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Japanese pronunciation pt. III: initial consonants

Today, I’m going to look at Japanese initial consonants. There are a lot more of these than there are vowels, but the good news is that English speakers tend to have fewer overall problems with them. Some of these sounds differ from their closest English equivalents, but unlike the vowels, you don’t have to be too precise to be understood. Still, like the vowels, it’s definitely worth taking some time to get them right—you’ll sound a lot better and more natural, and you won’t have to spend too much working getting there, compared to many other languages. I’ll start with the sounds that are closest to their English equivalents, and then go on to the more unusual ones.

First, a few sounds that are pretty much exactly the same as in English, and can safely be ignored when practicing pronunciation: s, m, b, ch, j and g. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth noting that g is so-called “hard g” sound as in “give” or “get,” never the “soft g” as in George, Gina, etc.

Japanese t, d and n (the n used at the beginning of words, that is) are all very similar to their English equivalents, and the English sound can be used without impeding comprehension. The difference is that the Japanese sounds are all “dental” sounds, with the tip of the tongue touching the upper back teeth, whereas the English t and d sounds have the tongue touching the gum ridge (called “alveolar” sounds). As a result, t and d have less aspiration (air coming out of the mouth) than the English sounds. Practicing making these sounds with your tongue against your teeth will make you sound more natural, but it’s not something you have to pay too much attention to in the beginning. P and k also have less aspiration than their English equivalents On the other hand, the Japanese h is stronger and produced with more friction in the month than the English h sound, kind of like the German ch sound as in Ich, etc. 

Like English, Japanese has “semivowels” used as initial, consonant-like sounds, namely y and w. Y, as in words like yabai and yoku, is basically just like English: a very short [i] sound. W is a very short [u] sound, like English, too, but with a bit of a difference: the lips are spread, not rounded as in English. Again, this is the kind of small difference that will help make you sound more natural, but it won’t impede comprehension. Y can be more problematic for English speakers when it is used together with another consonant, as in words like “Kyoto” and “Tokyo.” I’ll address this issue in the next installment.

Z is a step up on the difficulty scale: in the middle of a word, it’s the same as the English z sound, but in the beginning of a word, it’s actually pronounced [dz]. So, for example, the word “Zen” in Japanese is actually pronounced more like “Dzen.” This [dz] sound exists in English, but never as an initial sound. Try saying a word ending in a d with an s ending (“gods” “dad’s,” etc.), and you’ll get the sound. To practice making this sound as an initial sound, try an English word ending in ds and add another word starting with a vowel afterwards: for example, say “Dad’s eye,” repeatedly, with the two words run together, and then drop the “da” in Dad. Luckily, if you haven’t learned to make this sound yet, substituting the English “z” will not cause comprehension problems. 

A similar but much more problematic sound is ts, which is the unvoiced equivalent of the [dz] sound described above. Like [dz], [ts] does not exist as an initial sound in English, so English speakers will usually substitute an s sound for it. For example, the Japanese loanword “tsunami” is usually pronounced [sunami] in English. This is totally fine in English, of course, but substituting [s] for [ts] in Japanese will often result in incomprehensibility or a totally different word: compare tsuna (“net” or “tuna”) with suna (“sand”). Because of this problem, ts is one Japanese consonant that it’s worth trying to master from the beginning. The same technique that I described for the initial z sound above is effective for learning ts: try, for example repeating “cat’s eye” and then leave out the “ca” sounds.

There is a third sound in Japanese that exists in English as a final sound, but not as an initial sound: [?]. This is the same sound that is usually written in English as ng. I wrote above that the Japanese g is the same as the English “hard g,” but actually, traditionally this sound changed to [?] in in the particle ga and in the middle of a word (such as ageru ‘give’). However, most Japanese either can’t or don’t pronounce this sound anymore, and it seems to be used mostly in formal speech and by people like television announcers who speak in a hyper-standard way. As such, foreign learners of English can get away with completely ignoring this sound. However, if you want to show off (or enhance your formal Japanese) by mastering it, here’s how: use exactly the same technique that I described above: pronounce an English word ending in “ng,” add a word with a vowel after it, and then drop the sounds before the “ng.” Phrases like “bring on,” “sing out,” and “bang up” should work fine. By the way, since [?] is used as an initial sound in many Asian languages, learning this sound will give you a head-start on Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese, to name a few.

