Japanese Phonology

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Japanese phonology

Spoken Japanese
All Japanese vowels are pure—that is, there are no diphthongs, only monophthongs. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel /ɯ/ About this sound listen (help·info), which is like /u/, but compressed instead of rounded. Japanese has five vowels, and vowel length is phonemic, with each having both a short and a long version. Elongated vowels are usually denoted with a line over the vowel (a macron) in rōmaji, a repeated vowel character in hiragana, or a chōonpu succeeding the vowel in katakana.

Some Japanese consonants have several allophones, which may give the impression of a larger inventory of sounds. However, some of these allophones have since become phonemic. For example, in the Japanese language up to and including the first half of the 20th century, the phonemic sequence /ti/ was palatalized and realized phonetically as [tɕi], approximately chi About this sound listen (help·info); however, now /ti/ and /tɕi/ are distinct, as evidenced by words like tī [tiː] “Western style tea” and chii [tɕii] “social status”.

The “r” of the Japanese language (technically a lateral apical postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most English speakers to be something between an “l” and a retroflex “r” depending on its position in a word. The “g” is also notable; unless it starts a sentence, it is pronounced /ŋ/, like the ng in “sing,” in the Kanto prestige dialect and in other eastern dialects.

The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple: the only consonant clusters allowed within a syllable consist of one of a subset of the consonants plus /j/. This type of cluster only occurs in onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are a nasal followed by a homorganic consonant. Consonant length (gemination) is also phonemic.

The phonology of Japanese also includes a pitch accent system, which is a system that helps differentiate words with identical Hiragana spelling or words in different Japanese dialects. An example of words with identical Hiragana would be the words [haꜜ.shi] (chopsticks) and [ha.shiꜜ] (bridge), both spelled (はし, hashi) in Hiragana. The stresses differentiate the words.

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