What is Japanese Syllables? Are you just starting to learn hiragana and katakana? Are you pretty sure about your basic knowledge of these syllabaries, but a little shaky on some of the more complicated parts of them? Do you want to improve your Japanese pronunciation?
- 1 What is Japanese Syllables?
- 2 The Japanese “Alphabets” ,Romaji
- 3 English Syllables vs. Japanese Syllables
- 4 Why Is The Hiragana Tiny?
- 5 Why Is The Katakana Tiny?
- 6 But Why is the つ Tiny??
- 7 What About Long Japanese Vowels?
- 8 Now You Can Write Haiku!
- 9 Study in Japan?
What is Japanese Syllables?
Well let’s talk about Japanese syllables. We’re going to look at how they can be different from syllables in English, how they can be used to create sounds other than the basic 46 in Japanese, and how we can truly perfect our haiku writing abilities.
The Japanese “Alphabets” ,Romaji
That’s actually a misleading header, because Japanese doesn’t really have an alphabet. I’m sorry. There are two syllabaries in Japanese: hiragana and katakana. Alphabets are made of characters that represent a single letter, while syllabaries are made of characters that represent a syllable. So if you take the hiragana か for example, you have to romanize it as “ka.” See how it has two letters? (A quick note here: The actual term for these “syllables” in Japanese is mora. Syllable is a word used more commonly in English though, so I’m going to stick with that to explain things.)
This makes pronunciation in Japanese a lot easier than English. Because there are only 46 characters in each syllabary (and they all match up with each other), there are only 46 basic sounds you can make in Japanese.
There is also no variation in pronunciation with each syllable. So an あ will always sounds like the “a” in “father.” If you compare that to the seven different ways to pronounce “a” in English, you can see that pronouncing Japanese is going to be a lot easier to learn.
However, this kind of makes pronunciation a double-edged sword. It’s easier to pick up, but a lot harder to get exactly right. I had a lot of friends learning Japanese who sounded very American because their vowel sounds were just a bit off. There’s only 46 sounds, so try to work on getting them sounding polished so you don’t sound too awkward and foreign when you speak.
English Syllables vs. Japanese Syllables
The concept of a syllable is different in Japanese than you may be used to with English. In Japanese, each kana character is its own syllable. This includes the vowels (あ, い, う, え, お) and the character ん (which might be uncomfortable for an English speaker because there is no vowel sound in there).
To see how this works, we can look at a word that is often associated with syllables, “haiku.” In English, “haiku” is made up of two syllables (hai-ku). In Japanese, it’s actually three (ha-i-ku) because it would be written with three kana (はいく). Well, it would probably be written in kanji, but it would be pronounced with three beats, each sound getting the same amount of time.
In Japanese, Japanese syllables are based on the amount of time it takes to say them. Because each kana is equal, they are given an equal amount of time. So the は and い each get their own beat in Japanese, even though we squish them together in English.
If you’re writing a haiku, your opening line can’t be “Haiku wo kaku” because that would be six syllables in Japanese (はいくをかく). Your second line, however, could be “Haiku wo kaite” which is seven syllables (はいくをかいて).
Why Is The Hiragana Tiny?
In your hiragana and katakana studying adventures, you may have come across characters that are very small—about half the size of a normal character. Japanese has an interesting way of combining specific characters to make sounds that aren’t represented by the basic 46 characters.
There’s a limited number of these, and they’re actually not too hard to get used to because they’re fairly consistent. You can combine all the characters that end in and “i” sound (き, し, ち, etc.), except for い, with the three characters that start with a “y” sound (や, ゆ, よ).
When you do this, the “y” character will be written smaller to signify that it is modifying the character before it and not standing alone. For example, if you combine き and や it will be written きゃ and pronounced “kya.” You could combine ち and よ to make ちょ or “cho.”
With these characters, we can put our English skills to work and squish them into one syllable. Even though when they are written they take up the space of two characters, because the small “y” character is modifying the character before it, you won’t treat it like it’s own syllable. So if you look at a word like “shakai” as an example (社会: society), it would be written as しゃかい. This is only three syllables (sha-ka-i), even though it may look like four when written in hiragana.
