Japanese Language Blog

Japanese Language: Pronunciation Posted by on Nov 11, 2008 in Grammar

The Japanese language is called a “shallow” language.  (At least that’s what the linguists call it.)  It’s labeled as “shallow” because words and letters are pronounced as how they are written.  If we compare the way Japanese words are pronounced to the way English words are pronounced, you’ll find that English is a “deep” language.  For example, in English the “i” in “ice cream” is pronounced differently from the “i” in “interesting.”  Getting back to Japanese, while it’s true that for the most part words are pronounced as they are written; there are some exceptions.

For example, the character is pronounced as “tsu” in English.  However when “tsu” or is transcribed in the middle of a word, it’s no longer pronounced as “tsu” ().  Let’s look at the Japanese word かつた.  Since the word かった contains a  っ, this word would be pronounced as katta.  Notice that there is a double “t” sound in かった.  In fact, whenever you have a transcribed in the middle of a word, the indicates that there is a double consonant.  When you take out the what do you get?  You get the word かた, which is pronounced as kata.  Notice here that without the the word lacks the double “t” sound and reverts back to the single “t” sound.  It’s important to notice the difference in sounds because the two words are very different in meaning.  かった means “won” as in the past tense of the word “win” and かた means “shoulder” in Japanese.

Also, consonants can also change in sound by the sounds following it.  For example, this character “ん” is pronounced as an English “n” sound.  However, whenever an n, t, d, s, and z sound follow after the sound, the “n” becomes an “m” sound.  Lets look at the word さんぽ.  This word is pronounced as “sampo.”  Notice that the “po” sound or the that follows after the sound turns the “n” sound into an “m” sound.  Since the “n” sound and “m” sound so similar when Japanese speakers use them in their daily speech, you’ll be understood whether you say “sampo” or “sanpo.” 

Moreover, I also notice that some of my students have difficulty pronouncing long vowels.  For example, the or the character pronounced as “u” is sometimes transcribed in the middle of words after an “o” vowel which elongates the “o” vowel.  Here is a demonstration: the word おはよう is pronounced as ohayoo, not as ohayou.  Since is a type of o vowel, it is pronounced as a long o vowel with the addition of う.  Again, since おはよう is a standard greeting that means good morning, you’ll probably be understood; even if you pronounce it incorrectly. 

However, you should try to make an effort to know the difference between long vowels and short vowels.  For example, I once called my aunt おばあさん (obaasan) instead of おばさん (obasan).  おばあさん, the one with the long vowel, is a term for grandmother, while おばさん, the one with the short vowel, is a term for aunt in Japanese.  Long story short, I called my age sensitive aunt a grandmother!  Guess who didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas that year? 

To sum it all up, some mispronunciations may not make much of a difference, while others may cause you to make a social blunder.  To be on the safe side, just pay attention to how the words are written and how they are pronounced.  Just one vowel may cause some misunderstanding, so be sure you know your vowels and consonants!

Tags: , ,
Keep learning Japanese with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. John:

    I’m using pimsluer to learn Japanese, and it seems as if the male will use m and the female will use n to say the same thing. I noticed that they seem to also interchange p/b and r/l. I’m not sure how it would be written in English, but an example is “eat”, where sometimes ill hear pabay and other times papay. Drink, nomi noni, ect. The main one that confuses me is watatshimo vs watatshino. They seem to use no to say my and mo to say me too, but I’m not sure if they’re just interchanging them or if they have different meanings

  2. Mike:

    Hi John – I noticed the same thing about Pimsler and funny my search led me here. Hope we get an answer some day.

  3. Alicia Delgado:

    However, whenever an n, t, d, s, and z sound follow after the ん sound, the “n” becomes an “m” sound. Lets look at the word さんぽ. This word is pronounced as “sampo

    I had a quick question on this part. You stated that if the “n” come before the “n,t,d,s, and z” sounds that it would make a “m” sound. Yet in the example “po” is used after the “n”. Does this mean that it words for most sounds or was this just a mistake not to had the “p” sound in the list before?

    Thank you so much I love your work!