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Japanese Pronunciation: Deceptively Simple Vowels

( Please note that I’m using standard North American English as the basis for comparison of the vowel sounds here in this article.)

Japanese Pronunciation: Deceptively Simple Vowels

The good news is that Japanese is an extremely simple language in terms of vowels: there are literally only 5 vowels in Japanese. If you’re confused by the “only 5” statement—English has five vowel letters, but most dialects of English have more than 20 actual vowel sounds. Ironically, though, the bad news is that I personally find that it is the vowels that English speakers have the most problem with, and I think that the simplicity is actually part of the problem. This is because with a large number of vowels and a phonetic system in which vowel sounds systematically change all the time (more on that below), English speakers are used to not having to being very precise with vowels. In Japanese, however, you have to be precise with vowels, because with so few to deal with, slight variations in pronunciation can easily result in incomprehensibility, or completely different words.


At any rate, the five Japanese sounds are as follows: a, i, u, e, o, or あ、い、う、え、お in hiragana. It’s not a good idea, by the way, to use the English vowel letter names (a = aye, e = ee, etc.) for the Japanese romaji letters, because they are pronounced quite differently in Japanese. If you know a Romance language, however, it can be very helpful, because the sounds of the Japanese romaji letters have more or less the same sound in languages like Spanish or Italian as they have in Japanese: a is always “ah,” i is always “ee,” u is always “ooh,” e is always “aye,” and o is always “oh.” In other words, the name of the vowel letter is the same as the sound of the letter—what a concept!


Furthermore, the beauty of Japanese romaji (and the kana systems) is that the vowel letters are always spelled exactly like they sound—there are no silent letters or letters with multiple sounds, the way we have in English. For example, although the pronunciation of “a” in father, apple, bake, and American is different in each word, somehow English speakers seem to think that all of these sounds are just variations of “the A sound.” In contrast, Japanese a/あ is always pronounced “ah,” quite similar to the pronunciation of “a” in “father.”


However, I should point out that the phonetic English spellings like “oh” or “ooh” that I have used above to approximate the Japanese vowel sounds are potentially a bit misleading, because English vowel sounds like “oh,” “ooh,” and “ee” are all “diphthongs,” which means that they are all actually blends of two sounds: a longer sound with a short sound at the end, often called a “glide.” Japanese doesn’t have glides or diphthongs at all. Say the English word “you” and feel how your lips purse slightly in the end. In contrast, in the Japanese word yu (as in o-yu, etc.), the lips don’t move or purse at all. Try to say “ooh” without moving your lips at all and with your mouth held rigid (lips slightly drawn back, not rounded as in English), and you’ll probably come out with more or less the Japanese “u” sound. The same goes for e, i and o; if you say the words “bay” “bee” and “bow” with your mouth held rigid when pronouncing the vowel sound in the same way as “you” above, and you’ll pretty much get it. Pronouncing the glide sound as in English will probably still result in an intelligible Japanese word, but you’ll certainly sound better if you can learn to ditch the diphthongs


But, what about words like ai (love) or kau (buy). Aren’t those vowels (ai and au) diphthongs? Actually, in Japanese, they are considered to be two separate sounds, divided into two separate syllables of equal length. Ai is ai and kau is kau. The kana spellings (あい, for example) are helpful here in that they reinforce the reality that these are separate vowels pronounced separately, not diphthongs. In the beginning, you don’t have to worry too much about this concept, but it will help your pronunciation a lot later on if you can keep it in mind.


One common problem that we English speakers have when pronouncing Japanese is the habit of reading Japanese words like they were English words. Yes, Japanese vowels are simple, but no, they are not spelled the same way as English vowels in romanized Japanese, and you can’t expect them to have the same sounds. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard English speakers pronounce the word onsen as if it were “on center” without the “ter.” This is OK if you are speaking English, but it will seriously confuse people if you speak that way in Japanese. The problem is, the English vowel spelled with “o” in words like “on” or “boss” doesn’t exist in Japanese, and for some speakers of American English, it will sound more like the Japanese a. The on in onsen sounds closer to “own” (again, minus glide) than the English “on,” (and, no, sorry, mosu baagaa (“Mos Burger”) sounds nothing like “Moss Burger!”)


Similarly, a u beginning a word always sounds like ooh-minus-glide, never “you” as in English “university” or “union.” There is a popular business district in Osaka called “Umeda,” (“Plum Field”), and I’ve actually heard English-speaking people call it “Yumeda,” sometimes sounding like “You may duh”!. (Whenever I hear “Yumeda,” I always think of the scene in Spirited Away where the little girl tries to run away from the enchanted town, only to find that the hilly field has suddenly become a sea, and she screams “Yume da! Yume da!” (It’s a dream! It’s a dream!”) Yes, living in Umeda may be like living in a dream (or perhaps a nightmare from some points of view), but it’s not pronounced “Yumeda.”