Why Is The Katakana Tiny?
Japanese words will only have the combination of characters ending in “i” sounds with “y” characters to modify them, but borrowed words can be different. There are a lot more sounds in languages that Japanese has borrowed from—especially English, which makes up a big chunk of these words—so katakana sometimes uses vowel characters (ア, イ, ウ, エ, オ) to modify other characters.
When used to modify, these vowel characters are also written smaller, and the combination still counts as one syllable. Let’s use the katakana version of the word “official,” which is written as オフィシャル. It has the normal combination of シ and ヤ to make シャ or “sha.” But it also combines フ and イ to make フィ or “fi.” In Japanese, there are no native words that have a “fi” sound in them. Sounds like this are only used in borrowed words, and only written in katakana.
These combinations are put in katakana pretty much as the need arises. As you see more katakana words, you’ll see more common combinations regularly. The more you practice with reading words and sounding them out, the better you’ll get at knowing which combination to use for each word.
ALL Hiraganas, Katakanas
But Why is the つ Tiny??
You may have noticed I left out a pretty important character that you’ll see in its tiny form pretty often. That’s because っ works a bit differently compared to the other tiny characters.
When つ is written smaller in a word, it indicates a stop. It’s kind of like an extension of the consonant sound after it, but it literally is not voiced at all. It’s pretty much the absence of voice when you’re speaking.
If we look at the word びっくり (surprise), we can kind of see how this works. Unlike the other tiny characters, small つ is technically a full syllable. It modifies the character after it by having you take a syllable rest before you say it. It’s kind of hard to explain this through typing, so try to find it in audio or through a Japanese-speaking friend. But I’ll do my best.
The romanization of びっくり is “bikkuri,” and the double k’s are your sign the have that break in there. So instead of saying this straight, you have a bit of a pause before you get to the “k” sound. Sort of like “bi-kuri.”
The amount of time you pause on a small つ can add emphasis. If your pause is a normal length, there’s little emphasis. But if you pause a bit longer and you say it more like “bi—kuri!” it will add emphasis. Don’t go overboard with this though. Too much of a pause will sound a little ridiculous. This is one of those listen-to-a-native-speaker-to-get-the-hang-of-it things.
Small つ can also be used in writing to indicate cutting off a word. One of the word I see this with the most is “えっ？” This isn’t really a word, but it’s used to indicate confusion or surprise. The っ at the end shows you that the え sound is cut off to add emphasis.
What About Long Japanese Vowels?
Some words in Japanese have extended vowel sounds. You write these by adding a vowel kana after the kana you’re trying to extend. So if you’re trying to write the word “kuuki” in hiragana, you can show the long “u” sound by adding a う (くうき). The く already gives you an “u” sound, the う just makes it longer.
The sounds あ, い, and う, are all extended using those kana, such as in くうき or うつくしい. However, え is extended by adding and い, and お is extended with a う in most situations. You can see this in words like キレイ (which is Japanese but written in katakana because the kanji is 綺麗 and it’s hard to write) and びょうき. These extended vowels are sometimes romanized with a line over them (びょうき would be “byōki”).
There are a few exceptions, such as the word おおきい (大きい: big), but there are few enough that you can easily remember them as you learn new vocabulary.
These vowel extensions count as their own syllable. This means the word くうき, even though we could easily say it as two syllables with our English-speaking minds, is actually three syllables (ku-u-ki). If you get this down, it’ll be easier to figure out how to pronounce things and distinguish between your words.
Now You Can Write Haiku!
If you put all these rules together, you’ll be able to improve your pronunciation and even your spelling. You’ll be able to distinguish between words like くうき and クッキ through your speech alone. That’s going to help Japanese people understand you better too.
You can also finally master the art of haiku, making accurate 5-7-5 poems with your complete understanding of Japanese syllables and blowing all your friends’ minds as you become a modern day Bashō.