Learn Hiragana One: Pronunciation

By Donnie | Japanese Language Basics

Welcome to part one of a three-part, learn hiragana article series.

If you’ve ever had any interest in the Japanese language, you may have heard about hiragana before. Hiragana is the most basic of Japan’s three writing systems (hiragana, katakana, and kanji). In a previous article we discussed four important reasons to learn hiragana. Now that you know why hiragana are important, let’s take things a step further. Today let’s focus on an essential aspect of understanding hiragana: pronunciation.

The primary hiragana are made up of 46 characters, right? Each of these 46 characters has a sound, meaning 46 different phonetic sounds. For many people who start studying they see 46, alien characters:

A Hiragana Chart from the Learn Hiragana 101 Course

Seeing how different the characters look from the Roman alphabet, and that there are twice as many can be a bit daunting. It’s not unheard of for a person to look at this chart and think to themselves “Umm, no.” If you saw the hiragana chart above and thought that, bear with me and by the end of the article, you’ll understand why it’s not so bad.

Do you notice anything special about the chart above? It’s broken in to eight sets of five character, and two set of three. Learning your hiragana in groups of five (+ two sets of three) can really chunk things down in something more reasonable. The hiragana chart above and pronunciation list below come directly from the Japan Guy Hiragana 101 course:

Getting your hiragana pronunciation is one of the first important hiragana basics.
If you can do this you’re off to a great start. Let’s take a quick look at what these
characters sound like. I tried to think of the closest English equivalent sound for
each of the characters. Keep in mind that I’m American, so these sounds are
American English equivalents. With British English, there may be slight
differences in how you pronounce the equivalent words I’m using. In any case,
make sure to look at the accompanying video so that you can hear the actual
pronunciation of each character from a native speaker.

A‐ Sound like the “o” in the word option
I‐ Sounds like the “e” in enormous.
U‐ Sounds like a short version of the “oo” in tool.
E‐ Sounds like the “e” in expert or excellent.
O‐ Sounds like the “o” in the word open.

KA‐ Sounds like the “ca” in cauliflower.
KI‐ Sounds like “key” but with a slightly shorter ending sound
KU‐Sounds like “coo” in the word cool, but with a slightly shorter
“oo” sound.
KE‐ Sounds like the “ke” in kept.
KO‐Sounds like the “co” in cola, again, slightly shorter.

SA‐ Sounds like the so in the word sock.
SHI‐ Sounds like the word “she.”
SU‐ Sounds like the “su” in super.
SE‐ Sounds like the “se” in self.
SO‐ Sounds like the “so” in So what? but the o sound is slightly shorter

TA‐ Sounds like the “to” in the word topping.
CHI‐ Sounds like the “che” in the word cheese.
TSU‐ I had a hard time thinking of an English word that would produce this sound, so please be sure to check out my explanation of it in the video below (it’s kind of like trying to clear something from between your front teeth with air, then saying “oo” immediately afterwards.
TE‐ Sounds like “te” in tepid.
TO‐ Sounds like the “to” in toe.

NA‐ Sounds like the “no” in the word nonverbal
NI‐ Sounds like the “ne” in the word need.
NU‐ Sounds like the word “new.”
NE‐ Sounds like the word “nay”nay but with a slightly shortened “ay” sound.
NO‐ Sound like the word “no” but with a slightly shortened “o” sound.

HA‐ This one sounds like the ha in “ha ha” like you’re laughing at somebody.
HI‐ Sounds like the word “he,” like the opposite of she.
FU‐ This is another sound that is kind of unique to Japan. Say theword “who.” Now say “foo.” The sound falls in between these “h” and “f” sounds.
HE‐ Sounds like the “he” in help.
HO‐ Sounds like the “ho” in hope, only a little shorter on the “o” sound.

MA‐ Sounds like “ma” in the word mafia.
MI‐ Sounds like the word “me” with a shorter “e” sound.
MU‐ Sound like “mo” in mood so the “o” sound isn’t as long.
ME‐ Sounds like “May” but the “ay” is shorter.
MO‐ Sounds like the “mo” in moment.

YA‐ Sounds like the “ya” in yawn.
YU‐ Sound like a shortened version of the word “you.”
YO‐ Think of Rocky Balboa saying “yo” but a little shorter.

The RA, RI, RU, RE, and RO characters use a sound that is rather ofunique. You don’t say the “r” like you would in English as in the word “read” for example. Saying your “r” sound the way you do in English, makes it much harder for people to make heads or tails of what you’re saying…
*This sounds fall between an English “R” and “L” sound. Your tongue with touch your palate just before your front teeth as you say these Japanese “R” sounds.

WA‐ Sounds like “wa” in the word water.
WO‐ Sounds like a short “whoa.”
N‐This is a very small sound. It sounds like the “n” on the end of the word down.

Hopefully that gives you a brief idea of what Japanese hiragana pronunciation is like. In the Learn Hiragana 101 course, there are accompanying videos to make hearing and producing these sounds a bit easier. In Part Two of our 3-part article series, we will look at hiragana stroke order!

Donald Ash

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