Japanese syllables are constructed in the following four ways.
1. a vowel ( a, i, u, e, o)
2. a consonant + a vowel (62 combinations)
3. a consonant alone ( n, t, s, k, p)
4. a consonant + y + a vowel ( 33 combinations)
The chart below shows all the syllables in Japanese.
Note the following special cases marked in yellow in the chart:
/s+i/ is pronounced /shi/
/z+i/ is pronounced /ji/
/t+i/ is pronounced /chi/
/t+u/ is pronounced /tsu/
/d+i/ is pronounced /ji/
/d+u/ is pronounced /zu/
There are five long vowels in Japanese: /aa/, /ii/, /uu/, /ee/, and /oo/. They are “long” in terms of spoken duration. In the writing system, the long versions of /a/, /i/, and /u/ are recognized as the same sound: /aa/, /ii/, /uu/. But the long version of /o/ (with certain exceptions) is represented by /ou/ and the long version of /e/ (with certain exceptions) is written as /ei/.
The consonants /t/, /s/, /k/, and /p/ can be long. When these consonants constitute an entire syllable without a vowel, they are not pronounced but take a full syllable length.
6 syllables: i-t-te ki-ma-su ‘I’m leaving.’
3 syllables: I-p-pon ‘ one long thing’
3 syllables: I-k-ko ‘one round thing’
3 syllables: i-s-sho ‘together’
The consonant /n/ can take up an entire syllable by itself, as in konnichiwa’ hello’ (5 syllables: ko-n-ni-chi-wa).
As you listen to Japanese, you will notice rises and falls in pitch. Pitch can change from syllable to syllable in order to distinguish meaning. For example, there is a fall in pitch in hai ‘yes’, while there is a rise in hai ‘ash’. The difference in pitch pattern distinguishes these two words. This is called pitch accent.
haI ‘ash’ (The high pitch is indicated by the capital.)
On the other hand, in English a difference in loudness serves this function. This is called stress accent. Compare the following.
inSULT (verb) (The loud syllable is indicated by the capital.)
All Japanese words have one of the following pitch patterns:
Fall: JAa ‘well then’
DOuzo ‘go ahead’
Rise: iIE ‘no’
saYONARA ‘good bye’
taDAIMA ‘I’m home’
oHAYOU ‘good morning’
yoROSHIKU ‘Nice to meet you’
Rise and Fall: aRIgatou ‘thanks’
shiTSUrei-shimasu ‘Excuse me’
If a word has only one syllable, a fall or a rise occurs with the following word.
HA desu. ‘It’s a tooth.’
ha DEsu. ‘It’s a leaf.’
A note on the cultural significance of pitch is in order. As you learn Japanese, pay attention to pitch at the sentence level as well as the word level. A slight change in pitch may indicate a subtle but significant change in meaning or mood. It is observed in many, if not all, languages that speakers tend to raise their pitch when talking to babies or when trying to sound gentle. Japanese is no exception in this regard. Talking in a high pitch is generally associated with politeness in Japanese. Women tend to talk in a higher pitch, but regardless of the gender, sales and customer service personnel, receptionists, waiters, etc. speak in overall higher pitch. Remember that when something is the norm and 8 expected in a culture and you don’t follow it, you may be sending a certain message inadvertently. Just to be safe, bow, smile, and talk gently.