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Phonetic Transcription of Japanese Words – Furigana, Romaji and Pitch Accent
Japanese phonetics may seem easy for people who are starting to learn Japanese. Japanese language has only five vowels; consonant sounds are also not very difficult to learn. However, there is one thing in Japanese that will cause you a lot of trouble... Pitch accent!
First of all, what is pitch accent? It means that some vowel sounds in Japanese words are pronounced with different pitch (with high or low tone). In order to understand it better, let's compare Japanese with English. The English language has stress accent, which means that stressed vowels are pronounced louder. In some cases, different stress position can change the meaning of a word. Compare:
- He has a perfect [ˈpərfɪkt] pronunciation.
- I want to perfect [pərˈfekt] my pronunciation.
In the above example, if you put stress on the right syllable and pronounce the words correctly, you are better understood and sound natural. Try to switch the pronunciation of these two words and feel the difference. The same phenomenon occurs in Japanese. Pitch accent helps to distinguish some words that may seem identical when written with kana (Japanese alphabet). When a person speaks Japanese respecting pitch accent, he sounds much more natural compared to someone who neglects this part of Japanese language. The second may sound as Gru from the movie Despicable Me to a native English speaker.
Before I go any further I would like to describe different types of phonetic transcription in Japanese, or ways to visually represent the pronunciation of Japanese words. There are several options:
- Romaji that uses Latin alphabet,
- Furigana that uses Japanese alphabet kana near kanji (Japanese characters),
- Internation Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
For example, the phonetic transcription of the Japanese word 発音 'pronunciation' can be written as:
- hatsuon (romaji),
- 発音 (furigana),
- [hat͡sɯᵝoɴ] (IPA).
Now let's get back to pitch accent and why it may be difficult to learn. In my opinion, the problem with Japanese pitch accent is not that it is extremely hard to reproduce. The problem is that it is far too often disregarded in Japanese textbooks and dictionaries, and as result considered unimportant by students and even their teachers. When you start to learn Japanese, in the first lesson of your textbook they warn you that Japanese has pitch accent and in order to sound natural you should imitate native speakers by listening to your audio recordings, but then the subject is completely dropped! Such a carelessness!
As opposed to fully tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, in Japanese, the situations where accent position changes completely the meaning of a word are relatively rare. So when a person speaks Japanese and puts stress on the wrong vowels, he is understood (often with difficulty). An average student may think: "If people understand me, why bother learning it?" Now, compare these three phrases (different colors are used to mark high and low pitches):
- 端を見る hashi o mi↧ru – to see an end,
- 箸を見る ha↧shi o mi↧ru – to see chopsticks,
- 橋を見る hashi↧ o mi↧ru – to see a bridge.
I hope this online phonetic translator will change the current situation. It highlights in different colors the syllables that should be pronounced in high and low pitch.
A special option shows devoicing of vowels /i/ and /u/. In such cases, the devoiced syllables will be replaced by circled forms of katakana. For example: 惑星 わ㋗せい. Since the circled forms of ピ and プ don't exist, they will be replaced by ㋪° and ㋫° respectively.
Another option shows weakening of consonant [ɡ]. In such cases, the regular dakuten sign (for voicing) will be replaced by handakuten. For example: 資源 し↧け°ん.
The translator is powered by Japanese morphological analyzer MeCab, NAIST Japanese Dictionary and the CSS stylesheet for Ruby support. I also used the following dictionaries that contain information on pitch accent in Japanese words:
If you are interested in Japanese pitch accent, I highly recommend you to purchase at least one of the Japanese dictionaries (NHK or Shin Meikai). Both of them have an introductory part that covers the subject in details.
Highlighting of high frequency Japanese words
This online tool highlights in different colors Japanese words required for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test JLPT:
This way, you will easily identify vocabulary that you will need to learn to prepare yourself for the specific level of JLPT test.
Maximum text length (in characters):
- unregistered users – 500,
- free registration – 1,500,
- subscription "frequent user" – 10,000,
- subscription "student" – 10,000.
Note: For the correct display of the Japanese text (including furigana), make sure that you use the latest version of your web browser and choose the right encoding for this page – Unicode (UTF-8). This translator is only available online and cannot be downloaded to your computer.
Japanese Romaji, Furigana and Pitch Accent – Online Resources
- Phonetics and pronunciation glossary
- Japanese dictionaries online – Project Modelino
- Japanese phonology – Wikipedia
- Japanese pitch accent – Wikipedia
- Romaji (romanization of Japanese) – Wikipedia
- NAIST Japanese Dictionary
- MeCab – part-of-speech and morphological analyzer for Japanese
- Furigana – Wikipedia
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* [http://easypronunciation.com/en/japanese-kanji-to-romaji-converter Japanese Kanji to Romaji Translator online]—Free online tool to convert Japanese text (kanji) to phonetic transcription (romaji, furigana, kana, IPA) with pitch accent support