第2課: Pronunciation II: Consonants 日本語の音韻体系②・子音
Though Japanese has fewer sounds than English, its consonant inventory does have sounds not found in English, making some words difficult to pronounce. Sounding unnatural may be unavoidable at first, but learning how consonants should be pronounced will greatly improve your speech.
Japanese consonants can be grouped into seven types:
- Unvoiced Consonants
- Voiced Consonants
- Nasal Consonants
- Palatal Consonants
- Liquid Consonant
- Moraic Consonants
Symbol Notation: // and  both encase sounds, but the latter indicates that the sound in question is treated as a variant of a single sound in the language’s phonology – the rules which govern how words are made with sounds. Say /X/ has two pronunciations. Then, [X1] and [X2] would be marked as so.
Unvoiced Consonants 無声子音
In the throat reside the vocal cords, and when an unvoiced consonant is uttered, the vocal cords do not vibrate. In English, such consonants are also accompanied with what is called aspiration. Place your hand in front of your mouth and say the word “king.” The strong puff of air hitting your hand is what is meant by aspiration. In Japanese, the same effect occurs but not as strongly. Mitigating the amount of air being emitting will improve one’s pronunciation.
The Unvoiced Consonants of Japanese
■/k/: The Japanese /k/ is made by placing the back of the tongue against the soft palate. It sounds more or less like the English /k/ minus heavy aspiration.
|Kado (corner)||Kagi (keys)||Kao (face)||Kaisha (company)||Kaidan (stairs)|
|Kazoku (family)||Kamera (camera)||Kawa (river)||Koohii (Coffee)||Kotoshi (this year)|
■/s/: The Japanese /s/ is the same as its English counterpart. However, when paired with the vowel /i/, it turns into the consonant /sh/.
|Sakana (fish)||Sukoshi (little)||Sentaku (laundry)||Hasu (lotus)||Sa (difference)|
|Sampo (stroll)||Sono (garden)||Su (nest/vinegar)||Kaosu (chaos)||Saka (slope)|
■/sh/: Although similar sounding to its English counterpart, the Japanese /sh/ is actually a different consonant made by having the middle of the tongue bent and raised towards the hard palate. Many English native learners misperceive it as /s/, but Chinese native learners will find it more familiar.
|Shima (island)||Shumi (hobby)||Shio (salt)||Shefu (chef)||Shitagi (underwear)|
|Shakai (society)||Shokuji (meal)||Shatsu (shirt)||Shitsumon (question)||Shiai (match)|
■/t/: The Japanese /t/ is made by placing the blade of the tongue behind the upper teeth. When followed by the vowel /u/, it is pronounced as [ts]. A common mistake is pronouncing [ts] as [s], but the “t” sound is by no means silent. When followed by the vowel /i/, it becomes the consonant /ch/.
|Ta (rice field)||Tamago (egg)||Te (hand)||Toukyou (Tokyo)||Tatoeba (for example)|
|Tabako (tobacco)||Taifuu (typhoon)||Tani (valley)||Tanoshimi (joy)||Tatami (tatami)|
|Tsuma (wife)||Tsuba (spit)||Tsukue (desk)||Tsuyoi (strong)||Tsuyu (rainy season)|
|Tsuchi (ground)||Aisu tii* (iced tea)||Paatii (party)||Chiimu* (Team)||Maikurosofuto Tiimuzu* |
*: The mora /ti/ does not naturally exist, but it does appear in loanwords recently borrowed into the language. Loanwords of longer standing will exhibit [ch] instead. Even for words which do contain /ti/, many speakers will still pronounce it as [chi].
■/ch/: The Japanese /ch/ is made by having the blade of the tongue right behind the ridge of the mouth behind the upper jaw. The Japanese /ch/ is not articulated the same as its English counterpart, so English native learners often mishear the consonant, but it will be familiar to Chinese and Korean native learners.
|Chuui (caution)||Chi (blood)||Chuushajou (parking lot)||Chizu (map)||Ocha (tea)|
|Chiri (geography)||Chikatetsu (subway)||Chekku (check(ing))||Chotto (a little)||Tsuchi (dirt)|
■/h/: The Japanese /h/ is identical to its English counterpart, but it must be noted that it becomes /f/ when followed by the vowel /u/, and when followed by the vowel /i/, it sounds like the h-sound in the word “hue.”
|Hachi (eight)||Hito (person)||Higashi (east)||Hontou (really)||Hambaagaa (hamburger)|
|Heya (room)||Hidari (left)||Hoteru (hotel)||Hikouki (airplane)||Hikari (light)|
■/f/: The Japanese /f/ is not the same as its English counterpart. Instead of placing the front teeth against the bottom lip, the lips are compressed, and air is blown through them. Remember, no teeth!
