Welcome to the first installment in a series of posts I’m going to be writing about the fundamentals of the Japanese language. Part 1 will be an introduction to the post series as well as covering an aspect of the language I feel is the very first step one should start with when learning it – pronunciation…
I apologize in advance for the introduction being so long, but I feel it’s all important stuff that should get out of the way now.
Why am I making this post series?
I had a “Learn Some Japanese” page on my old AnimeYume.com fan site for many years. At first it was just a list of common words and phrases until I decided to do more with it, dividing it into sections much like the ones I’ll be doing for this post series. However, it was terribly outdated as I didn’t even know how to type Japanese characters on my computer back then, and of course my knowledge of Japanese has improved significantly since. So I figured it’s time for it to be updated and I want to see how much better I can make it all these years later, especially here on the blog where I’ll be able to get reader feedback through comments.
I’m not going to be doing all the posts in this series back-to-back. I’ll still continue to do my regular anime-related posts in between and have a Fundamentals of Japanese post every once in a while.
I’ve discussed my background in Japanese in several past posts already, but for those who don’t know, I first began dabbling in a few Japanese words in the early 2000s and began formally studying the language at my junior college in 2004. I took all the Japanese classes that college had to offer (up to Intermediate) and I even had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan for a month with some classmates. When I transferred to a university in 2007, I continued my studies and took courses in Japanese literature, history, art history, politics, and Japanese language up to the end of Advanced. I joined the Japan club at both colleges I attended and got my B.A. in East Asian Languages & Literature. Right after I graduated in 2009, I had another lucky opportunity to spend three weeks in Japan via a private organization. Since then, I’ve been trying to keep up my study of the language through self-study at home, using the many textbooks I have and sites like Lang-8.
As of now, I feel like I have a good grasp of Japanese grammar and only need to learn more kanji (I know about 500+ as of now) and vocabulary. I would say I’m roughly 30%-40% fluent, which obviously isn’t enough to formally teach it to others, but I do feel I know enough to give potential learners a good foundation in the basics of the language.
Aren’t there enough Japanese-learning resources available already?
Probably the main reason I want to do this post series is because, while there certainly are plenty of other Japanese-learning sources out there, from my experience with the kinds of textbooks and teaching methods that are used, I feel that often the fundamentals of the language are glossed over in order to get right to memorizing words and grammar aspects. That happened to me in my very first semester of Japanese where we just went right to learning polite Japanese phrases and didn’t even discuss things like proper pronunciation, how the writing system works, the basics of the grammar, etc. So I ended up having to get separate textbooks on my own and teach myself the fundamentals we didn’t learn in class. I suppose they feel that most people don’t want to learn Japanese as much as just memorize enough to help them in business situations or to get through a vacation in Japan, and aren’t serious about really understanding the language. I think this is why a lot of English-speakers tend to struggle so much in beginner/intermediate Japanese; I feel it’s important to learn about the language first before jumping right into using it. If you don’t have a good foundation in the beginning, things get even more difficult later on.
So again, I know there are plenty of other sources for learning Japanese, but I feel there are a lack of sources that offer a good overview of the very basics. So that’s what I want to give here. And since this is still an anime blog, I’ll try to add anime references when I can to make it more fun, like in sample sentences and such ^_^
With what I said above, my goal for this post series is to give people starting to learn Japanese from scratch a good foundation in the fundamentals of the language so they can then continue to learn it on their own if they want, or just take what they’ve learned from it to enhance their anime fandom XD Even though the series is intended for people who are total beginners with Japanese, I hope those who already know Japanese will find it interesting too. Any feedback is appreciated!
Now that the long intro is out of the way, let’s get started!
Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 1: Pronunciation
Japanese is a very syllable and vowel-centric language; with only one exception, all of its syllables are made up of a consonant plus one of the following five vowel sounds:
A breakdown of all the possible syllables in the Japanese language are as follows:
The five basic vowels: a i u e o
k+vowel: ka ki ku ke ko
g+vowel: ga gi gu ge go (always a hard “g” sound, like in “go”)
s+vowel: sa shi su se so (always a soft “s” sound like in “sew”)
z/j+vowel: za ji zu ze zo
t/ch+vowel: ta chi tsu te to
d+vowel: da ji zu de do (the repeats of “ji” and “zu” will be explained in a later section)
n+vowel: na ni nu ne no
h/f+vowel: ha hi fu he ho
b+vowel: ba bi bu be bo
p+vowel: pa pi pu pe po
m+vowel: ma mi mu me mo
y+vowel: ya yu yo
r+vowel: ra ri ru re ro (the “r” sound is soft, somewhere between an English “l” and “r”)
w+vowel: wa, wo
And lastly, the one lone consonant: n
Combinations of some of the above syllables with “ya”, “yu”, and “yo” are also used to create new syllables:
k + y syllables: kya kyu kyo
g + y syllables: gya gyu gyo
s + y syllables: sha shu sho
ch + y syllables: cha chu cho
j + y syllables: ja ju jo
r + y syllables: rya ryu ryo
n + y syllables: nya nyu nyo
m + y syllables: mya myu myo
h + y syllables: hya hyu hyo
b + y syllables: bya byu byo
p + y syllables: pya pyu pyo
In certain words there are also double consonants, such as “kekkon” (marriage) and “issho” (together). These are simply pronounced with a slight “stuck” emphasis on those consonants.
…and that’s it for all the possible sounds in Japanese. Not too difficult at all compared to other languages. While English letters have different pronunciations depending on the letters around them, like the “e” in “elephant” pronounced differently than the “e” in “screen,” and the silent “e” at the end of a lot of words, Japanese syllables always sound the same no matter what word they’re in. So once you know how to pronounce all the above syllables in bold, you’ll be able to say any Japanese word correctly! =)
Now I just want to cover a few more points about pronunciation:
The process of writing Japanese words into English is called romanization (the written words are called romaji.) Certain sounds in the English language such as “l,” “v,” and “c” by itself, do not exist in Japanese. So these letters are often written differently in romaji depending on how they sound. “l” is usually replaced with “r,” “v” is usually replaced with “b,” and “c” is replaced with “k” or “s” depending on how it’s pronounced in the word. To give examples, the name “Lina” would be written as “Rina” in Japanese and the name “Celty,” though officially spelled with a “C,” would be written with an “S” since that’s how it’s pronounced.
Because just about all the syllables in Japanese are made up of a consonant plus a vowel, writing an English word or name that has consonants together can be tricky. Often it comes down to taking whatever syllables in the Japanese language sound most like the word. For example, the word “drink” would be written in Japanese as “dorinku,” using the syllables “do,” “ri,” “n,” and “ku.” The name “Alice” would be “Arisu” (a+ri+su) and “Light” would be “Raito” (ra+i+to). People even have different preferences on how they want to romanize the Japanese syllables, for example, some prefer “zu” to be written as “dzu” or “ja” to be written as “jya.” So just be aware that there could be more than one correct way of writing a Japanese word in English.
There are certain Japanese words pronounced with a long vowel sound, such as “shuumatsu,” “kouen,” and “bataa.” It’s important to take note of which vowels have a long pronunciation and which do not because some words may seem to be exactly the same without this distinction. For example, “shuujin” means “prisoner” while “shujin” means “husband;” “oba” means “aunt” while “obaa” means “grandmother;” “biru” means “building” while “biiru” means “beer.” Correct romanization of these words is important to clarify meaning, but sometimes they are disregarded when written in English. For example, the correct romanization of “Tokyo” is “Toukyou.” But “Tokyo” is considered the correct spelling of the word in English. Since long vowel sounds aren’t as essential in English as they are in Japanese, they’re sometimes omitted as a means of simplifying the word for English speakers. However, they’re extremely important when writing correctly in Japanese because the Japanese characters used in words are different depending on whether the vowel is long or not. The way I see it, “Tokyo” is English while “Toukyou” (to+u+kyo+u) is romaji.
That’s all for Part 1. Now that I’ve talked about how Japanese is pronounced, in Part 2 I’ll be going over how it’s written by discussing its three different alphabets. I plan to have Part 2 up sometime before April is over.
In the meantime, I’ll be back in 3-4 days with an anime post next time! ;)