Mistake #3 - Voiceless Vowels

Earlier I said that there are only 5 vowel sounds in Japanese:

  1. あ [ a ]
  2. い [ i ]
  3. う [ u ]
  4. え [ e ]
  5. お [ o ]

Well, that’s kind of true. But technically there are two vowels missing from this list, which you’ll find are listed in this chart as “voiceless:”

IPA

Japanese example

English approximation

a

aru

roughly like father

e

eki

met

i

iru

need

yoshi, shita

(voiceless)

o

oniisan

roughly like sore

ɯᵝ~ɯ

unagi

roughly like food

u͍̥

desu, sukiyaki

(voiceless)

Here those are one at a time, with audio...

a

aru

roughly like father

ある (aru) means "to be (for inanimate objects)"

e

eki

met

駅(えき / eki) means "(train) station"

i

iru

need

いる (iru) can mean "to be (for living things)" or "to need," when written as 要る(いる / iru).

yoshi, shita

(voiceless)

よし(yoshi) means "OK," like when saying "OK, let's go."
下(した / shita means "under; below.")

o

oniisan

roughly like sore

お兄さん(おにいさん / oniisan) means "elder brother."

ɯᵝ~ɯ

unagi

roughly like food

うなぎ (unagi) is "eel (the food)."

u͍̥

desu, sukiyaki

(voiceless)

です(desu) kind of means "to be," and すきやき (sukiyaki) is a type of food.

Japanese is spelled almost exactly as it’s pronounced. The key word here is “almost.” We can’t say entirely, because there are instances when words won’t sound as clean as they look on paper. One such example is voiceless vowels, which show up in words like です (desu), “to be" (kind of) and よし (yoshi), which has quite a few possible meanings (you’re most likely to hear it being used to say “OK!” or “All right!” just before another clause, like in よし、行こう! / yoshi, ikou / “OK, let’s go!”):

  • です (desu) looks like it would be pronounced de-su, but it’s actually closer to de-ss.

  • よし!(yoshi!) looks like it would be pronounced yo-shi, but it’s actually closer to yo-sh.

If you listen closely to a native Japanese speaker, you can pick these up quite easily. Actually, I learned to say these correctly without ever reading an explanation about them. I hadn’t thought that it was necessary to point out, but I’ve gotten emails from a number of readers saying that their classmates are saying things like de-su when they should be saying dess.

As always, just listen and imitate, and you should be fine.




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