and make Japanese more easier for you.
- Unvoiced Consonants
- Voiced Consonants
- Nasal Consonants
- Palatal Consonants
- Liquid Consonant
- Moraic Consonants
Unvoiced Consonants 無声子音
In the throat reside the vocal cords, and when one makes an unvoiced consonant, the vocal fords do not make sound. Air simply passes through them. Therefore, when there is a lack of vibration (voicing), a consonant is said to be unvoiced.
In English, these kinds of consonants always pronounced highly aspirated. To feel the effect of aspiration, place your hand in front of your mouth and say the word "king." Provided you are a native English speaker, you should feel a strong puff of air hit your hand. In Japanese, the same effect occurs but not as strongly. English speakers will need to mitigate the amount of air being emitting when speaking to sound less foreign.
Now that you know what is meant by an unvoiced consonant, let's go into depth about these sounds in Japanese.
The Unvoiced Consonants of Japanese
■/k/: The Japanese /k/ is made by placing the back of the tongue against the soft palate. It sounds just like it does in English minus heavy aspiration.
Kotoshi (this year)
■/s/: The Japanese /s/ is the same as its English counterpart. However, when paired with the vowel /i/, it turns into the consonant /sh/.
■/sh/: Although similar to its English counterpart, it is a different consonant. It is made by having the middle of the tongue bent and raised towards the hard palate. Acoustically, many English native learners misperceive it as /s/, but Chinese native learners will find it more familiar.
■/t/: Made by placing the blade of the tongue behind the upper teeth. When followed by the vowel /u/, it is pronounced as [ts]. A common mistake is pronouncing [ts] as [s], but the "t" sound is by no means silent. When followed by the vowel /i/, it becomes the consonant /ch/.
Ta (rice field)
Tatoeba (for example)
Tsuyu (rainy season)
■/ch/: Made by having the blade of the tongue right behind the ridge of the mouth behind the upper jaw. The Japanese /ch/ is, therefore, not the exact same as its English counterpart. English native leaners often mishear the consonant, but it will be familiar to Chinese speakers.
Chuushajou (parking lot)
Chotto (a little)
■/h/: The same as its English counterpart, it becomes /f/ when followed by the vowel /u/. When followed by the vowel /i/, it sounds like the h-sound in the word "hue."
■/f/: The Japanese /f/ is not the same as its English counterpart. Instead of placing the front teeth against the bottom lip, the lips are compressed and air is blown through them. Remember, no teeth!
■/p/: The same as its English counterpart minus heavy aspiration.
Voiced Consonants 有声子音
When a voiced consonant is produced, the vocal folds vibrate. In languages such as English and Japanese, voiced consonants often have an unvoiced counterpart. For instance, /d/ is the voiced counterpart of /t/. In Japanese, voiced consonants are fully voiced, whereas in English the vibration of the vocal folds will not be as pronounced.
Although there are some individual peculiarities to mention, voiced consonants are typically pronounced the same way as their unvoiced counterparts but with the added voicing.
The Voiced Consonants of Japanese
■/g/: When inside words, the Japanese /g/ is actually pronounced as [ng] by many speakers. It may also be weakened in somewhat vulgar and/or fast speech.
Gaikoku (foreign country)
Gohan (cooked rice)
■/z/ is the voiced counterpart of /s/, and [dz] is the voiced counterpart of [ts]. However, these two sounds are blurred by most speakers. At the start of words, /z/ is usually pronounced as [dz]. Both /z/ and [dz] are usually pronounced as [z] inside words. To conceptualize how [dz] sounds like, think of the word "kids." Additionally, when /z/ is followed by /i/, it becomes [j].
■/j/ is the voiced counterpart of /sh/ and [dj] is the voiced counterpart of /ch/. However, these two sounds are blurred by most speakers. At the start of words, /j/ is usually pronounced as [dj]. Both /j/ and [dj] may be pronounced as [j] inside words, but many speakers exclusively use the [dj] pronunciation.
Jettoki (jet aircraft)
Chi(d)jimu (to shrink)
■/d/: The Japanese /d/ becomes [dj] when followed by /i/ in words of native origin. It becomes [dz] when followed by /u/.
Deeto (a date)
Nasal Consonants 鼻音
Nasal consonants in both English and Japanese are pronounced by both vibrating the vocal folds and passing air through the nose.
The Nasal Consonants of Japanese
■/n/: Made with the blade of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth with /a/, /e/, and /o/, behind the alveolar ridge of the mouth with /i/ (like in news), and behind the teeth with /u/ (like in noon).
Neru (to sleep)
Nomu (to drink)
Noru (to ride)
Mukashi (olden days)
Liquid Consonant 流音
Liquid consonants are sounds like /l/ and /r/. In most languages, there are at least two liquid consonants. In Japanese, there is only one such consonant. However, its pronunciation is unique.
The Japanese Liquid Consonant
■/r/: It is typically pronounced as a flap, which sounds like the "t" in the word "water" in American English. At the beginning of a word, it sounds almost like /d/, but the tongue only taps the alveolar ridge of the mouth rather than making a prolonged contact behind the teeth. This means that the Japanese /r/ and /d/ are not pronounced in the same location of the mouth, even if they may sound similar. Sometimes, speakers may pronounce /r/ like a trill, which will be familiar to Spanish speakers as being the same as the consonant rr.
English native learners tend to pronounce /r/ like the English one. However, the sounds are so different that this may impede understanding. It is far better to replace it with the English l as [l] is a valid and very common pronunciation. The reason why [r] and [l] are not viewed as separate consonants in Japanese is because they never contrast words. Rather, they are merely two of several valid pronunciations of what is treated as a single consonant in Japanese.