|Fukuzatsu (complicated)||Fuku (clothes)||Foroo (follow)||Fikushon (fiction)||Futon (futon)|
|Futsuu (usual)||Furui (old)||Fooku (fork)||Finrando (Finland)||Fakkusu (fax)|
■/p/: The Japanese /p/ is the same as its English counterpart minus heavy aspiration.
|Piano (piano)||Pokemon (Pokemon)||Supuun (spoon)||Purin (pudding)|
|Poketto (pocket)||Purezento (present)||Kapibara (capybara)||Purinta (printer)|
Voiced Consonants 有声子音
As opposed to unvoiced consonants in which the vocal folds do not vibrate, the vocal folds do vibrate when uttering a voiced consonant. In most languages, unvoiced-voiced consonant pairs exist in which the only difference between the two will be the lack thereof or presence of voicing. For instance, /d/ is the voiced counterpart of /t/. In Japanese, voices consonants are pronounced with far more vibration of the vocal folds than their English counterparts, so much so that Japanese voiced consonants are said to be fully voiced.
The Voiced Consonants of Japanese
|Unvoiced Counterpart||Voiced Counterpart|
■/g/: Word-initial and word-medial /g/ are not pronounced the same in Standard Japanese. Word-initial /g/ is pronounced as the [g] in the English word “go,” but word-medial /g/ is pronounced as [ng] like in “sing.” If you find the [ng] pronunciation too difficult, you can still substitute it with [g] and be understood. In fact, many speakers only pronounce /g/ as [g].
|Gaikoku (foreign country)||Gakusei (student)||Gozen (A.M.)||Gohan (cooked rice)||Kage (shadow)|
|Gaikokujin (foreigner)||Gitaa (guitar)||Gogo (P.M.)||Daigaku (college)||Fugu (pufferfish)|
Pronunciation Tip: To get used to pronouncing /g/ as [ng] inside a word, take the word iga (burr). Start off by saying “ing-ah,” then once you have pinpointed how exactly [ng] is made in the mouth, retry by making sure the first mora is just /i/, then pronounce [nga] as its own mora.
■/z/~[dz]: /z/ is the voiced counterpart of /s/, and [dz] is the voiced counterpart of [ts]. However, these two sounds are blurred by most speakers. At the start of words, /z/ is usually pronounced as [dz]. Both /z/ and [dz] are usually pronounced as [z] inside words. To conceptualize how [dz] sounds, think of the word “kids.” Additionally, when /z/ is followed by /i/, it becomes [j] as in “judge.”
|Kazu (number)||Zutsuu (headache)||Zen (Zen)||Zou (elephant)||Zeikin (tax)|
|Kaze (wind/cold)||Shiji (instruction)||Tsu(d)zuki (continuance)||Zou’o (Hatred)||Zaseki (seat)|
■/j/~[dj]: /j/ is the voiced counterpart of /sh/ and [dj] is the voiced counterpart of /ch/. However, these two sounds are blurred by most speakers. At the start of words, /j/ is usually pronounced as [dj]. Both /j/ and [dj] may be pronounced as [j] inside words, but many speakers exclusively use the [dj] pronunciation.
|Joshu (assistant)||Jitensha (bicycle)||Jettoki (jet aircraft)||Jo’ou (queen)||Ji (character)|
|Jikan (time)||Jidousha (vehicle)||Jesuchaa (gesture)||Jouzu (skillful)||Chi(d)jimu (to shrink)|
■/d/: The Japanese /d/ becomes [dj] when followed by /i/, which may then be reduced to /j/ if inside a word (see the word for “nosebleed” below). /d/ becomes [dz] when followed by /u/.
|Deeto (a date)||Doa (door)||Te(d)zukuri (handmade)||Shio(d)zuke (salting)||Denki (electricity)|
|Doku (poison)||Dizunii* (Disney)||Hana(d)ji (nosebleed)||Hada (skin)||Dansei (male)|
*: In recent loanwords, /di/ may now be heard despite not existing as a proper mora. This explains why older loanwords such as rajio (radio) do not exhibit it.
■/b/: Acoustically, /b/ is the voiced counterpart of /p/, but in Japanese it is treated as the voiced counterpart of /h/.
|Bataa (butter)||Baka (idiot)||Terebi (TV)||Boueki (trade)||Bangou (number)|
|Basho (place)||Kaba (hippo)||Benri (convenient)||Fuben (inconvenient)||Butaniku (pork)|
Nasal Consonants 鼻音
Nasal consonants in both English and Japanese are pronounced by both vibrating the vocal folds and passing air through the nose.
