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Grammar detail: Japanese pronunciation

Japanese pronunciation
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One of the more straightforward aspects of learning Japanese is the pronunciation, which is quite regular. With only a few exceptions, each syllable in each word is enunciated individually in the same way each time it appears.
Sounding out words
Each separate sound in a word or name (known as a 'mora') is pronounced individually and rhythmically with the same duration. So for example the word ほそい (thin) would be pronounced with three equal 'beats': ho-so-i ('ho' like the 'ho' in 'hold', 'so' like the word 'so', 'i' like the 'e' in 'eat').
Most sounds are represented by single kana, but sounds written with a full-sized kana followed by a half-sized kana count as a single sound. So for example the word しゅみ (hobby) would be pronounced 'shu-mi' with two beats, not three.
Vowel sounds
Each of the sounds in Japanese consists of a vowel sound (the sounds represented by hiragana あ, い, う, え or お), optionally preceded by a consonant sound. In each case the vowel sound is consistent, whatever consonant it follows.
The following examples should help you get the vowel pronunciation correct. Use the audio samples as your primary guide - the Japanese sounds are not exactly like sounds in English, and of course the sound of English examples varies a lot between UK / American / Australian English etc. Note that the Japanese sounds are all short - the 'i' sound in Japanese is similar to the 'e' in eat, but shorter.
somewhere between the 'a' in 'mat' and the 'u' in 'cup' (with an American accent), or like a shorter version of the 'a' in 'father'
similar to the 'e' in 'eat' or the 'ee' in 'meet', but shorter (about the length of the 'i' in 'big')
similar to the 'ui' in 'suit', or an unrounded version of the 'oo' in 'shoot', but shorter (the length of the 'u' in 'put')
similar to the 'e' in 'egg' or 'bed' or 'bet'
similar to a cross between the 'o' in 'only' or 'stony' (but shorter) and the 'o' in 'soft'
Consecutive vowels
In English, consecutive vowels are generally elided - the second sound usually either modifies the first sound or is silenced entirely. In Japanese, consecutive (different) vowels are each pronounced distinctly as individual beats. Some common examples include:
あい
らいしゅう (next week)
かいしゃ (company)
えい
えいご (English)
へいきん (average)
Note that the えい sound in Japanese is actually closer to a lengthened え - the い sound is pronounced hardly or at all (see the next section on long vowels). However, it is customary to write えい in kana.
Long vowels
When a vowel sound is doubled up, it is pronounced by lengthening the first sound for two 'beats'. The second beat is not accented in any way - the sound is simply continued. For the い, う and え sounds this doubling does not affect the pronunciation, but for あ the long 'a' is more like the 'a' in 'father', and for お the long 'o' is more like the 'o' in 'note'.
The doubling up is a little irregular in kana - in hiragana, the お sound is lengthened by adding う. For example, Tokyo is written in kana as とうきょう, and both the first and last syllable are pronounced with a long 'o' sound
. In katakana, the lengthening is usually accomplished with a stroke symbol, as in for example チーズ (rather than チイズ)
or タクシー (rather than タクシイ)
. This symbol is called a
ちょうおんぷ
長音符
(chōonpu).
When Japanese is written in 'romaji' (i.e., using the English alphabet), it is customary to write a long vowel sound with a stroke over the letter. So for example Tokyo would be written Tōkyō, and in the same vein, Kanshudo would be written Kanshūdō. In practice, this is only done when words are being written specifically to indicate how they should be read.
The ふ character
There is no 'hu' sound in Japanese - the kana symbol ふ is pronounced closer to the English 'fu'. However, the 'f' sound is not quite as pronounced as the English - your top front teeth should not touch your bottom lip.
ふじさん
富士山
(Mt Fuji)
ふくざつ
複雑
(complicated)
こうふん
興奮
(excitement)
, ひ
, へ
and ほ
are pronounced 'ha' 'hi' 'he' and 'ho' as expected.
The 'r' sound
ら, り, る, れ and ろ all start with a sound that is close to the English 'r', but 'rolled' slightly by curling your tongue very slightly and touching it briefly to the top of your mouth. It is rather like moving your tongue as if you were saying 'l', while making an 'r' sound.
This sound is trickiest for non-native speakers to get right (and conversely, causes Japanese a lot of problems with the 'l' sound in English).
Here are a few examples:
らく
(pleasure)
らない
(don't know)
りか
理科
(science)
りる
(borrow)
るす
留守
(away)
くるみ
(walnut)
れきし
歴史
(history)
しゃべ
れる
(can speak)
ろくがつ
六月
(June)
ぼろぼろ
(worn-out)
To complicate matters, these sounds often appear together in certain inflected forms of verbs! In particular the passive form of all verbs and the potential form of ichidan verbs use ら, れ and る! This will take a little practice.
べられる
(can eat / is eaten)
きられる
(can get up / is got up)
られる
(can see / is seen)
おし
えられる
(can teach / is taught)
The 'g' sound
The 'g' sound in が、ぎ、ぐ、げ and ご is pronounced a little more 'nasally' than in English: where in English the 'g' of 'get' is made towards the front of the mouth, in Japanese, try to move the sound further back towards the roof of your mouth.