Kuru (to come)
Ura (reverse side)
Suru (to do)
Semi-vowels are like vowels in the sense that the tongue doesn't actually touch any part of the mouth, but the tongue does move in ways that cause the flow of air to sound like consonants, thus the name "semi-vowel."
The Semi-Vowels of Japanese
■/y/: The tongue is brought up to the hard palate and air is then blown through that tight corridor. It sounds essentially the same as its English equivalent, but it does sound slightly more tense. Traditionally, /y/ is only paired with the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/, but it may be seen with /e/ in loanwords.
Yomu (to read)
■/w/: The Japanese /w/ is the consonant version of the Japanese /u/, meaning that it has more in common with the Japanese /u/ than it does with its English counterpart. The Japanese /w/, too, is pronounced by compressing the lips rather than protruding them outward. Traditionally, /w/ was used with all vowels; however, it is now only used with /a/ by all speakers in native words. In loanwords, it appears with all vowels, but many speakers may still pronounce /w/ as /u/, resulting in just two vowels next to each other.
Palatal Consonants 拗音
Palatal consonants are made by placing the body touch against the hard palate of the mouth. These consonants are typically restricted to the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/*, and they are all created with the help of the consonant /y/ merging with a preceding consonant.
※Just as is the case with the consonant /y/, palatal consonants are only used with /e/ in loanwords.
The Palatal Consonants of Japanese
Kyonen (last year)
Wagyuu (wagyu beef)
Gyuusha (ox cart)
■/sy/ = /sh/; /zy/ = /j/: The combination of /s/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /sh/. It is used typically only used with the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/, but it can also be used with /e/ in loanwords. Likewise, the combination of /z/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /j/. It, too, is typically only used with the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/, but it can also be used with /e/ in loanwords.
Shouyu (soy sauce)
■/ty/ = /ch/; /dy/ = [dj]: In native words, the combination of /t/ and /y/ results in the formation of the consonant /ch/. The same goes for [dj], which is the combination of /d/ and /y/. With the influx of loanwords from other languages, however, /ty/ and /dy/ can actually be seen, but their use is rare.
Koucha (black tea)
■/ny/: This consonant is only found in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary, but it is very common in Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
■/hy/: This consonant is rare in native vocabulary, but it is very common in Sino-Japanese vocabulary.
■/by/: This consonant is only found in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary, and there is only a handful of productive Sino-Japanese roots that utilize it.
Byounin (sick person)
■/py/: This consonant is quite rare. It only appears in onomatopoeic expressions in native vocabulary. Otherwise, it's found in only a handful of loanwords.
■/my/: This consonant is essentially nonexistent in native vocabulary, and its use is limited even in Sino-Japanese words and loanwords.
■/ry/: This consonant is the hardest for English native speakers to pronounce. As is the case with all palatal consonants, it is very important that one does not insert an /i/ inside the consonant because this will most likely change the word. This consonant is essentially nonexistent in native vocabulary, but it is very productive in Sino-Japanese words, many of which are very common words.
Ryokan (Japanese inn)
Long Consonants 長子音
Long consonants are conceptualized by speakers as being two morae equal in length. In reality, this may not always be the case, but there is an audible difference in both length and intensity of the consonant. To spell a long consonant out, just double the first letter of the consonant. To make reading easier, the only exception will be double /ch/, which will be spelled as /tch/. Below are example words of each kind of long consonant.
Makka (bright red)
Yokka (four days)
Sakki (moment ago)
Mikka (three days)
Tassuru (to reach)
Kasshoku (dark brown)
Chotto (a little)
Shutchou (business trip)
Kappou (Japanese cuisine)
The Moraic Nasal 撥音
There is a special voiced consonant in Japanese called the "moraic nasal," meaning that the consonant count as its own mora. Although usually transcribed as an "n," its pronunciation varies depending on the environment.
In its basic understanding, it is what's called a uvular "n" that is best transcribed as /N/ for simplicity. The uvula is back in the mouth, but when you pronounce it, the mouth constricts and pronounces a nasal consonant. At times, though, this consonant is pronounced as [n] and even [m]. This is because it assimilates (becomes more similar) with the sound that follows.
The Pronunciations of the Moraic /N/
■Pronounced as [m]: When /N/ is before a /p/, /b/, or /m/, it becomes [m]. This also results in double /mm/.
Sammyaku (mountain range)
Sembei (Rice cracker)
■Pronounced as [n]: When /N/ is before /t/, /d/, /n/, /r/, it becomes [n]. This also results in double /nn/.
■Pronounced as [ng]: When /N/ is before /k/ and /g/, it becomes [ng]. Because /n/ is pronounced the same way in English under these circumstances, [ng] will be spelled as "n" for simplicity.
Kingyo (gold fish)
Kango (Sino-Japanese word)
■Pronounced as [ny]: When /N/ is before /ch/ or [dj], it is pronounced in the same place of the mouth as these consonants, resulting in [ny]. The "y" indicates the palatal articulation, and so it will be simply spelled out as "n" so as to avoid confusion with the palatal consonant /ny/.
Kanji (Chinese characters)
■ Pronounced as [ũ]: When before vowels, /y/, /w/, /s/, /sh/, /z/, /h/, and /f/, /N/ sounds like a nasalized vowel. Typically, it sounds like a very nasal /u/, which we'll denote as [ũ]. Although this is usually spelled as "n" for simplicity, it'll be spelled as "ũ" below to indicate the true pronunciation.
■ Pronounced as [N]: At the end of words, /N/'s default pronunciation is [N].
※Though these sound changes are predictable, there is still a degree of free variation. For instance, some speakers pronounce /N/ as [n] in other situations aside from those listed above such as before /z/. You may also hear it pronounced as [m] entirely in music. In intentionally slowed speech, you may just hear the uvular pronunciation.