The e at the end of Japanese words is another common problem for English speakers. Yes, I know that we say “carry okie” “sahkee” and “kuhrahdee” in American English,” but that’s English, not Japanese. In Japanese, it’s always e/ (again, kind of like “aye” minus the glide), not “ee.” So, it’s more like “kah-rah-oh-kay” in Japanese. And, for all I know, there may be a city pronounced something like “koh-bee” in Japan, but it’s not the city that lies half an hour west of Osaka by train—that sounds more like “Koh-bay.”


Another potentially damaging problem that English speakers have with Japanese vowels is using the English habit of changing the vowel sounds depending whether the sound is stressed or not. English has something called “stress accent,” in which certain syllables of words are longer, louder, and higher-pitched that others. When we change the stress accent, the other vowel sounds change with it. Contrast “CANada with “CaNAdian,” and you’ll see what I mean. The sounds spelled with “a” changes depending the stress or lack of it, and many of the unstressed vowels become “schwa,” (ə) the colorless “uh” sound that English vowels tend to revert to when they aren’t emphasized.


Now, in Japanese, there is no “stress accent” at all. What Japanese does have is a “pitch accent” system, where some syllables are pronounced higher than others, but not longer: contrast SA-ke (salmon) with sa-KE (booze). I’ll get more into this admittedly confusing concept in the next installment of this article, but here’s the important point for now: Japanese pitch accent often sounds similar to English stress accent to the ears of native English speakers, so we have a tendency to make the vowels in the lower-pitched syllables into schwa, as in English. The problem is, Japanese has no schwa, and Japanese vowel sounds do not change depending on whether they have a high or low accent. Compare English “Canada” (CAN-uh-duh) with Japanese kanada (KAH-nah-dah), for example: in the English, the two unstressed “a” sounds are very different from the first, stressed sound, while in Japanese, all three sounds are exactly the same.


Basically, using the English stress accented system along with the associated vowel sound changes and schwa when you’re speaking Japanese will wreak major havoc with your pronunciation. Fully understanding the Japanese pitch accent system takes a while and you don’t have to be too worried about it in the beginning, but it’s still a good idea to get really conscious about completely banishing schwa from your Japanese, because it just doesn’t belong there at all and will definitely make your pronunciation less intelligible.


While Japanese does not turn its unaccented syllables into schwa, it does have something slightly similar: i and especially u often become devoiced (whispered) when they don’t have the high pitch accent. Familiar examples include the u in desu and the i in ashita. The vowels are still there, but they are very quiet, and it sounds as though the preceding consonants are lengthened. This is another confusing concept, but it’s not something that you have to get too worried about in the beginning. This is because if you don’t devoice vowels, people will still understand you, just as English learners are still understandable when they ignore schwa. It’s good to pay attention to these whispered vowels though, because using them will make you sound more natural, but it’s not a crucial issue for beginners. Keep your ears open and listen to how Japanese people speak, and you’ll gradually catch on to these devoiced sounds.


A more urgent problem is vowel length. In English, we call our vowels “long” and “short” (like the “a” sounds in “back” and “bake”), but this is really a total misnomer: they are two totally different vowel sounds that happen to be spelled with the same vowel letter. Japanese, in contrast, really does have long and short versions of the same vowels: try biiru (beer) vs. biru (building). These can impede comprehension at times, so they are worth working on. Here, again, the English stress system can cause a lot of problems, because when we stress syllables in English, we make the vowels longer, but in Japanese making the vowel longer can result in a whole different word. The trick is learning to hold out the vowel sound twice as long. Technically, the long vowels actually represent an extra syllable. You can practice long vs. short vowels by tapping a beat out and pronouncing words along—for example, it would be BI-RU (two beats) vs. BI-I-RU (three beats). As you can see, it’s like you’re repeating the sound twice with the long vowels, except for the two sounds blend into each other instead of being pronounced distinctly. By the way, the technique of pronouncing words to a beat can also work well with the false diphthongs like a-i and a-u that I mentioned above: both of the sounds should have the same length, so each should get its own separate beat.


One final thing about Japanese vowels: they change slightly depending on which consonant proceeds them. For example, the u sound in the verbs suu (smoke) and kuu (eat) are slightly different from each other. This is the case in all languages, however, and as such I’ve chosen not to focus on it. Since Japanese has a rather limited number of possible syllables, it’s worth paying attention to the individual syllables when you are practicing reading the kana system aloud (a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, etc) and to listen carefully to how the Japanese pronounce these syllables—this will help give you an idea of the slight changes in the vowel sounds.


In summation, Japanese vowels are very basic, but the simplicity actually makes them more problematic for English speakers, since there is no room for the systematic variation that we have in English. Also, some of the other differences between the two languages that affect vowels (pitch accent instead of syllable accent, lack of schwa, lack of glide vowels, the difference between romaji spelling and English spelling, and long vs. short vowels) can all cause pronunciation problems for English speakers if we aren’t aware of them.


In the next installment, I’ll get into some other issues: namely consonants, including the tricky issues posed by ん (the final nasal sound usually written with “n” in romaji) and っ (doubled consonants), along with other sundry things like more about how pitch-accent works and the concept of a syllable-timed language.