Japanese phonology

Japanese phonology

This article deals with the phonology (i.e. the sound system) of the Japanese language.


The Japanese vowels are pronounced as monophthongs, unlike in English; except for IPA|/u/, they are similar to their Spanish or Italian counterparts.

Vowels have a phonemic length distinction (i.e., short vs. long). Cf. contrasting pairs of words like "ojisan" IPA|/ozisaɴ/ "uncle" vs. "ojiisan" IPA|/oziisaɴ/ "grandfather", or "tsuki" IPA|/tuki/ "moon" vs. "tsūki" IPA|/tuuki/ "airflow".

In most phonological analyses, all vowels are treated as occurring with the time frame of one mora. Phonetically long vowels, then, are treated as a sequence of two identical vowels, i.e. "ojiisan" is IPA|/oziisaɴ/ not IPA|/oziːsaɴ/.

Within words and phrases, Japanese allows long sequences of phonetic vowels without intervening consonants, although the pitch accent and slight rhythm breaks help track the timing when the vowels are identical.


The coronals IPA|/s, z, n, t/ and glottal IPA|/h/ are affected as follows:

Moraic nasal

Some analyses of Japanese treat the moraic nasal as an archiphoneme IPA|/N/. However, other, less abstract approaches take its uvular citation pronunciation as basic, or treat it as a regular coronal IPA|/n/. In any case, it undergoes a variety of assimilatory processes. Within words, it is variously:

* uvular IPA| [ɴ] at the end of utterances and in isolation.
* bilabial IPA| [m] before IPA| [p] and IPA| [b] ; this pronunciation is also sometimes found at the end of utterances and in isolation. Singers are taught to pronounce all final and prevocalic instances of this sound as IPA| [m] , which reflects its historical derivation.
* dental IPA| [n] before coronals IPA| [d] and IPA| [t] ; never found utterance-finally.
* velar IPA| [ŋ] before IPA| [k] and IPA| [ɡ] .
* (a nasalized vowel) before vowels, approximants (IPA|/j/ and IPA|/w/), and fricatives (IPA|/s/, IPA|/z/, and IPA|/h/). Also found utterance-finally.

Some speakers produce IPA|/n/ before IPA|/z/, while others produce a nasalized vowel before IPA|/z/ (see Akamatsu 1997).

Moraic obstruent

In some analyses of Japanese, an archiphoneme IPA|/Q/ is posited. However, not all scholars agree that this is the best analysis. In those approaches that incorporate the moraic obstruent, it is said to completely assimilate to the following obstruent, resulting in a geminate (that is, double) consonant. The assimilated IPA|/Q/ remains unreleased and thus the geminates are phonetically long consonants. IPA|/Q/ does not occur before vowels or nasal consonants. This archiphoneme has a wide variety of phonetic realizations, for example:

To a lesser extent IPA|/o/ (and even less commonly IPA|/a/) may devoice with the further requirement that there be two or more adjacent moras containing IPA|/o/.

When an utterance-final word is uttered with emphasis, this glottal stop is plainly audible, and is often indicated in the writing system with a small letter "tsu" called a sokuon.

Moras and phonotactics

If considered as a system of moras instead of syllables (as the katakana and hiragana phonetic writing systems explicitly do), the sound structure is very simple: The language is made of moras, each with the same approximate time value and stress (stress, here, being correlated with pitch, not loudness). The Japanese mora may consist of either a vowel or one of the two moraic consonants, IPA|/N/ and IPA|/Q/. A vowel may be preceded by an optional (non-moraic) consonant, with or without a palatal glide IPA|/j/.

* In this table, the period represents a division between moras, rather than the more common usage of a division between syllables.

Consonantal moras are restricted from occurring word initially, though utterances starting with IPA| [n] are possible. Vowels may be long, and consonants may be geminate (doubled). Geminate consonants are limited to a sequence of IPA|/Q/ plus a voiceless obstruent, though some words are written with geminate voiced obstruents. In the analysis without archiphonemes, geminate clusters are simply two identical consonants, one after the other.

In the writing system, each kana corresponds to a mora. The moraic IPA|/Q/ (i.e., the first half of a geminate cluster) is indicated by a small "tsu" symbol called a sokuon (subscript in katakana, or in hiragana). Long vowels are usually indicated in "katakana" by a long dash following the first vowel, as in "sābisu" サービス 'service'. The direction of this dash follows the direction of writing.

In English, stressed syllables in a word are pronounced louder, longer, and with higher pitch, while unstressed syllables are relatively shorter in duration. In Japanese, all moras are pronounced with equal length and loudness. Japanese is therefore said to be a mora-timed language.

On the other hand, since all syllables have equal stress in Japanese, some unstressed syllables in European languages tend to be inaudible to the Japanese ear, leading to confusion.

(Compare to the syllable system of Finnish and Italian.)


Standard Japanese has a distinctive pitch accent system: a word can have one of its moras bearing an accent or not. An accented mora is pronounced with a relatively high tone and is followed by a drop in pitch.The various Japanese dialects have different accent patterns, and some exhibit more complex prosodic systems.



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title=Japanese phonetics: Theory and practice

* Akamatsu, Tsutomu. (2000). "Japanese phonology: A functional approach". München: LINCOM EUROPA. ISBN 3-89586-544-3.
* Bloch, Bernard. (1950). Studies in colloquial Japanese IV: Phonemics. "Language", "26", 86–125.
* Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1977). "The tone pattern of Japanese: An autosegmental theory of tonology". Tokyo: Kaitakusha. ISBN 0-87040-371-0.
* Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1999). Accent. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), "The handbook of Japanese linguistics" (Chap. 1, p. 1–30). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20504-7. ISBN 0-631-20504-7.
* Kubozono, Haruo. (1999). Mora and syllable. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), "The handbook of Japanese linguistics" (Chap. 2, pp. 31–61). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20504-7.
* Ladefoged, Peter. (2001). "A course in phonetics" (4th ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle, Thomson Learning.
* Martin, Samuel E. (1975). "A reference grammar of Japanese". New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01813-4.
* McCawley, James D. (1968). "The phonological component of a grammar of Japanese". The Hague: Mouton.
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title=Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the usage of the International Phonetic Alphabet
place=Cambridge, England
publisher=Cambridge University Press
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* Pierrehumbert, Janet & Beckman, Mary. (1988). "Japanese tone structure". Lingustic inquiry monographs (No. 15). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-16109-5; ISBN 0-262-66063-6.
* Sawashima, Masayuki; & Miyazaki, S. (1973). Glottal opening for Japanese voiceless consonants. "Annual Bulletin of the Research Institute of Logopedics and Phoniatrics, University of Tokyo, Faculty of Medicine", "7", 1-10.
* Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). Japanese. In B. Comrie (Ed.), "The major languages of east and south-east Asia". London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04739-0.
* Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). "The languages of Japan". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36070-6 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-36918-5 (pbk).
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title=An introduction to Japanese phonology
publisher=State University of New York Press

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