Note: I am still learning and this post covers very basic stuff. If any of this is wrong, please let me know. I’d love to hear feedback.
It’s been about a week since I took it upon myself to start learning Japanese through the use of iPad apps and so far, it’s been interesting and even fun. As such, I thought I’d share a little about what I’ve learned as well as a few insights about the language which will show that isn’t as difficult as you might think. Well, for Hiragana at least.
But before I begin I need to say that it’s not only apps that have been helping. Over the last couple of years, I’ve subjected myself to a ton of things Japanese including listening to Jpop (music), watching Japanese TV shows including some anime and NHK World, and spending crazy money at a certain store. I believe that all of these things have most definitely given me the upper hand in understanding or at least raising my interest in the language. Now let’s begin.
First, Japanese is comprised of sounds or syllabaries, not actual letters. Of course there are vowels but all characters are a combination of a consonant and vowel sound except ん which is the N sound all on its own.
Second, much like Spanish totally unlike English, each vowel sound is pronounced the same no matter what.
- A = ah
- I = ee
- U = ooh
- E = eh (as in “met”)
- O = oh
There is no deviation from this unless the O sound from any syllabary is followed by う which extends the O sound or in some cases gives it a U sound at the end. After all, that character is a U. Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, the vowels are in a different order than English.
Now let’s learn a Japanese word by using an example that most everybody knows, thanks to Styx.
First, we have ど which is “do” (pronounced “doe”). This is actually a diacritic (dakuten) of the と (“to” pronounced “toe”) sound. Those little lines are above the first one are what give it the softer D sound. There is also another dakuten – it’s a little circle instead of two lines – that turns the “ha” sound of は into the harder “pa” sound of ぱ. There are many more; that’s just one example.
After ど we have う which is the aforementioned U and extends the O sound.
Then there’s も which is the “mo” sound. Now we have “domo.”
あ is the vowel A (“ah”), and then we learn something else: the “ri” sound of り. In Japanese, the R does not sound like it does in English, which is why a native Japanese person would have difficulty learning to pronounce it because it’s not part of their vocabulary. It’s like when the chef on Kodos and Kang’s flying saucer told Homer, “To pronounce it correctly, I would have to pull out your tongue.” It’s native to one part of the universe but not another; what exists in English doesn’t in Hiragana.
Anyway, all R sounds are pronounced using a slight D sound instead, which means that the way we Americans say “karaoke” as “carry oaky” is completely wrong. Well, at least it would be in Japan where it’s pronounced “ka-da-o-kee.” Phonetically, the R sounds are pronounced:
- ら = da
- り = dee
- る = doo
- れ = deh
- ろ = doe
Hmm. Kinda sounds familiar.
Okay, that’s that. Now there’s が which is “ka” but with the dakuten changes to “ga.” Then we wrap it up with と for “to” and the vowel U or う, which lengthens the “do” sound.
So put it all together and you have どうもありがとう or “domo arigato” or as the Styx sang to us, “thank you very much (Mr. Roboto).”
So it’s that simple, right? Ha! Not exactly. Hiragana – 46 characters total – is based on native Japanese and is only one part of the three writing systems. There’s also Katakana which has about the same number of characters as Hiragana and is derived from Kanji. And guess what? Kanji is the third part of the writing system so it’s not uncommon to see all of them used at the same time.
Did I mention that there are over 2,000 Kanji characters?
Then there’s the whole learning words and stuff plus grammar. I’m just learning syllabaries right now. And I forgot to mention combining sounds which is a whole different chart of characters which are pronounced differently when not combined with vowels:
ぎ (gi or “gee”) + あ (a or “ah”) = ぎあ (gya)
Also, の is the “no” sound but also possessive as in ねこのて (nekonote). So ねこ (neko or “cat”) combined with の (“belonging to”) て (“hand”) means “the cat’s hand.” By the way, the て or “te” sound also means “hand” in some cases. In fact, as you saw here, a few Hiragana by themselves are entire words or numbers. A few examples are:
- く (ku or “koo”) = number 9
- め (me) = eye
- ひ (hi or “he”) = day
Oh, and there are no spaces in Japanese, and sometimes the U sound in some syllabaries isn’t pronounced, as in なつかしい (natsukashi or “sweet memory”) because なつ (natsu) means “summer.” It is pronounced natskashi.
But in the end, if you look at the charts long enough as I have been, the characters and their sounds begin to make sense. It’s just a matter of deciphering them. In fact the first word I conquered after familiarizing myself with most of Hiragana was “sushi.” Go ahead and look up the syllabaries on the chart and see if you can guess how to spell it.
Did you get it?
- す = su
- し = shi
Therefore, すし is “sushi.”
Yeah. I know what I’ve gotten myself into but I’m having a lot of fun with it and really enjoying the challenge! The goal here is to someday know enough to get by so when I do eventually take a vacation in Japan (and by gum, I will), I’ll have a better idea of everything which will make the trip much more enjoyable as well as mingle with people a little better as well as understand the culture and customs.
Plus, it will look great on the resume under “Languages Spoken.”
In the meantime I need to find a new job. That trip isn’t cheap and there’s no way to afford it on my salary.
Baby steps, yo.