Japanese Roman Character Pronunciation Guide

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How to Pronounce Japanese Words Written in Roma-ji (Roman Letters)[edit]

The Japanese alphabet is divided up into rows of syllables which end with one of five vowel sounds, with a few exceptions.

The order of the Japanese alphabet is almost like a grid with vowels forming columns and consonant forming rows.

Japanese Sounds (The 50 Sounds)
VowelsAIAbout this sound U EAbout this sound O 
K (G)KA (GA)KI (GI)KU (GU)KE (GE)KO (GO)
S (Z)SA (ZA)About this sound SHI  (JI)SU (ZU)SE (ZE)SO (ZO)
T (D)TA (DA)About this sound CHI  (ZHI)About this sound TSU  (DZU)TE (DE)TO (DO)
NNANINUNENO
H (B, P)HA (BA) (PA)About this sound HI  (BI) (PI)FU (BU) (PU)HE (BE) (PE)HO (BO) (PO)
RAbout this sound RA About this sound RI About this sound RU About this sound RE About this sound RO 
YYA YU YO
MMAMIMUMEMO
WWA (W)O
N - no vowelN

The sounds in brackets () you see above are the modified sounds of each syllable. In Japanese proper, these changes in sound would be denoted by the same character only with diacritic ("ten-ten") marks beside them. The sound that is produced is the voiced version of the original unvoiced character.

Vowels[edit]

Are pronounced as they would be in an ideal world.

  • A: sounds like "a" as in father
  • I: sounds like "ea" as it eat
  • U: sounds like "oo" in English food
  • E: sounds like "eh" for us Canadians, but others say "e" as in carpe diem
  • O: sounds like "ough" as in dough

Consonants[edit]

Should all be pronounced more or less as in English with four exceptions: G, F, R, N. G and F are not very important as their sound does not vary very noticibly between the two languages, but the G sound is made almost like "ng" depending on the age of the speaker and, in certain cases, dialect. Nowadays, it is beginning to sound more like our gutturatter g, but the older folks may still say "ng", which was also taught in many Japanese grammar classes. The F sound is spoken as if it were a combination of both H+F. Remember that it is part of the Ha-gyo (the line of sounds starting with H), so a similarity to H is only sensible.

R is trilled once and once only making it sound deceptively like a "D" to untrained listeners. It may also give off the effect of an "L" sound when sung by modern J-pop vocalists.

N is another sound that is not much different between us, but in Japan, I was told to close my mouth when saying N. It takes on more of a sound like "M," but is still recognizable, if not by sound, by place. There are times when N becomes an M as well, more on that later.

Permutations and Combinations[edit]

Japanese sounds are mathematically (as the section name implies) changed according to simple rules of pronunciation and grammar. First I will cover the change of N to M as discussed in the previous paragraph:

N-M: When an N appears before the consonant B, P or M in a word, it will be pronounced as M. When it appears before G or K, it will be pronounced as NG. This course will be giving the actual Japanese spellings of words and you will have to remember this for future reference.

Double letters: Pronounce any doubled letters as if there is a break between them. Thus Kata (form) is kah-tah, and Katta (bought) is Kat-tah. Pronounce both consonants. In vowels, this can extend the length of a vowel, such as in the word "-oki" (a place to put things) versus "ookii" (big). All vowels must be pronounced (which will shift the stress in the word) to make the word clear.

Combinations: This cannot be seen in Roma-ji, but is noticeable in Japanese lettering proper. Sometimes the letters Ya, Yu, and Yo are put with other letters containing the vowel "I." The Ya, Yu, and Yo are in a smaller form than the modified letter, and appear second in reading order. This melds the two together as one. Examples:

  • Ki (spirit) +yo =Kyo (today)
  • Ni (2) +yo =Nyo (urine)
  • Shi (4) +yu =Shyu-or just shu (week)

Note also that words which combine the letters o+u in that order (such as Ohayou in the next section) are simply pronounced as if they were a long o sound. Other combined vowels will be pronounced with as much separation as possible. If it says ai, it means "ah-ee" not "ay."

The Ghostly "U"[edit]

"U" is sometimes silent at the end of words in Japanese. Most words that end in u are pronounced this way. Thus "Gozaimasu" will be pronounced "Gozaimass".

See Also[edit]