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The Japanese Pronunciation Guide

There are many different ways people have of writing down Japanese words using the Roman alphabet, none of which are entirely correct or incorrect. There are five general (root) sounds to pronunciation. Those are:

Sound Example
A Ta(da), ...
I (The letter) E, chief, (Spanish word) si
U you, to, true
E Thames (river), fetch, net
O No, pole, profession, ... (cut these sounds short)

Pretty basic sounds. The rest of the sounds in the language are made by adding a consonant in front of the vowel. Eg. Ka (ga), Sa (za), Ta (da), Ma, Ha (pa, ba), Na, Ra, Ya, Wa. Problems come in with the "Ra" group since there is no real "r" or "l" as the alternate form goes. The spoken sound is really a combination of the two, sort of a "rla" sound. So, early on, there were things like "fried lice" instead of "fried rice" in initial romanizations. You still see the occasional bit of *unusual* spellings in anime depending on whether they have anyone on staff who would know better.

  • double vowels

    A second problem arises in romanisation of the double vowel sounds. The best way to indicate these sounds would be to have the bar over top the vowel. Unfortunately, in web sites, this isn't really possible; you're limited to the extended ASCII character set which doesn't have all these vowels. (Most browsers do not support the HTML 3.0 codes needed for the bar). The alternate form is to use a double vowel, for example Yuugen Kaishya which is actually spelled "Yougen Kaishya" on the video cover. Given what I've said about pronunciations, "yougen" would be pronounced wrong ("yoh"-gen). Why Pioneer used this spelling is unknown except maybe for the English word "you" and assuming people would therefore use that pronunciation, or perhaps as a play on the word yoma.

    The most common double vowel to be mispronounced is the double "o" or "oo" sound. However, when looking at any word spelled that way it's very tempting to use the vowel sound like "slew". Gaoo would then be pronounced "Ga-ew", and Tokyo would look very odd with "Tookyoo" or "Oosaka" instead of Osaka. On this site, for the double "o" vowel sound therefore we've gone with an alternate form, the "ou" sound. While not entirely correct, it does avoid some problems. Anyway you romanize Japanese words will have inherent weaknesses unless you do a phonetic spelling, but then, how many people out there are intimately familiar with the phonetic depications of various sounds?

  • consonants

    For consonants, the "g" sounds in the Japanese language are always the hard form as in girl, ground, or gone, never the soft form of germ, or gem. The soft form would be depicted by a "j" instead. The only exception to this might be for proper names or English words.

    Double consonants occur on occasion usually in the form of a "tt" (Hatta, katta), or a "pp" (ippai). There are occasions of the double "s" but that's probably due to keeping the soft s form of the word. The double "t" or double "p" is usually in places where there's a small "tsu" in the Japanese spelling of a word. This would result in a slight hesitation or clipping of the word at that point like "ka'ta" or "ka'pa" rather than say "Kappa" (kahpa) the Greek letter.

    Lastly for consonants, there is the mixed spelling for example "kyo" where you literally mix two sounds. For example Kiyone vs Kyoto. The first is clearly enunciated with 3 syllables while the second word should be two syllables. "Kyo" should be pronounced much like you would "curious" except with the "o" vowel. (Most people pronounce the city as ki-yo-to but this is incorrect for Japanese pronunciations. Much like Notre Dame has very different pronunciations between France (no-truh dam) and the USA (NOH-ter dayme). These "mixed" pronunciations are depicted in the Japanese language with small incidental characters between the major syllabic characters and therefore indicate the preceding character is altered into the miniature subsequent character.

  • "N" or "M"

    There is one other sound type which doesn't fit into any of the other categories. This is the "n" form. So if you look at Ranma, in English the name has two syllables, but in Japanese you'd have three - ra n ma. Sometimes the "n" is written as a "m" as in kanpai (the proper spelling) vs "kampai". The second is much easier for English speakers to pronounce.

  • syllabic stresses

    In the Japanese language, each syllable is given virtually identical weight compared to English which tends to stress the first syllable and the rest of the word is sort of mushed in afterwards. So if you look at "Christmas" it would be pronounced "Ku-ri-su-ma-su".

  • loan words

    As with many other languages, there's the inevitable influences of outside cultures via langauge diffusion. Plus, technology will often bring about new terms that previously had no counterpart. Loan words are those borrowed from other languages, and adopted as one's own. In written Japanese, these are usually identifiable by the use of katakana characters (but note that just because katakana is used, it doesn't mean that the word is necessarily an adopted word, since katakana is also used for emphasis, onomatapaeas, etc. Also, some older loan words have been given kanji spellings, such as prelude.) Some of these words are self evident (such as biru for "beer"), and some are a little more obscure (such as terebi for "television".) Yet other word combinations may use foreign word combinations, for distinctly Japanese items (such as puri peido, or "pre-paid" as in a pre-paid card.) Since the Japanese language does not necessarily have all base sounds of other languages, you will have to listen carefully to the context as well as the word itself to determine the meaning.

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