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?
What is Japanese Syllables?
Well let’s talk about syllables in Japanese. 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 “Alphabet”
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, 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.