Japanese Syllables


One of the first things you will learn in studying Japanese is that they use a syllable-based writing system.  They also use Kanji in everyday writing, which they borrowed from China, but their syllablization says something about how they view the spoken language.  In their syllabic writing system, either Katakana or Hiragana, each character represents one syllable, and the syllables are represented to people in the western world as in Table 1:















































































Text Box: Table 1: Representation of the Japanese syllables in our alphabet.



So, for example, the word for “man” is “hito,” which is the simple combination of “hi” and “to,” and the word “katakana” can readily be broken up into four syllables: ka-ta-ka-na.


It almost makes sense to the western speaker, but there are a few odd syllables.  Why, for example does the third column under the h row become fu instead of hu, and how does ta mutate into chi and tsu instead of ti and tu?


Most introductory books on Japanese will not answer this question, but the answer is not only interesting, it also sheds some light on the relationship between writing and pronunciation in Japanese.  The first clue is obtained when one realizes that the Japanese are not thinking of these syllables as being composed of one consonant followed by one vowel.  They are thinking of them as syllables that are related to one another.  The syllable “ka,” for instance, is not “k” followed by “a.”  A good way to describe the generation of the “ka” sound is: 1) think about making the sound of “a,” and put your mouth in the required position.  (Go ahead and make the “a” sound once as a dry run to get a feel for it.)  Now, while your mouth is in that position, make the “k” sound followed by the “a” sound.  The result will not be too different from the formation of the consonant “k” followed by the vowel “a.”  However, something interesting happens when you go through the “h” row in the same way.  If you hold your mouth in the position required to form the vowel “u” (pronounced like the “u” in “tuba”) and then make the aspiration required to form the “h,” you find that your lips are too close together to allow a clear “h” sound to form. Instead, you get something that sounds more like an “f.”  Try the same thing with “ti” and “tu,” and a similar modification occurs.


One of the things I noticed while listening to Japanese language tapes was that often the word “hito” sounded more like “shito” when uttered by a native speaker.  The “shi” is again a natural consequence of the formation of “hi” as a complete syllable rather than a consonant followed by a vowel.  Try aspirating the h sound while your mouth is in the “i” position (which, has the sound of the “i” in “ski).  The result will sound more like “shi” than like “hi.”  Of course, text books do not want to point this out because it would be difficult to explain to a beginner that “si” and “hi” are both similar to “shi,” and yet that they are distinctively different sounds (“si” is more strident than “hi”).




Romanization is the use of our alphabet to represent the Japanese syllables.  Major battles have been waged over how to represent syllables such as “chi,” “tsu,” and “fu” for students of Japanese.  Some people believe that it is best to use representations that sound more like the way our English ear hears the syllables.  Others believe that it is better to represent the sounds as single consonant-vowel combinations consistent with the row and column occupied by the sound in Table 1.  As an independent observer who has had his belief system only slightly biased by having studied Japanese from a book (the “Learning Japanese” series by Hamako Ito Chapman) that uses the latter system, I would have to side with the latter system.  Face it, both systems are completely wrong.  In using “chi,” “tsu” and “fu,” we pretend that we got it right, but we ignore the main point, which is that Romanization is a mere approximation of the true sounds of Japanese.  For example, we use “R” to represent a sound that is somewhat like “R,” but is really somewhere between “R” and “L.”  The true sound of the Japanese “R” explains why speakers of English think that Japanese are always using “R” when they should be using “L” and “L” when they should be using “R.”  In my humble opinion, one can get a closer approximation of the Japanese sounds by representing “chi” as “ti” and remembering that the “t” is simply an instruction to move your tongue as if you were forming a “t” while the rest of the mouth is in a position to form the “i


Where Did All the Consonants Go?


You may wonder how the Japanese could have built a great civilization while having only 7 consonnants in their language.  Of course, they couldn’t have.  They also have other consonants, and they represent them with the same characters with marks to distinguish voiced, unvoiced, and explosive consonants.  For example, the “t” in “ta” is unvoiced, and if you voice it you get “d.” So “da” is obtained by using the character for “ta” and adding two marks after it.  In Katakana, (ta) becomes(da).  Also, (ha) becomes (pa) when followed by ° and it becomes (ba) when followed by ``.  With this device, you can obtain the following consonant-like sounds:  b, d, g, h, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, and z.   You have “f” when it’s followed by “u,” and you can get “v” if you voice the “f.” Letters like “c”, “j,” “q” and “x” are silly anyway since they don’t really have sounds of their own.  So the only completely missing consonant is “L.”  Beginning students of Japanese will often have difficulty distinguishing the “v” sound from the “b” sound since, in essence, they are the same thing in Japanese.  When I was in graduate school, I knew a Japanese student whose one major pronunciation problem was the pronunciation of the word “velocity,” which sounded more like “bursty  It was a bit of a problem only because his thesis work was on the measurement of blood velocity.  Only after my study of Japanese did I finally understand the rational basis for his pronunciation.