Japanese Go Pronunciations
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Japanese is one of the easiest languages in the world to pronounce. It has a relatively small number of well-defined sounds, most of which are not that hard for the Western tongue. And Japanese is pronounced almost exactly as written (either in kana, or transliterated Roman characters) according to the Hepburn romanization system and its variants, which are used almost universally in the English language.
Having said that, it's always best to hear a native speaker's pronunciation; you can do that here
This SL page refers to a Japanese language teaching book  for the basics of Japanese pronunciation in regard to English speech.
There are several schemes for writing Japanese in the Roman alphabet (called Romaji (ローマ字 rōmaji) in Japanese). Sensei's Library uses a modified version of the Hepburn Romanization which does not indicate long vowels (this standard is used in many Go-related books) and which does not include any apostrophes. The standard Revised Hepburn spelling used by the United States Library of Congress is seen next to the Japanese text (e.g. Honinbo Shusaku (本因坊秀策 Hon'inbō Shūsaku)). (The Hepburn Romanization because it gives English speakers a better idea of pronunciation, and the modified long vowel and apostrophe rules as this makes Japanese words and names easy to type, requires only ASCII characters, is hard to lose, and corresponds to the style used in many Anglophone Go literature.)
Another common style is the Wapuro Romaji (ワープロローマ字, Wāpuro Rōmaji). It was created as a way to enter Japanese text using a Western QWERTY keyboard. A more formal way to refer to the style in Japanese is "Romaji Kana Henkan (ローマ字仮名変換 Rōmaji Kana Henkan, literally "Roman character kana conversion"). The Wapuro long vowel style (おう becomes "ou", うう "uu", and おお "oo") is used by internet users for the same reasons as the "no long vowel indication" style. In addition, this style is used because this corresponds to the way Japanese words are written in hiragana and corresponds to how words are typed into a Japanese word processor. This is not the standard on SL.
Japanese has five short vowels: a, i, u, e, o. They are short vowels, pronounced clearly and crisply. If you pronounce the vowels in the following English sentence, making them all short, you will have their approximate sounds. The u is pronounced with no forward movement of the lips.
Ah, we soon get old.
a i u e o
Long vowels are pronounced like the short vowels but held for twice as long. Care should be taken to pronounce them as a continuous sound, equal in value to two identical short vowels.
In traditional and revised Hepburn, long a is written ā; long i is written ii (if the word is of Japanese or Chinese in origin) or ī (if foriegn in origin); long u is written ū; long e is written ei (if the word is Japanese or Chinese of origin) or ē (if foriegn in origin); and long o is written ō.
Other romanization systems differ with handling long vowels:
- Modified Hepburn indicates long vowels by doubling the vowel, e.g. long o is "oo". 'Ei" is only used when the two vowels are distinct sounds.
- Wapuro Romaji follows the same rule as modified Hepburn, except long vowels written as "ou" (おう) in hiragana are spelled as "ou".
- Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki follow the same system as Modified Hepburn except long vowels are indicated with circumflexes (e.g. ô).
- Oftentimes the long vowel is not indicated at all. This is the case for most Japanese words adopted into English and for the "de facto" style of Hepburn seen in English-language information around Japan, as well as English-language information regarding Japanese subjects around the world.
Every syllable in the Japanese language is either a vowel on its own, a consonant followed by a vowel, or n. The consonants are k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, and their voiced counterparts g, z, d, b, and p. In addition, a y sound may intervene between the initial consonant and the vowel, as is seen in words such as byō (byo, "second").
- akisankaku "empty triangle" = a + ki + sa + n + ka + ku
- ko (kō) "threat" = ko + o
- kyu (kyū) "rank" = kyu + u
- sensei "teacher" = se + n + se + i
Some sounds combine in ways you might not expect:
(the following applies to all forms of Hepburn)
- s+i = shi
- z+i = ji
- s+y+a = sha
- s+y+u = shu
- s+y+o = sho
- z+y+a = ja
- z+y+u = ju
- z+y+o = jo
- t+i = chi
- d+i = ji
- t+u = tsu
- t+y+a = cha
- t+y+u = chu
- t+y+o = cho
- h+u = fu
Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki do not romanize the words in the same way that Hepburn does (e.g. s+i is "si"). Hepburn gives the English speaker the best pronunciation that can be used to represent Japanese words.
The interstitial y "palatalizes" the preceding consonant: that is, causes it to be pronounced with the tongue near the top of your mouth. For example, byo (byō) is not pronounced like the start of English "biology".
fu is pretty hard to pronounce for English speaking people. Don't bring your lower lip up to your upper teeth as in English f; instead purse your lips as if about to whistle and blow through them. Try to find an example in an anime show for the correct pronunciation of it. It's similar to the sound you make when you blow out a candle.
The r in Japanese is "flapped". Prepare your tongue as if about to say English l but instead touch the tip of the tongue quickly to the top of your mouth and bring it down again. If you get it right it sounds somewhere between English l, r and d.
The g as in ga, gi, etc. at the beginning of a word is hard (as in English "garden"), but when it occurs in the middle or in the last syllable of a word, it often becomes nasal, as in eiga ("movie"). (Some speakers always use the nasal g; this is a regional difference in pronunciation.)
n is the only independent consonant not combined with a vowel. It turns the preceding vowel into a nasal vowel. If it is followed by a syllable beginning with b, m or p, it is pronounced more like English m, for example shinbun ("newspaper") is pronounced more like shimbun.
In some Romanization schemes, such as the Traditional Hepburn, m in these cases is written as "m" before other labial consonants, i.e. b, m, and p, and is written as "n'" (with an apostrophe) before vowels and y. In the Library of Congress' Revised Hepburn as well as in several other systems, such as Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki, "n" is used even when written before other labial consonants while it is still written as "n'" before vowels and y. In the modified Hepburn system used in Oxford University Press' Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary, syllabic n is always written with a macron. This is used to differentiate combinations such as "n-o" from "no" instead of the use of an apostrophe.