The Nasal Consonants of Japanese
■/n/: Made with the blade of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth with /a/, /e/, and /o/, behind the alveolar ridge of the mouth with /i/ (like in news), and behind the teeth with /u/ (like in noon).
|Niwa (garden)||Neko (cat)||Neru (to sleep)||Nooto (notebook)||Netsu (fever)|
|Nekutai (necktie)||Nomu (to drink)||Noru (to ride)||Nioi (smell)||Nodo (throat)|
■/m/: Pronounced by bringing the lips together in the same way as in English.
|Miso (miso)||Minato (harbor)||Musuko (son)||Mushi (bug)||Machi (town)|
|Manga (manga)||Mukashi (olden days)||Musume (daughter)||Mori (forest)||Michi (road)|
Liquid Consonant 流音
Liquid consonants are sounds like /l/ and /r/. In most languages, there are at least two liquid consonants. In Japanese, there is only one, but its pronunciation is unique.
The Japanese Liquid Consonant
■/r/: It is typically pronounced as a flap, which sounds like the “t” in the word “water” in American English. At the beginning of a word, it sounds almost like /d/, but the tongue only taps the alveolar ridge of the mouth rather than making a prolonged contact behind the teeth. This means that the Japanese /r/ and /d/ are not pronounced in the same location of the mouth, even if they may sound similar. Sometimes, speakers may pronounce /r/ like a trill, which will be familiar to Spanish speakers as being the same as the consonant rr.
English native learners tend to pronounce /r/ like the English one. However, the sounds are so different that this may impede understanding. It is far better to replace it with the English l as [l] is a valid and very common pronunciation. The reason why [r] and [l] are not viewed as separate consonants in Japanese is because they never contrast words. Rather, they are merely two of several valid pronunciations of what is treated as a single consonant in Japanese.
|Rakuen (paradise)||Resutoran (restaurant)||Rekishi (history)||Ari (ant)||Kuru (to come)|
|Rei (zero)||Roku (six)||Repooto (report)||Ura (reverse side)||Suru (to do)|
Semi-vowels are like vowels in the sense that the tongue doesn’t actually touch any part of the mouth, but the tongue does move in ways that cause the flow of air to sound like consonants, thus the name “semi-vowel.”
The Semi-Vowels of Japanese
■/y/: The tongue is brought up to the hard palate and air is then blown through that tight corridor. It sounds essentially the same as its English equivalent, but it does sound slightly more tense. Traditionally, /y/ is only paired with the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/, but it may be seen with /e/ in loanwords.
|Yubi (finger)||Yakusoku (Promise)||Yon (four)||Yasumi (rest)||Yasashii (nice)|
|Yowai (weak)||Yomu (to read)||Yama (mountain)||Yasui (cheap)||Yeeru (Yale)|
■/w/: The Japanese /w/ is the consonant version of the Japanese /u/, meaning that it has more in common with the Japanese /u/ than it does with its English counterpart. The Japanese /w/, too, is pronounced by compressing the lips rather than protruding them outward. Long ago, /w/ was used with all vowels in native vocabulary, but in modern speech it is only paired with /a/ unilaterally, with some speakers still using it with /o/. In recent loanwords, it can be seen with every vowel minus /u/, with /wu/ being particularly difficult to enter the language.
|Wana (trap)||Warui (bad)||Awa (bubble)||Weitoresu (Waitress)||Wani (crocodilian)|
|Wakai (young)||Watashi (I)||Wikipedia (Wikipedia)||Weeruzu (Wales)||Webusaito (website)|
Palatal Consonants 拗音
Palatal consonants are made by placing the body of the tongue touch against the hard palate of the mouth. These consonants are typically restricted to the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/*, and they are all created with the help of the consonant /y/ merging with a preceding consonant.
※Just as is the case with the consonant /y/, palatal consonants are only used with /e/ in loanwords.
