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TYJ Hiragana for vowels

This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

2.1. Hiragana for vowels

Japanese has only five vowels like Latin and Spanish, and they are easy to distinguish.


a[ a ] Listen
Similar to the first sound of eye [aI], but without the ending [ I ]. It is pronounced in the front of the mouth, while the [α:] in father [fα:ðə] is pronounced in the back of the mouth. The [æ] in ashʃ] is not as wide as [a].[/I]
i[ i ] Listen Similar to the [i:] in eat [i:t].
u[ ɯ ] Listen Similar to the [u:] in cool [ku:l], but [ɯ] is a more relaxed sound than that. You don't have to round your lips tightly. It is quite different from the [ U ] in good [gūd].
e[ e ] ListenSimilar to the first sound of the [eı] in day [deı], but without the ending [ I ]. The [ε] in end [εnd] is wider than [e].
o[ o ] ListenSimilar to the first sound in owe [oU], but without the ending [ u ].

You don't have to worry about the vowel pronunciations very much. What is important is the metronomic rhythm of the Japanese. You must pronounce vowels with the same time length.

It is believed that the Japanese had eight vowels: a, i, u, e, o, ï, ë, and ö. The last three were lost more than a thousand years ago.

Hiragana examples:
Pitch:H L
Romanization:a i
Meaning:love (noun)

Pitch: L H
Romanization:u e
Meaning:upper (noun)

Pitch:H L
Meaning:king (noun)

Note: A combination of a kana with the vowel "o" and a kana for "u" is pronounced with [o:], not [oɯ]. A combination of a kana with the vowel "o" and a kana for "o" is also pronounced with [o:], not [oo]. In these cases, the second kana is there just to make the previous "o" longer and is technically described as the phoneme /H/. The sound [o:] is the same as [o] but twice as long as [o]. When Romanized, it is written as either "ô" ("o" with a circumflex) or "ō" ("o" with a macron). Remember that Japanese is metronomic. The sound [o] ("o") has one mora, while [o:] ("ô") has two morae. If you pronounce the former in 0.2 seconds, you must pronounce the latter in 0.4 seconds.

Pitch:L H H
Meaning:hollyhock (noun)

Pitch:L H
Meaning:house (noun)

Pitch:L H H
Meaning:sulfur (noun)

Note: This word has three morae, not two.
Next article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Hiragana for k/g + vowels
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About author
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

I work as a display engineer.

One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.


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