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Thoughts on Japanese Pronunciation: Phonetic Transcription, Furigana, Romaji and Pitch Accent
Japanese pronunciation may seem easy for people who are just starting to learn Japanese. The Japanese language only has five vowels, and Japanese consonant sounds are 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 the Japanese language 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 positions 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, placing stress on the right syllable and pronouncing the words correctly makes the speaker more natural-sounding and easier to understand. Try pronouncing the word "perfect" both ways in each of the sentences above and feel the difference.
The same phenomenon occurs in Japanese which proves to be a difficult obstacle for those trying to master Japanese speaking. Pitch accent helps to distinguish some words that may seem identical when written with kana (Japanese alphabet). When a person speaks in Japanese while respecting pitch accent, they sound much more natural compared to someone who neglects this part of Japanese language. Someone who uses pitch accent incorrectly sounds similar to the way that Gru from the movie Despicable Me sounds to native English speakers.
There are several different types of phonetic transcription in Japanese - ways to visually represent the pronunciation of Japanese words:
- Romaji, which uses Latin alphabet
- Furigana, which uses Japanese alphabet kana printed next to kanji (Japanese characters)
- International 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 can be difficult to learn. In my opinion, the challenge with Japanese pitch accent is not that it is extremely hard to reproduce - the challenge is that it is often disregarded in Japanese textbooks and dictionaries. As a result, it is considered unimportant by students and even their teachers. When you start learning Japanese from a textbook, the first chapter will likely suggest imitating native speakers on Japanese audio recordings in order to master pitch accent and speak in a natural-sound way. But then the subject is completely dropped! This is a huge oversight for those who desire to learn correct Japanese word pronunciation.
As opposed to fully tonal languages (like Mandarin Chinese), situations where the accent position changes completely the meaning of a word are relatively rare in Japanese. So when a person speaks Japanese and stresses the wrong vowels, they are understood (although often with difficulty). An average student may think: "If people understand me, why bother learning it?" Well, 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
All About Our Japanese Romaji Translator
This online Japanese romaji translator is designed to make learning pitch accent easier. 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 the 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 purchasing at least one of the Japanese dictionaries (NHK or Shin Meikai). Both of them have an introductory section that covers the subject in detail, and this is an invaluable tool for learning how to correctly pronounce Japanese words.
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.
Note: To ensure the Japanese text (including furigana) displays correctly, 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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