The Palatal Consonants of Japanese
|Kyaku (customer)||Kyou (today)||Kyoushitsu (classroom)||Kyonen (last year)||Joukyou (situation)|
|Kyouto (Kyoto)||Kyuu (nine)||Kyoudai (sibiling)||Jukyou (Confuciasm)||Kyoukai (church)|
|Gyaku (opposite)||Gyakutai (abuse)||Wagyuu (wagyu beef)||Gyuudon (gyudon)||Gyogyou (fishing)|
|Gyuuniku (beef)||Gyouji (event)||Gyuusha (ox cart)||Gyouza (potstickers)||Gyougi (manners)|
■/sy/ = /sh/; /zy/ = /j/: The combination of /s/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /sh/. It is typically only used with the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/, but it can also be used with /e/ in loanwords. Likewise, the combination of /z/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /j/. It, too, is typically only used with the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/, but it can also be used with /e/ in loanwords.
|Shouyu (soy sauce)||Shokudou (cafeteria)||Shuu (week)||Jaguchi (faucet)||Shashin (picture)|
|Shukudai (homework)||Juu (ten/gun)||Jiko (accident)||Ha’isha (dentist)||Shako (carport)|
■/ty/ = /ch/; /dy/ = [dj]: In native words, the combination of /t/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /ch/. The same goes for [dj], which is the combination of /d/ and /y/. With the influx of loanwords from other languages, however, /ty/ and /dy/ can actually be seen, but their use is rare.
|Koucha (black tea)||Chero (cello)||Cheko (Czech)||Cheju (Jeju)||Chairo (brown)|
|Chousa (investigation)||Chesu (chess)||Dyuetto (duet)||Dyuo (duo)||Tyuruku (Turkic)|
■/ny/: This consonant is only found in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary, but it is very common in Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
|Nyaa (meow)||Gyuunyuu (milk)||Nyuushu (obtaining)||Nyuuyoku (bathing)||Nyuuryoku (input)|
|Nyuusu (news)||Nyoubou (wife)||Nyou (urine)||Nyuujou (admission)||Nyuunen (careful)|
■/hy/: This consonant is rare in native vocabulary, but it is very common in Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
|Hyaku (100)||Hyouga (glacier)||Hyouka (evaluation)||Hyouban (reputation)||Hyoujun (standard)|
|Hyou (vote)||Hyuuga (Hyuga)||Hyougen (expression)||Hyoumen (surface)||Hyouzan (iceberg)|
■/by/: This consonant is only found in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary, but it is also found in a handful of productive Sino-Japanese roots that utilize it.
|Byouki (illness)||Byuu (view)||Byouin (hospital)||Byou (second)||Byounin (sick person)|
|Byousha (depiction)||Gobyuu (fallacy)||Byoudou (equality)||Gabyou (Tack)||Byoushou (sickbed)|
■/py/: This consonant is quite rare. It only appears in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary. Otherwise, it’s found in only a handful of loanwords.
|Pyuuma (puma)||Pyuu (swoosh)||Pyon’yan (Pyongyang)||Pyonpyon (hop-hop)|
■/my/: This consonant is essentially nonexistent in native vocabulary, and its use is limited even in Sino-Japanese words and loanwords.
|Myaku (pulse)||Myuujikaru (musical)||Myouji (surname)||Bimyou (subtle)|
|Myou (weird)||Myunhen (Munich)||Kimyou (peculiar)||Myuutsuu (Mewtwo)|
■/ry/: This consonant is the hardest for English native speakers to pronounce. As is the case with all palatal consonants, it is very important that one does not insert an /i/ inside the consonant because this will most likely change the word. This consonant is essentially nonexistent in native vocabulary, but it is very productive in Sino-Japanese words, many of which are very common words.
|Ryuu (dragon)||Ryaku (abbreviation)||Ryouri (cooking)||Ryoushin (parents)|
|Ryou (dorm/quantity)||Ryokou (travel)||Ryokan (Japanese inn)||Ryoushi (fisherman)|
Long Consonants 長子音
All non-voiced consonants minus /h/ can be ‘doubled’ in native vocabulary. Long consonants arose from contractions in all three sources of Japanese vocabulary: native words, Sino-Japanese words, and loanwords.
Long consonants are conceptualized by speakers as being two morae equal in length. In reality, this may not always be the case, but there is an audible difference in both length and intensity of the consonant. To spell a long consonant out, just double the first letter of the consonant. To make reading easier, the only exception will be double /ch/, which will be spelled as /tch/. Below are example words of each kind of long consonant.
|Makka (bright red)||Yokka (four days)||Sakka (author)||Sakkaa (soccer)||Sakki (moment ago)|
|Kokka (nation)||Mikka (three days)||Nikki (diary)||Shikkari (firmly)||Sukkari (completely)|
|Kassouro (runway)||Issai (entirety)||Hassou (conception)||Dassen (derailment)|
|Zassou (weeds)||Dassou (escape)||Tassuru (to reach)||Kassai (applause)|
|Zasshi (magazine)||Asshuku (compression)||Nesshin (zealous)||Hasshou (outbreak)|
|Isshun (moment)||Kasshoku (dark brown)||Hassha (departure)||Dasshutsu (break-out)|
|Batta (grasshopper)||Settei (settings)||Kottouhin (antique)||Chotto (a little)|
|Kettei (decision)||Settai (entertainment)||Kitto (surely)||Motto (more)|
|Shutchou (business trip)||Matcha (matcha)||Pitchaa (pitcher)||Hatchuu (ordering)|
|Satchuuzai (insecticide)||Katchuu (armor)||Matchi (match)||Matcho (macho)|
|Shippai (failure)||Happyou (announcement)||Shippo (tail)||Seppuku (harakiri)|
|Shuppatsu (departure)||Happa (lleaves)||Kappou (Japanese cuisine)||Appare (bravo)|
When loanwords are included, /h/ as well as a select number of voiced consonants may also be doubled. However, even though they remain spelled as doubled voiced consonants, they become unvoiced.