Distinguishing syllabic n from the ordinary consonant n can make a big difference. For example kinen means "no smoking" when pronounced ki + n + e + n but means "anniversary" when pronounced ki + ne + n.
A double (geminate) consonsant, for example the kk in ikkentobi ("one-space jump"), indicates that the consonant is double length. This is indicated by doubling the consonant, except for sh (sh→ssh), ch (ch→tch), and ts (ts→tts).
Start to say the consonant, then stop the flow of air, pause for one syllable, and then finish saying the consonant.
Each word has a stereotypical stress pattern. Stressed syllables are indicated by higher pitch. This allows you to distinguish nihon ("Japan") from nihon ("two bottles").
- aji "taste" = a + ji
- fujite "sealed move" = fu + ji + te
- hamete "joseki trap" = ha + me + te
- karui "light" = ka + ru + i
- moyō (moyo) "pattern" = mo + yo + o
Some Japanese Go terms have been adopted by English-speaking players with ad-hoc spellings. For example kō has become ko and jōseki joseki. (This probably happened because some people used a Romanization scheme in which long vowels are written with characters with diacritical marks, for example kō (used in original and revised Hepburn) or kô (used in Kunrei-shiki and Nihon-shiki), and the accents were later lost.)
The English form "ko" is fine for writing English but remember to use kō (Hiragana "kou") when writing Japanese.
Some adopted words have Anglicised pronunciations, for example sente may be pronounced in English with a diphthong at the end, like "sentay" but in Japanese it ends with a short e.
(Anonymous): I've always wondered, what is the correct pronunciation, if you are an English speaker, of the terms Tesuji and Tsumego? Thanks!
Please check the link to native speaker's recordings at the top of this page.
Karl: Some of the comments on "tricky pronunciation for English speakers" are problematic for me...
"The interstitial y "palatalizes" the preceding consonant: that is, causes it to be pronounced with your tongue near the top of your mouth. For example, byou is not pronounced like the start of English "biology"."
Well of course it isn't; the English long I is a completely different sound anyway (which would be rendered as an 'ai' dipthong in roumaji). But I can't figure out how to put my tongue anywhere near the roof of my mouth and produce a sound that remotely resembles 'b'. Is is sufficient to have a falling motion of the tongue between the 'b' and 'y', as opposed to keeping the tip of the tongue anchored under the lower teeth (as I normally would for a 'b')? Otherwise I sound rather as if I'm in the dentist's chair.
"fu is pretty hard to pronounce for English speaking people. Don't bring your lower lip up to your upper teeth as in English f; instead purse your lips as if about to whistle and blow through them. Try to find an example in an anime show for the correct pronunciation of it. It's similar to the sound you make when you blow out a candle."
I don't find it difficult to get a reasonable approximation; easier than that r/l/d sound, anyway. (It's worth noting that some systems of roumaji use l's instead, and others probably allow for either according to what looks better in context. And then, often you see imported English words given in English spelling instead of roumaji transliteration...)
"n is the only independent consonant not combined with a vowel. It turns the preceding vowel into a nasal vowel. If it is followed by a syllable beginning with b, m or p, it is pronounced more like English m, for example shinbun ("newspaper") is pronounced more like shimbun. (In some Romanization schemes you would write m in these cases but in Hepburn you write n regardless of pronunciation.)"
Should that perhaps be b, h and p, which are related (same kana except for dots/circle marking)? Or is this just one of those random things? Although I do suppose a 'slide' from an n sound to an m sound is rather odd.
"Distinguishing syllabic n from the ordinary consonant n can make a big difference. For example kinen means "no smoking" when pronounced ki + n + e + n but means "anniversary" when pronounced ki + ne + n."
Okay, but how do you make this distinction in pronunciation?
Oh - and what is the difference between the z+i "ji" and the d+i "ji"?
Rafael Karl, the y is not a big deal. The explanation above just makes it look harder than it is. I believe you can pronounce it as you do in English "yard", "your", "Dubya". Your tongue does rise, but just a little. Insert a finger in your mouth and pronounce "ah". Your tongue doesn't have to touch the finger. Then pronounce "ya" (as in "yard").
Please listen to the recordings linked above, it's probably much easier than to understand written descriptions. The fact that English spellling is a mess doesn't help (I guess the "y" explanation is meant to tell people not to pronounce it as in "Yale").
The sounds "b" and "p" are indeed related: both are produced by joining the lips and interrupting the air flow. The difference is that "b" is voiced while "p" is unvoiced (vocal folds don't vibrate). The sound "m" is also bilabial (you join both lips) but the air flow goes thru the nose, like "n". So it's not a coincidence that we usually turn the "n" sound into an "m" sound before "b" and "p": it's hard not to do so.
I pronounce "kin'en" (no smoking) roughly like "king yen", but I'm not a native speaker (and again, I don't see much point in these kind of descriptions unless you really find it hard to listen to the recordings and imitate the sounds).
There's no difference between "zi" and "di" as far as pronunciation is concerned.
mdm: h is not mentioned above, but is pronounced differently in hi and hu. For a more thorough and "professional" treatment see e.g.
ElDraco: @mdm, that's because there is no hu in japanese, it's fu. Examples: hitotsu and futatsu. So h is correclty mentioned above. Of course, one could reason that fu is in fact hu but I'm referring to the roumaji.
- http://www2.tokai.or.jp/yuki/hiragana/hiragana.htm (you can listen to pronunciation of hiragana by clicking on it)
- http://www.swissgo.org/go-pron.html (Pronunciation of Japanese Igo Terms as mp3-files)