Language Intro

Introduction to the Japanese Language

Basic sound unit is made of the combination of the following elements:

5 vowels (a, i, u, e, o)

15 consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w·, g, g, z, d, p, b)

Unlike English (e.g., “a” sound in “mad” and “made” are different), the vowels are always pronounced in the same manner as “a i u e o.”

Syllable length: (modern Japanese vs. modern English). In Japanese, each of these syllable-like units represents one beat and occupies roughly the same unit of time. In English, on the other hand, an accented syllable and an unaccented syllable occupy different lengths of time.

E.g., Nagano Olympics/Nagano orinpikku/


There are often long vowels in Japanese.

E.g., Kyoto (Kyōto, kyooto), Hokkaido (Hokkaidō, hokkaidoo), Tokyo (Tōkyō, tookyoo)

In Japan, as in most of East Asia, people’s names are said in the opposite order they are in English. A typical name is Tanaka Kimiko: Tanaka (family name) Kimiko (given name). We will follow Japanese usage (Family name first, given name second).

Widespread use of honorifics. Watakushi wa mairimasu ga, Tanaka-san mo irrashaimasu ka (I will go but will Tanaka-san go as well).   Verbs for “go” are different.  I use the “humble” verb “mairu” for myself and the “respectful” verb “irrasharu” for Tanaka.  This often eliminates the need for pronouns: Mairimasu ga, irrashaimasu ka (I’ll go but will you go as well?)

Also, honorific suffixes are used in most situations: X-san, B-kun, R-sensei. X is someone to whom I show deference.  B is someone who is younger than I am, for example.  R is my teacher or a person to whom I want to show great respect. Honorific suffixes are not used in reference to oneself.

Japanese Writing System 

While the sound system in Japanese is relatively simple, the writing system is one of the most complex in the world.  It was adapted over time from the Chinese writing system.  However the Japanese language and Chinese language are structurally completely different.  First, the sound systems are very different.  Japanese is not a tonal language. Second, Japanese syllables are not necessarily morphemic, do not necessarily have a discrete meaning, while Chinese syllables more often than not do have discrete meanings.  Third, the word order is completely different.  In Chinese, like English, word order is Subject/Verb/Object.  In Japanese, it is Subject/Object/Verb.  Chinese=I hit the King.  Japanese=I the King hit.

Because of these differences between the two languages, the ways Japan borrowed its writing system from China were quite varied.

1  language1                  2 language2                     3   language3    4language4

安             按                  晏                鞍

Chin. ān                                    Chin. àn                                 Chin. yàn                     Chin. ān

Jpn. an (onyomi)                    Jpn.   an (onyomi)              Jpn.  an (onyomi)        Jpn.  an (onyomi)

Jpn. yasui  (kunyomi)            Jpn.   osaeru (kunyomi)   Jpn.  hare (kunyomi)   Jpn. kura (kunyomi)

Jpn.  osoi (kunyomi)

Character 1 represents a woman under a roof and means to be at ease, comfortable, secure inexpensive and so on.  In its Japanese onyomi reading, it functions as a loanword, and that is what onyomi means, a Japanese approximation of a Chinese pronunciation. In its kunyomi reading, it is a translation of the Chinese into Japanese.  Character 2 has the addition on the left of the radical for hand, which provides a semantic element and is translated as osaeru, to press down on.  Character 3 has the addition of the radical/semantic element “sun” with translation of hare, a clear/sunny day, or osoi, to be late/sleep in past the dawn.  Character 4 has the phonetic element common to 1, 2, and 3 plus the radical/semantic element of leather on the left.  It has the kunyomi/translation reading of kura, saddle.

As should be clear from the above, most Chinese characters have multiple readings in Japanese.  Some characters have been translated in multiple ways and Chinese pronunciations have changed over time with the resulting differing onyomi for the same Chinese character imported at differing times in history.  Japanese students are expected to be able to read the multiple pronunciations of 2,136 Chinese characters (kanji in Japanese) by the end of their schooling.

However, there are grammatical and Japanese lexical items that are difficult to represent with kanji.  This required the development of syllabaries – manyōgana , hiragana and katakana – to represent these aspects of the Japanese language.  Each symbol represents a syllable.  The chart below shows these syllabaries and also demonstrates the sound system of modern standard Japanese. Notice how the symbol for “a, あ” developed out of the character 安, illustrated above.


Manyōgana (in red and blue) is no longer used, and the use of katakana in the present is generally limited to foreign names and terms.