|Bahha (bach)||Beddo (bed)||Baggu (bag)||Bajji (badge)|
The Moraic Nasal 撥音
There is a special voiced consonant in Japanese called the “moraic nasal,” meaning that the consonant counts as its own mora. Although usually transcribed as an “n,” its pronunciation varies depending on the environment.
In its basic understanding, it is what’s called a uvular “n” that is best transcribed as /N/ for simplicity. The uvula is back in the mouth, but when you pronounce it, the mouth constricts and pronounces a nasal consonant. At times, though, this consonant is pronounced as [n] and even [m]. This is because it assimilates (becomes more similar) with the sound that follows.
The Pronunciations of the Moraic /N/
■Pronounced as [m]: When /N/ is before a /p/, /b/, or /m/, it becomes [m]. This also results in double /mm/.
|Sampo (walk)||Kampeki (perfect)||Tammatsu (device)||Sammyaku (mountain range)|
|Shimpai (worry)||Kampai (cheers)||Sembei (Rice cracker)||Shimpan (refereeing)|
■Pronounced as [n]: When /N/ is before /t/, /d/, /n/, /r/, it becomes [n]. This also results in double /nn/.
|Kanri (management)||Minna (everyone)||Kantou (Kanto)||Sentaku (laundry/choice)|
|Shinri (mentality)||Shinrai (faith)||Tennou (emperor)||Handan (judgment)|
■Pronounced as [ng]: When /N/ is before /k/ and /g/, it becomes [ng]. Because /n/ is pronounced the same way in English under these circumstances, [ng] will be spelled as “n” for simplicity.
|Shinka (evolution)||Kankaku (feeling)||Sanka (participation)||Tango (word)|
|Kingyo (goldfish)||Kangae (idea)||Kango (Sino-Japanese word)||Bangou (number)|
■Pronounced as [ny]: When /N/ is before /ch/ or [dj], it is pronounced in the same place of the mouth as these consonants, resulting in [ny]. The “y” indicates the palatal articulation, and so it will be simply spelled out as “n” so as to avoid confusion with the palatal consonant /ny/.
|Kanja (patient)||Tanchiki (Detector)||Kanjou (emotion)||Shinchuu (brass)|
|Tanjoubi (birthday)||Kanji (Chinese characters)||Sanchou (summit)||Shinchou (height)|
■ Pronounced as [ũ]: When before vowels, /y/, /w/, /s/, /sh/, /z/, /h/, and /f/, /N/ sounds like a nasalized vowel. Typically, it sounds like a very nasal /u/, which we’ll denote as [ũ]. Although this is usually spelled as “n” for simplicity, it’ll be spelled as “ũ” below to indicate the true pronunciation.
|Taũ’i (unit)||Koũwaku (perplexity)||Deũsha (train)|
|Kaũzei (tariff)||Kiũyuu (finance)||Kaũsai (Kansai)|
■ Pronounced as [N]: At the end of words, /N/’s default pronunciation is [N].
|Nihon (Japan)||Hon (book)||En (yen)||Ton (ton)||Ten (point/heaven)|
|Kan (can)||Kin (gold)||Gin (silver)||Hen (strange)||Gan (cancer)|
※Though these sound changes are predictable, there is still a degree of free variation. For instance, some speakers pronounce /N/ as [n] in other situations aside from those listed above such as before /z/. You may also hear it pronounced as [m] entirely in music. In intentionally slowed speech, you may just hear the uvular pronunciation.
In Conclusion 最後に…
Now that we have taken a detailed look at Japanese pronunciation, it is now time to learn about how Japanese writing works. Unlike most other languages, it is not possible to learn how to read in one go. There are thousands of characters involved, and it will likely take even the most skilled learner a few years to become mostly literate. Even for Japanese native speakers, writing is like a life-long art experience. By learning how Japanese writing works, though, you will at least have the basic knowledge needed to make studying more efficient.