Additionally, the sound is somewhat different depending on the context. When a 'g' sound begins a word, it is pronounced like the hard 'g' in English 'garden'. In Japanese, the hard sound as known as
だくおん
濁音
(voiced consonant).
 ぎ
 ぐ
 げ
 ご
がっこう
学校
(school)
However, when the 'g' sound is used within a word, the sound is closer to the 'ng' in 'hanging' - in some parts of Japan, there is actually quite a distinct 'n' sound preceding the 'g' sound.
 ぎ
 ぐ
 げ
 ご
しょうがっこう
小学校
(elementary school)
This form of the 'g' sound is known as
びだくおん
鼻濁音
(nasally voiced consonant), and there are actually several rules which govern its usage. In modern daily Japanese, however, this is gradually changing - the 'n' is increasingly dropped, and the 'g' sound is pronounced distinctly.
つ and っ
The 'tsu' sound is like 'su' with a very brief 't' as in ('tomorrow') at the start. The total length of the sound is a single beat - no extra time is spent adding the 't'.
Historically this sound was tricky for English speakers, but since the word 'tsunami' has now moved into English, it is more easily mastered. Be careful not to accent the word in the English way - tsuNAmi - in Japanese, accents are based on pitch, not emphasis, and you should give each syllable the same time and emphasis: tsu-na-mi.
よい
(strong)
つなみ
津波
(tsunami)
はつか
二十日
(twentieth of the month)
The small っ is used to double the consonant it precedes - so unless it precedes a つ, it is not pronounced つ! For example in the word
みっか
三日
(three days), the っ is used to add an additional 'k' sound: mi-k-ka. Note that the consonant repetition gets a full 'beat' in terms of timing - unlike the small kana よ, や, ゆ which are absorbed into the beat of the kana before them (きょ is kyo not ki-yo). 
The topic marker は and the directional particle へ
There are a couple of 'situational irregularities' - words where a kana character is pronounced differently depending on context. The two most notable examples are:
  • The topic marker は, which uses the kana symbol 'ha', but is pronounced 'wa' when it functions as the topic marker
  • The directional particle へ, which is pronounced without the 'h' as just 'e' (like the 'ay' in 'hay')
So, the sentence
にほん
日本
ではどこへ
きましたか (where did you go in Japan?) is actually pronounced 'nihon de wa doko e ikimashita ka'.
Pitch accents
Japanese is a 'pitch-accented' language, and it is important to pronounce each sound with the correct pitch. For detailed information on pitch and pitch accents, see The Kanshudo definitive guide to pitch accents, where you'll learn how to accent words correctly in Japanese, how to use pitch symbols in Japanese dictionaries, and how to distinguish some commonly confused words.
Once you have read through this guide, use the mastery section above the text to score your current knowledge. Kanshudo tracks your mastery of every grammar point with a score from 0-4. Your mastery scores will be updated automatically as you study grammar flashcards or play grammar games, but you can also edit them manually by clicking the number in the mastery section. Editing your mastery will enable you to complete any study task involving a grammar point.
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Kanji used in this grammar

チョウ   なが long   
オン   イン   sound   おと    ね    
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フ    sign, mark   
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フ   フウ   とみ wealth   と to grow / be wealthy   
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シ   samurai
サン   やま mountain   
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フク    double, multiple   
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ザツ   ゾウ    miscellaneous   
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コウ   キョウ    entertainment, interest   おこ to flourish   おこ to establish   
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フン   lively   ふる to be lively   
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ガク   ラク    music   たのしい happy, pleasant   たのしむ to be happy   
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チ   し to know   
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リ    logic   
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カ    department   
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シャク   かりる to borrow   
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ル   リュウ   とめる to detain   とまる to stop   
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シュ   ス   まも to protect, guard   もり babysitting   
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レキ    passing of time   
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シ    history   
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しゃべ to chat   
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ロク   むっ six   む    むい    む    
ガツ   ゲツ   つき month; moon   
ショク   ジキ    food   たべる to eat   く to eat   
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キ   おきる to wake up, to get up   おこる to happen   おこす to rouse   
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ケン   み to see   みえる to be seen; to appear   みせる to show   
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キョウ   おしえる to teach   おそわる to be taught   
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ダク   muddy   にご to become muddy, turbid   にご to make muddy   
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ガク   まな to learn   
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コウ    exam   
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ショウ   こ-    お-    ちいさい small   
ビ   はな nose   
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キョウ   ゴウ   つよ strong   つよまる to get stronger   つよめる to strengthen   しいる to compel, to force   
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シン   inlet   つ an inlet, a haven   
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ハ   なみ wave   
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ニ   ふた    ふた two   
ジュウ   ジッ   と    とお ten   
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ニチ   ジツ   sun; day   ひ    -か    
サン   み    みっ three   
ホン   book   もと origin   
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コウ   ギョウ   アン   ゆ    い to go   おこな to take place   
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