Making Mora By Reading Mora

If you memorize hiragana (which we’ll talk about later) and their pronunciation, then you will, in effect, have learned all of the moras of Japanese. In other words, you will have learned how to pronounce every sound in this language. To rephrase that:

Learning to read hiragana out loud means learning how to pronounce 99% of Japanese.

So a few pages back, I introduced the phrase 語呂がいい (goro ga ii), yeah?

Now, how many mora do you think this word has?

To answer this question, you can just (1) write the sentence in hiragana only, and then (2) count the number of hiragana. 語呂がいい (goro ga ii) written in hiragana only would be ごろがいい. Five characters → Five mora.

1

2

3

4

5

go

ro

ga

i

i

I know what you’re thinking: Who cares?

The thing is, knowing first that Japanese sounds are divided into mora, then knowing that these mora are represented by Japanese characters, gives insight into why Japanese is such a simple language to pronounce. Or, to get technical, this illustrates the shallow orthographic depth of the Japanese language.

Say what?

“Orthographic depth” is just a fancy way to say “How much words sound like they’re spelled.”

A language with a deep orthographic depth is difficult to read phonetically, as many of the sounds will vary. English is like this, and it’s a nightmare for foreign learners. For example, how many of these words sound the same, or different…

  • Query, very
  • Tow, vow, row, bow, bow
  • Monkey, donkey
  • Grasp, wasp
  • Though, through, plough, dough, cough

Students often ask me, “Why is English spelling so complicated?” I answer by sweating nervously. Or saying, “Because, of course.” Or, “Shut up, you.”

Honestly, I feel so bad for people trying to learn English sometimes.

Languages with a shallow orthographic depth are easy to read aloud because words are almost always pronounced as they are written. For example, Spanish has a relatively shallow orthographic depth. If you know the basics of pronouncing Spanish syllables (which can vary by regions), then you should be able to read almost any passage aloud.

And, lucky us, Japanese also has an extremely shallow orthographic depth. Word sounds are always pronounced exactly as they are spelled. (Well, 99% of the time.) So if you can read the characters, then you should be able to read almost any passage aloud with relative accuracy.

Here are a couple of scary charts taken from Wikipedia (I have added romaji under each hiragana character; also, each hiragana character is linked to the Wikipedia page with details on that particular character):

IPA
(romaji)

-a
(-a)

-i/ʲi
(-i)

-ɯ̥
(-u)

-e
(-e)

-o

(-o)

-ʲa

(-ya)

-ʲu
(-yu)

-ʲo
(-yo)

'-
(-)

a


i


u


e


o

k-
(k-)


ka


ki


ku


ke


ko

きゃ
kya

きゅ
kyu

きょ
kyo

g-
(g-)


ga


gi


gu


ge


go

ぎゃ
gya

ぎゅ
gyu

ぎょ
gyo

s-
(s-)


sa


su


se


so

ɕ-
(sh-)

しゃ
sha


shi

しゅ
shu

しょ
sho

z-
(z-)


za


zu


ze


zo

dʑ-
(j-)

じゃ
ja


ji

じゅ
ju

じょ
jo

t-
(t-)


ta


te


to

tɕ-
(ch-)

ちゃ
cha


chi

ちゅ
chu

ちょ
cho

t͡s-
(ts-)


tsu

d-
(d-)


da


de


do

n-
(n-)


na


ni


nu


ne


no

にゃnya

にゅ
nyu

にょ
nyo

h-
(h-)


ha


hi


he


ho

ç-
(hy-)

ひゃ
hya

ひゅ
hyu

ひょ
hyo

ɸ-
(f-)


fu

p-
(p-)


pa


pi


pu


pe


po

ぴゃ
pya

ぴゅ
pyu

ぴょ
pyo

b-
(b-)


ba


bi


bu


be


bo

びゃ
bya

びゅ
byu

びょ
byo

m-
(m-)


ma


mi


mu


me


mo

みゃ
mya

みゅ
myu

みょ
myo

j-
(y-)


ya


yu


yo

ɺ-
(r-)


ra


ri


ru


re


ro

りゃ
rya

りゅ
ryu

りょ
ryo

β̞-
(w-)


wa

special mora

ɴ-



n

t̚ -



[double consonant marker] (i.e. shows that the following consonant is 2 moras in length.)

zu

dzu

Although the romaji version includes a “d,” for this character, you don’t actually need to pronounce it. Just saying ず (zu) is quite common.

dʑi

dzi

Although the romaji version is written with “dz,” this character is usually just pronounced the same as じ (ji).

ː-


[long vowel marker] (i.e. shows that the preceding vowel is 2 moras in length)

[o]

The same pronunciation as お / オ (o), but often written in romaji as wo. (used almost exclusively as a particle, the katakana form (ヲ) is almost never used.)

Once you learn to read all of the characters in those two charts (which we’ll look at doing later), you should be able to pronounce 99% of Japanese. I can’t stress how amazing that is. I spend months—years, even—trying to teach students the sounds of various English words and sentences, and they would never fit on a couple of compact charts.

For example, a few years ago I was going over an English lesson with a student, and she was confused by my (American) pronunciation of “Get off at the next station.” To her, it sounded like I was saying “Gedoff atthe necksstation.” Because, well, I was saying that. Sure, she would understand the phrase “Get off at the next station” if she read it, but that doesn’t help her catch it in conversation at all. With Japanese, however, being able to read those characters above (and memorizing words that contain them) will help you tremendously in catching native Japanese in conversations.

This is one of the reasons that Japanese teachers are so adamant about learning hiragana and katakana as early as possible. Once you do, you have already set up an incredibly useful foundation for pronouncing, reading and, in turn, speaking Japanese.

The reason that I think having a shallow orthographic depth makes a language much easier is that you often understand words the first time you hear them, simply because you have read them in a book, or because you know the building blocks (i.e. kanji) of that word.

This is all good news so far, right? But there are still some areas of Japanese pronunciation that will not go easy on your tongue, brain cells, or level of coolness…




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