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Vowel sounds

Japanese has only five vowel sounds which do not change. Below I have given similar sounds for a UK English speaker.

A

Cat, attack. Not father.

I

See. Not I.

U

Who, you. Not umbrella.

E

Egg.

O

Hot, con. Not open.

To stop all you non-UK English speakers sending me angry emails, I have uploaded a sound file for you to listen to here

Here are all the Japanese syllables (go juu on – 50 sounds) arranged for hiragana and katakana. It’s worth printing this table out and sticking it on your wall somewhere where you can see it. Here are the accompanying sound files.

 

Just to note, both hiragana and katakana represent the same sounds; hiragana are used for Japanese words and katakana are used for foreign loan words (gairaigo). For more insight into the kana, check out Wikipedia on hiragana and katakana.

 

It is important to familiarise yourself with the layout and order of the kana table even if you do not intend to learn the kana. There are five columns based on the five vowel sounds of Japanese. Most rows will contain five sounds. Japanese is generally “alphabetised” according to the kana table layout.

 

Thinking in syllables

Understanding the kana table will also get you thinking in syllables which will help your Japanese greatly. It’s quite an easy concept to understand when you start using kana as usually one character represents one syllable, however, for those who write Japanese in romaji this may not be clear. Thinking in syllables helps to keep your pronunciation even and flat and also makes conjugating Japanese verbs and adjectives much easier.

 

Sounds

You may notice that there aren’t really all that many different sounds. English speakers should be able to pronounce them without too much difficulty. One sound that may require practice is the tsu.  Make sure that you can differentiate it from the su sound. The Japanese r sound should be fine pronounced as an r but it is actually a blend of l and r which explains the difficulty some Japanese people have with those sounds. The chi, shi and fu sounds are also worthy of note because they don’t quite fit the usual pattern (you would expect them to be ti, si and hu). The nn sound is the only non-vowel sound. You may see it romanized as n or m.

 

Small tsu

One point that needs explaining is the small tsu character ( in hiragana). The small tsu has the effect of doubling up the following consonant which results in words like atta.

English meaning

Romaji

Hiragana

Shoulder

kata

かた

Bought

katta

かった

Outside

soto

そと

Softly

sotto

そっと

 

Dots and circles

You will see two dots in the top right hand corner of some of the characters looking much like an English apostrophe. This mark is called a ten ten, literally dot dot, and it changes the pronunciation of the characters as follows:

Syllable from the k row + ten ten = equivalent syllable from the g row. 

Syllable from the s row + ten ten = equivalent syllable from the z row (note there is no zi, just a ji). 

Syllable from the t row + ten ten = equivalent syllable from the d row (note there is no di or du, only a ji and a zu). 

The small circle (maru) in the top right has a similar effect on pronunciation.

Syllable from the h row + circle = equivalent syllable from the p row. 

Mnemonic: imagine the circle makes the character “happy” and you should find it easy to remember the h to p change.

These sounds produced by the dots and circles are known as dakuon and handakuon respectively.

 

Combined syllables

The characters ya, yu and yo also appear as smaller versions of themselves and combine with other syllables to form new syllables as follows. You have seen all these characters before in the main chart so there is no need to panic.

 

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