ローマ字 rōmaji—roman letters

In response to an earlier comment, I thought I should say a few words about pronunciation of Japanese.

In this blog, I often include Japanese words, together with a transliteration written in our familiar Latin alphabet. For example: 花見 hanami—flower-viewing.

Obviously this Romanised version, hanami, is not how the word is normally written in Japanese; it is a way of indicating how the word is pronounced. But even so, a non-Japanese speaker may not always feel confident in exactly how the word should be pronounced. So here are a few rules that may help:

1) If you just pronounce each syllable as it would be pronounced in English, you’ll be right >95% of the time. So for example hanami is pronounced like ha+na+mi.

2) The 5 vowels in Japanese a i u e o are pure vowels, pronounced like in the English words “ah we soon get old”. These combine with consonants to form simple syllables ka ki ku ke ko, sa shi(!) su se so, and so on, about 50 in total. So for example ame (rain) is pronounced a+me (not like English “aim”).

If you stop here, you’ll be fine. However there are a couple of possible pitfalls or ambiguities to be aware of. So:

3) Syllables with a “y” in them. Like “kyo”. Which is a single syllable. And therefore should not be pronounced as “kee-o” but, well, “kyo”. Remember that next time you say “Tokyo”!

4) Long vowels. Vowels in Japanese can be long or short. This poses a problem for Romanisation: how can I represent the long vowels in Roman letters? There are numerous options, and actual practice varies widely.

You might say, surely there is a standard. Well, there is. There’s an international standard ISO 3602. This has two main disadvantages: a) nobody uses it, and b) it’s not a good guide to pronunciation. If I were to comply strictly with ISO 3602, I would write Fuji as hudi and Mitsubishi as mitubisi.  Which would be stupid.

Anyway, long vowels. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • a) Don’t mark them at all. For example, some signs show the name of our local subway line as “Midosuji line”, with no indication that the “o” is long. Along these lines, for historical reasons, we write “Tokyo”, “Kyoto” and “Osaka” in English rather than “Toukyou”, “Kyouto” and “Oosaka”.
  • b) Add a “h”. Other signs say “Midohsuji”, which has a good chance of being interpreted correctly by English speakers.
  • c) Faithfully copy the pattern of the Japanese word. For example, “Midousuji”. This is my preferred option, although it has a big disadvantage: if I write you, it looks like the English word “you”, pronounced like “yew”. But the intended pronunciation is /yo:/ with a long “o”.
  • d) Write the vowel with a macron over it (like I did in the title of this post). I think this option is quite elegant in principle, but impractical for two reasons: I can’t easily type the character “ō” from the keyboard, and I’m not confident that your browser will render it correctly.
  • e) Write the vowel with a circumflex: “Midôsuji”. This is the ISO 3602 standard. However it looks a little antiquated, and it’s not evident to the casual reader what vowel quantity is intended.

5) The syllable fu is not pronounced with a strong /f/ sound, but something between /hu/ and /fu/.

99) Pitch accent. If you really want to pronounce Japanese correctly, you will need to learn the pitch accent of each word in the language. In some cases, different words are distinguished only by pitch accent. For example, sake (low-high) means salmon, while sake (high-low) means alcohol. Other such minimal pairs include kaki (oyster or persimmon fruit), ame (rain or candy) and hashi (bridge, chopsticks, or edge). However, the pitch accent varies from dialect to dialect, and most foreign learners never learn it. It is considered such a low priority for learners that it is not even mentioned in most textbooks. Lack of mastery of pitch accent is one of the key markers of “foreign” speech in Japanese.

Note on the word of the day

ローマ字 consists of the word ローマ rōma—Rome, written in katakana, and the kanji 字 ji—character or letter. Hence, “Roman letters” or letters of the Latin alphabet.

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