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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to pronounce Japanese - a simplified primer on its phonemes

It's actually interesting to note that for much of the 20th century, many Japanese organizations like schools and some workplaces did participate in radio calisthenics. Even my Saturday morning language schools had them at the start of each school session.

In any case, a recent meeting with a UK entrepreneur reminded me of another benefit to living on the European continent: my first name is almost never mispronounced any longer. If you wish to impress your Japanese colleagues or clients, I strongly recommend that you remember the following simple rules:
  1. There are only 5 pure vowels in Japanese, which are identical to the Italian vowels: from the way I pronounce (Canadian) English, the sounds are: A as in altruism, E as in elbow, I as in index, O as in olfactory and U as in ulna. The letter y can be seen preceding three of the vowels (ya や, yu ゆ, yo よ); it's always used as the consonant. Note: having received linking permission, here is an audio file from a friend of mine that provides a sample of the five short and five long (extended) Japanese vowels. I find I don't actually say "う" precisely like he does, but you can hear how lengthening the sound doesn't affect anything else about it.
  2. Most hiragana - the phonetic alphabet in Japanese - consist of consonant-vowel pairings. There are also double-consonant-vowel triplets which in hiragana are pairs of regular sized kana and smaller kana (cha, gyo, nya, etc). And finally, we have consonant doublings, where there is phonetic elision (indicated by the presence of "little" placeholder hiragana っ "tsu"), like in gakkou  (がっこう school) which would be technically reflect two kanji, pronounced gaku 学and kou 校when separate: the occurrences of two k- sounds in a row were combined to facilitate pronunciation.
  3.  Further to rule 1, there are no diphthongs in Japanese. By this, I mean that sounds that vowels don't truly slide together, such as "eye" or "boy" in English, "huit" in French, or "Ei" and "Maus" in standard German (cf. the Wikipedia article as linked above). Thus my surname, Takeuchi, should be parsed into four sounds: ta ke u chi, and not pronounced "tak-oo-chi", which has become the (what I find to be a) cringe-worthy slogan (found in the bottom right part of the footer) for an eponymous construction vehicle firm in the UK. Strangely and also encouragingly, the US company pronounces the name fairly well in its video.
  4. Many Westerners complain about the in-between R/L sound that exists in Japanese: conversely, it's been my complaint that Japanese lacks the R and L sounds. The easy way to emulate the in between sound, is to lightly flick the tongue so the tip briefly touches the roof of one's mouth, as if to slightly roll what would otherwise be an L sound. As implied by the first two rules, there are five hiragana that expect this sound: らりるれろ (la li lu le lo).
Armed with the above information, it should be straightforward to correctly sound out some of  the popular Anglicized Japanese lingo, of which there are many:
  • Karaoke (kah-rah-oh-keh) - from kara, empty, and oke, from the English word orchestra. There is no perceptible merging of the ra-o sounds; they should remain monophthongs.
  • Mitsubishi (me-tsoo-bee-shee)
  • Toshiba - In transcribing from kanji, this should be written Toushiba but in Roma-ji is often found with the elongated O instead of o u (Tōshiba, cf. Wikipedia); I would pronounce it, in Canadian English, closest to toh-oo-shee-bah where in casual speech the toh and oo are not quite melded (just almost but not quite) into "toe".
  • Karoushi (kah-roh-oo-shee, again with the rou not pronounced as row, but never fully merging the roh-oo sounds) - business folks might remember that from the 80s - literally "exhaustion-death".
If this helps just one person pronounce Japanese words and proper nouns better, I'll feel quite gratified. :)

Disclaimer: I grew up learning what is closest to the standard dialect (標準語), as both sides of my family had been resident in the greater Tokyo area for some time.

p.s. It has been pointed out on Facebook, that as my audience's dialects vary, my English examples where the Japanese vowels can be approximated can be misleading or inaccurate. That's quite true, just as Japan has a wide variety of dialects, which affect how the supposedly "pure" vowels are rendered.
In my experience, most native speakers who aren't in news broadcasting or on the stage tend to be lax about enunciation, Japanese speech will (somewhat convincingly) mimic diphthongs in daily life, especially when spoken quickly.

About Mayo

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Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.