Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let's Enjoy Japanese: It's easy to say

Most of my readership at the moment probably has little to no Japanese experience, so this kind of entry may die out. For now, however, I've decided to periodically write about 日本語 (nihongo - Japanese language). I've been studying for about 5 years now and have spent a total, on and off, of roughly 19 months in Japan. If I were a cleverer or more diligent man, I'd be fluent by now. Neither being the case, though, I'd gauge myself as Upper-Intermediate. Two Decembers ago I passed the JLPT level 3, and next year I think I'll be gunning for level 2.

Anyway, if anyone is curious at all about the language, feel free to ask questions and I will answer to the best of my ability. If let to my own devices, I'll probably just post some seemingly random words and grammar points of various difficulties. Oh, and in case you were wondering about the title of the post, "Let's enjoy __________" is a standard English pattern that students learn over here, and you see it all over the place. Why, just last week I helped teach an open-house demonstration lesson. The title of our offering was, of course, "Let's Enjoy English."

Now let's get down to brass tacks. Japanese is a difficult language for English speakers - according to the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute, Japanese ranks a 3* on a scale of 1-3, with 3 being the most difficult (the asterisk denotes extra difficulty, perhaps akin to a half step up). Pronunciation, however, is not an element of that difficulty. Quite the reverse - for native English speakers, Japanese is very straightforward. It is the Japanese who have trouble with English pronunciation, as there are many sounds present in our language that do not exist in Japanese. Plus, there are many rules and exceptions in English. "Read" and "red" can share the same pronunciation. Sometimes.

Here is how we pronounce vowels in Japanese:

あ - A - sounds like the "a" in "father"
い - I - sounds like the "i" in "marine" (English's "ee" sound)
う - U - sounds like "oo" in English, such as in "cool"
え - E - sounds like the "e" in "end"
お - O - sounds like the "o" in "old"

The great thing is, no matter in what order the characters appear or with what consonant partners, their sounds always remain the same. Hence さ (sa) + け (ke) = さけ (sake; meaning liquor) is pronounced "sah-keh."

Please, for the love of God, remember that - "sah-keh," not "sah-key."

Update: It's noteworthy, as pointed out in the comments, that in some words vowels sounds may be slurred or dropped. This is not a rule, however - just an alternate pronunciation.


  1. Eh the consonant partner thing...
    sometimes u get letters that go unprounced or slurred. Don't forget that.
    Like Tasuki you just say- Tahskey... would u say that's something different? Either way I think it's not completely straight forward with all the pronunciations.


  2. Ah, yes - You're right that letters can often be slurred (usually in the form of a dropped vowel). That happens especially often with です (desu) and ~ます (masu). However, in those cases, either pronunciation is acceptable. It's perfectly correct to pronounce the "u" sound at the end, but, as you say, it is often dropped.

  3. Also with (sorry to use the example) Ai. You don't say Ah ee you just say Eye.
    Love ur avatar btw.

  4. Heh, thanks. Yes, but "Eye" is the natural pronunciation, even by thes rules. The "Ah" sound and the "ee" sound are both present - they are just not drawn out. Put "Ah" and "ee" together and say it quickly and you have "Eye."

  5. So, how would one pronounce "Eiko," a character from Final Fantasy IX? I've always wondered that.

  6. E as in "end"
    I as in "machine"
    K like a hard c
    O as in "old"


  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I took Japanese for a year. It is seriously difficult to learn, but then again, we all know Ashley isn't the genius-type. I'll stick with my mediocre knowledge of a dead language, ha!

    The only thing it was useful for was pissing of self-proclaimed American "otakus". How I hate Americans who think they know everything about Japan because they read manga or watch anime. Sigh. Many arguments with them, many of them won. So, at least my parents didn't waste the years worth of money on classes for nothing. ;)

    Wish people would realize there's more to the country than anime/manga/weaboo crap.