These are the basic sounds of Japanese, the letters of both the hiragana (for Japanese words and endings) and katakana (for foreign words).
Note the letters in bold type. The sounds SI, TI, TU and HU do not normally occur in Japanese, although there is the loan word tii '(Western) tea'. and a small number of others, especially with ti.
The sound marked as (O) is a separate hiragana (occasionally katakana) letter which used to be pronounced WO but is now pronounced O and used only for one word.
Note also that Y and W do not occur with all five vowels.
in hiragana and katakana, the G row is produced by adding " to the K row, the Z row by adding " to the S row, The D row by adding " to the T row, the B row by adding " to the H row and the P row by adding a small circle to the H row.
The letters marked (JI) and (ZU) are only used in a small number of words.
The sounds in the tables all have short vowels (except n which may follow any other syllable). They may all occur with long vowels. Officially they should be Romanized with macrons (bars over them). Here the sounds will be spelled out - aa, ii, uu, ee and oo. This also makes it easier to remember whether they are long or short. Get this wrong and you will not be understood. Obasan is 'aunt', obaasan is 'granny'.
- u is not made with round lips and o and e are pronounced with a mouth which is not too widely open.
- ee is ei and oo is spelled ou, except in a small number of words (e.g., oneesan 'elder sister' and ookii 'big'). These are not, however, diphthongs. Like all other Japanese vowels, they are the same sound throught.
- there is no puff of air after Japanee k, t, ch and p, as there is in English.
- fu is pronounced with both lips, not teeth on lips as in English. Pretend you're blowing out a candle.
- hi and hy are the sound in English huge (exaggerated) or German ich.
- Japanese r is actually pronounced like English d, but with the tongue tou ching the gum above your top teeth, not the bottom of your top teeth as with d. Say da, da, da and move your tongue up a centimetre - that should be Japanese r.
- There is no l in Japanese - in foreign words r is used instead. Neither is there v - b is used instead.
Look what happens if hiragana or katakana ya, yu or yo are written small after the letters ending in -i.
Note that these are single syllables. Do not pronounce them kiya, etc.
The following consonants may occur doubled: k, s, t, p, sh (ssh) and ch (tch). In these cases both consonants are pronounced. Admittedly, esecially in fast speech the first consonant may not be fully pronounced, but the mouth does at least pause on them. Get it wrong and you won't be understood - kako 'the past' <-> kakko 'bracket (punctuation)'.
Pitch accent (高低アクセント Koutei akusento)
Consider the sentences:
- He bought a record.
- He recorded the interview.
"Record" has different pronunciations. The first vowel is different and in 1. the first syllable is pronounced heavily (stressed). In 2. the second vowel is stressed.
Japanese does not use stress like this. On the other hand, each syllable is either high or low. This is decided word by word. For example, "ame" pronounced with "a" high and "me" low means "rain", but if "a" is pronounced low and "me" high, it means "candy".
As you hear more and more Japanese, you will get a natural feel for this, but hear are some useful guidelines:
- The first two syllables must be low high or high low.
- If they are low high, there may be one fall from high to low after any syllable later in the sentence. There may be no fall. There cannot be two falls in the sentence.
- More words, especially words of three or more syllables, have the low high pattern than the high low one.
- Question words are high low: nani "what", dare "who", dou "how", naze "why", etc.
- It is possible for a word to have a fall after their last syllable, e.g. kakí 'fence'. Strangely, the particle "no" ('of', etc.) cancels this fall.
- When writing in Romanization it is convenient to record any fall with an acute accent, e.g., áme 'rain'. If you're using kana, you could write ¬ after any fall.
- These are the rules for standard Japanese ("hyoujungo"). Dialects, e.g. Kansai Japanese, have other rules.