Finally, there are a couple of initial consonants in Japanese with no real English equivalents at all. These are f and r. These both bear some similarity to the English sounds that are represented by the same letters, but they aren’t really the same sounds.  

F is similar to the English f sound, but not the same. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it’s written as [Φ] instead of [f]. In the Japanese syllabary, the syllable fu is part of the group otherwise beginning in h (ha, hi, fu, he, ho), and the sound is also similar to the h sounds that it it’s lumped together with. Like the English f sound, f is produced by blowing air out of the mouth, but with the English sound, the top teeth touch the bottom lip, while with the Japanese sound, the upper and lower lips are held close together. Try making an f sound with your lips held close together and without your top teeth being involved, and you should be able to approximate it. It’s a very breathy sound! Traditionally, f was used only in fu, but certain katakana loanwords like firumu (“film”) have combined it with other vowels. Still, many Japanese find these new combinations difficult, which is why some people will say fuirumu while others will say firumu.

And then, there is the infamous r sound, the source of endless corny jokes. Yes, it really is somewhere between the English r and l sounds, although it’s always sounded a bit closer to the English l to me, and it often sounds like d to English speakers as well, which is why the name Eri can sound similar to the English name “Eddy.”

The biggest difference between r and the English r sound is that while with the English sound, your tongue doesn’t touch the inside of your mouth at all, while with the Japanese sound, the tip of your tongue quickly flicks against your gums behind your front top teeth. This aspect of r is quite similar to the English l sound, but with the latter, the front part of your tongue lays flat against your front teeth and the gums behind them, without the flick that accompanies the Japanese sound. This tongue flick is also similar to what your tongue does for the English d, except it’s a stronger flick. Try making an l sound but with your tongue flicking as with d, and you should be able to approximate it.

Japanese r is nearly the same as the single (untrilled) r as in Spanish words like pero (“but”) and caro (“expensive”), so if you can speak Español, the Spanish r sound will work fine. If not, the English l works much better as a substitute than the English r. The good news is that the Japanese r is really not all that difficult if you work on it—far easier for English speakers to learn than the English r is for Japanese speakers (and for speakers of many other languages too; the English r really is a rather unusual sound).

Japanese has also kind of/sort of borrowed the English v sound, written as ? in katakana. You can find this sound used some of the time in certain words like the Japanese version of “violin,” which is alternately written as baiorin (?????) and vaiorin (??????). Some people pronounce these with the traditional Japanese b sound, others with the English v, and still others produce a kind of mutant, French-sounding combination. Personally, I find that, in context of Japanese phonology, it’s easier just using b, and it seems to be slightly easier for Japanese to understand as well.

To sum this all up, Japanese initial consonants are, for the most part, really quite easy for English speakers, but there are a few things you’ll need to work on. There are a number of sounds that are the same as their English equivalents, several that are slightly different, a few that are used in English only as final sounds, and then a couple that don’t exist in English at all. You’ll mostly need to pay attention to the latter two groups, but the sounds that are slightly different are also worth working on, in the interest of sounding more natural. In many cases, if you haven’t figured out how to make Japanese consonants sounds, you can get away with substituting the closest English equivalent, but this doesn’t always work, as in the tsuna/suna example I give above.

In the next installment, I’ll address non-initial Japanese consonants (or semi-vowels, as the case may be): the syllabic final n (which is very different from the initial n), the use of y after consonants as in words like gyuunyuu (“milk”), and also the doubled consonants used in the middle of words.