The Japanese Language

I use at least a few Japanese words in nearly every post I write, so while I’m on my “Guide to Japan” kick, it would make sense to write about the language itself.  I’ll give it a go.

In this post, I’ll cover phonology.

Vowels

Note that when I say “vowels,” I’m talking about sounds, not letters.  English has five vowels in its alphabet, but it uses many more actual vowel sounds.

Japanese has only five vowel sounds: a like in father, i like in see, u like in you, e like in say, and o like in no.  However, unlike the English vowels in “say” and “no,” none of the Japanese vowels are diphthongs.

Furthermore, Japanese vowels are all short.  What does that mean?  Consider long and short vowels in English.  The vowel in “met” is short and the vowel in “mate” is long.  They’re also simply different vowels, but the point is, if you try saying the two words, you can hear the difference in length.  So the Japanese e is pronounced with the same sound as mate (minus the diphthong part), but with the short length of met.

Consonants

Consonants are nearly the same as in English (and again, I’m talking about sounds, not letters).  The most notable exception is that Japanese has neither r nor l, but instead features a sound that’s a bit like a cross between r, l, and the American English flap (the sound Americans substitute for t and d in words like “water” and “buddy”). Another difference is that there is no true f in Japanese.  What about words like Fuji?  Well when h is followed by u, the h changes to a sound made by pushing air through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle, and the effect is similar to f.

Those are the big differences.  There are smaller ones, but I’ll skip them for the sake of brevity.

As far as combining sounds, a consonant must be followed by a vowel.  This can make for some rather cumbersome English loanwords.  “Strike,” for example, becomes sutoraiku.  The exceptions to this rule are that n can appear without a vowel, that <consonant+y+vowel> is allowed, and that some consonants can be “long,” which I’ll explain later.

Stress

English has stress patterns that are part of each word’s pronunciation.  Take the two words written “record.”  With the noun, the first syllable is stressed, and with the verb, it’s the second syllable.

Japanese doesn’t have stress accenting; each syllable receives the same emphasis.  English speakers trying to pronounce Japanese tend to have difficulty with this.  My advice is, if you can’t manage equal-stress syllables, then the next best thing is to accent the first syllable.  And whatever you do, don’t accent the second to last syllable.  So for example, pronouncing the popular manga and anime series Naruto as /na ru to/ sounds really goofy, but /na ru to/ is fine.  Or for a less nerdy example, Kenji Johjima, a catcher for the Seattle Mariners baseball team (2006-2009), initially had his name mangled by announcers as /jo ji ma/, but eventually this was corrected to /jo ji ma/.

Pitch

Japanese doesn’t have stress accents, but it does have pitch accents, which are patterns of high and low pitch. These are not the same thing as the tone system used in Chinese.  The Wikipedia page has an excellent audio example.  Unfortunately for people learning Japanese as a second language, pitch accents vary by regional dialect and aren’t displayed in most dictionaries.  When I studied Japanese at the University of Washington, the instructors didn’t even attempt to teach pitch accents.

Moras

Japanese words are divided into sub-syllable segments called moras.  A consonant-vowel pair is one mora, a vowel with no consonant is a mora, and n with no vowel is a mora.  So for example, sushi has two moras: su and shi.  Akai (“red”) has three: a.ka.i.  Nenjū (“year-round”) has four moras: ne.n.ju.u.

An English speaker asked to clap the beats in a word will match the beats to syllables, but in Japanese, each mora gets a beat.  And unlike the English syllable-beats, Japanese mora-beats are all the same length.

Moras are important in Japanese metered poetry.  In the original Japanese, the 5-7-5 pattern of a haiku poem is counted by mora, not syllable.

Doubled Sounds

I said that the word nenjū has four moras.  Why is it four and not three?  The reason is that the line over the u indicates a “long” vowel.  An alternate way to write the word would be nenjuu.

Properly speaking, all Japanese vowels are short, but the same vowel can come twice in a row.  The effect of such doubling is that the vowel is pronounced for two beats instead of one.  And in fact there are words where the same vowel appears for three moras in a row, as with yūutsu/yuuutsu (“melancholy”).

Consonants can also be doubled, though not tripled.  With sounds that can be pronounced continuously, such as s, sh, and n, the consonant is simply lengthened.  For an idea of what this sounds like, try saying “this seat” (at a normal pace, not slowly).  The s in “this” runs into the s in “seat,” creating one long s.  The long s in the Japanese word kissaten (“cafe”) sounds just like this.

Consonants produced by stopping and releasing air, such as p, t, and k, are doubled by holding the stop for a beat.  You can make a doubled k in English by quickly saying “back kick.”

In terms of moras, a word with doubled consonants breaks down like this:  ki.s.sa.te.n.

Finally, as for usage, a doubled consonant never begins a word, and – with n being the exception once again – voiced consonants can’t be doubled.  (Voiced consonants are those in which the vocal cords vibrate.  Touch your vocal cords and say “ssssssss” and then “zzzzzzzzzzz.”  Z is voiced and s is not.  Other voiced/voiceless pairs include b/p, d/t, and g/k.)


And there you have it.  Not at all comprehensive, but I wanted to keep the information density at a manageable level.

 

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