Japanese has 5 vowels and 13-15 consonants (depending on your counting method). Historically it had more, but modern Japanese (that we will be studying here) is very phonetically simple. As such, here are some basic phonetic guidelines:
"A" is pronounced as 'ah', such as in 'father' or 'awl'. 'a' is a soft sound that forms in the back of the throat. It is not the hard 'a' that is heard in 'april' or 'ant', which occurs towards the front of the mouth.
"I" is pronounced as 'ee', such as in 'see' or 'free'. it is not pronounced 'eye' as the English vowel is often pronounced.
"U" is pronounced as 'oo', such as in 'moon' or 'noon'.
"E" is pronounced as 'eh', such as in 'enter' or 'eventual'. it is not the hard 'e' found in 'evil'.
"O" is pronounced as 'oh', such as in 'oh no!' or if you're sounding out letters such as 'OVA'.
Japanese phonetics typically _do not change_, regardless of what other sounds are around them. "AI" (love) is pronounced 'ah-ee'. slurring sounds is okay, too, which results in a sound very close to 'eye'.
"AI" = "eye"
"AU" = "out" without the t
"EI" = "A" (as in the alphabet letter)
"EU" = "you"
"OU" = "oh!" (but a little extended)
"UO" = "woah" (without the 'w' at the beginning)
Adding consonants to the mix is pretty simple.. just add the consonant at the beginning!
"K-" sounds like the K in "key", for example. The first exception to these basic phonetic combinations is "SI", which is oftentimes romanized as "SHI", and sounds the same as "she". There are other exceptions, but for now let's concentrate on the first 3 rows of kana, the K and S (or K-dan and S-dan) rows.
Japanese has two tones, a "high" tone and a "low" tone. These tones do NOT determine interpretation. Thus, you can say "kaWAII" or "KAwaii" and it doesn't change the meaning ("cute").
HOWEVER, there are preferred pronunciations. Here's a trio of English words (and sentences) that showcase the difference in placement of emphasis:
"Our schedules conflict -- we can't find a common time" versus "The conflict in the Middle East" (conFLICT versus CONflict)
"Pick up that object" versus "I object to the proposal!" (OBject versus obJECT)
"They're rebelling against the empire!" versus "We captured a rebel spy!" (reBEL versus REbel)
Thus, if you make a mistake in tones, it'll sound as if the above sentences were mispronounced. They're still understandable, but a little unnatural-sounding. There's no easy way to teach tones (that I've found) short of practice.. but without sound here, it's difficult to really show the differences between intonations in Japanese.
I'll see about getting a
Writing, Part 1
It's a real shame, I had all this work done for lettering and such, and animated graphics for the first few rows ... and then I found this website:
Hiragana Steps has a better layout and nicer graphics than what I produced... which really defeats the purpose of my first few lessons.
Instead, I'll ask that everyone who's working from the beginning do the following:
1. Go to Hiragana Steps
2. Read over the 1st 3 pages (A, KA, SA), print out the practice sheets
3. Write each kana (A, I, U, E, O, KA, KI, KU, KE, KO, SA, SHI, SU, SE, SO) at least 10 times. Hiragana Steps provides practice sheets (click "practice" at the top of each page, if you have a printer. If you do not, a regular sheet of paper is okay -- just make sure you write each character 10 times. ;)
I also suggest listening to the sounds, which are in MP3 format. If you need an MP3 player, I suggest Windows Media Player (part of Windows) or WinAmp (http://www.winamp.com).
I'll probably do the next lesson on Thursday or Friday, so if you're reading this, you have ~2-3 days to print out the practice sheets and do the first 15 characters.
It sounds kinda silly, but don't go beyond these character yet.. Instead, just make sure you've got these characters totally 100% memorized. I will *only* be providing sentences in Japanese (in JIS-encoded text as well as graphical) and will *NOT* be using romaji.