vowels, which alter the pronunciation. Japanese long and short vowels don't alter the pronunciation, instead, you just say the vowel sound for longer. You must be careful with these, as it also completely changes the meaning of the words. For Example:

Obasan = "Aunt"; Obaasan = "Grandmother," or "old woman."
Biru = "building"; Biiru = "beer"
Soko ni arimasu = "It's there."; Sooko ni arimasu = "It's in the warehouse."

There are two different ways to write these long vowels, and you will see different ways used in different books. One way to indicate a long vowel in by putting a line over the one vowel, which I don't know how to code, so I will be using the other method, spelling it out and actually putting both vowels, as in the above examples.

Concerning the Consonants:

Most of the consonants are pronounced as expected, with only a few needing clarification. The "H" sound is always pronounced as in the word "how," and the "G" sound is pronounced as in the word "go." There are no true "L" or "V" sounds in Japanese, when a Japanese person tries to pronounce these sounds in English words, the "L" comes out as "R" and the "V" comes out as a "B." For example, when converting my name, Kevin, to Japanese, it becomes Kebin (Kay-been).

And now, for "R." One of the hardest parts of pronouncing Japanese is getting the hang of the "R" sound. There were many in my class at college that never could get it down correctly. The Japanese "R" sound is not the same as the English "R" sound. It is sort of halfway between the "L" and the "R" sound in English. In English, when making an "L" sound, you touch your tongue to the back of your teeth, and when making the "R" sound you keep your tongue towards the back of your mouth. When making the Japanese "R" sound you should touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, like with an "L," but further back, about at the point where the roof of your mouth suddenly slopes upward, a little ways behind your teeth. It also requires a slight trilling, almost like the Mexican "R," but not such a pronounced trill. If you do it correctly, the sound will come out sounding like a combination of "L" and "R." It also sounds slightly "D" like. The whole process is pretty difficult to explain, but that's how my Japanese teacher explained it to us. On a side note, I was the best in class at making the "R" sound.

There are also sometimes double consonants, which, of course, is when two consonants are in a word without a vowel in between them. These can also be difficult for English speakers to learn to correctly pronounce and differentiate between. When confronted by a double consonant, make sure you pronounce the consonant twice, like the double "K" in the english word "bookkeeper." The tongue position for the pronunciation of the first consonant is held for one syllable beat before the tongue starts to move to produce the second consonant. Like double vowels, double consonants can completely change the meanings of words, as in these examples:

saka = "slope"; sakka = "writer"
keshi = "poppy"; kesshi = "'do or die' spirit"

Okay, I think this is everything you need to know for Pronunciation, other than a few small side-rules and exceptions that will be noted as they come up. I will try to get Lesson 1 up in a day or two.