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The Sounds of Japanese


Japanese has an open-syllable sound pattern, meaning that most syllables end in a vowel (the syllable may be composed solely of the vowel). There are five vowels, a, i, u, e, o. Vowel length often distinguishes words, as in "door" and "ten." The basic consonants are: k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, and the syllabic nasal n. Many of these consonants can be pronounced in front of the vowels a, u, and o, for example, kya, kyu, kyo. When the two consonants, s and t, occur with the vowel i, these consonants are automatically pronounced as shi and chi. The consonant t is pronounced as ts in front of the vowel u.

Unlike English, which has a stressed accent, Japanese has pitched accent. This means that after an accented syllable, the pitch falls. The word for chopsticks (hashi) has the accent on the first syllable, so its pitch contour is ha shi. Without the accent on the first syllable, "hashi" may mean "bridge" or "edge."

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