ん and the disappearing Japanese Y(en)

By | November 26, 2014

Although this is a textual blog, I can’t help but talk about Japanese pronunciation now and then because it’s such an important element to being fluent.

This morning I was listening to a Japanese podcast and had an interesting mini-discovery about the japanese letter ‘ん’ (‘n’), so I thought I would share it with everyone.

For English speakers learning Japanese, there are many aspects of pronunciation one has to keep track of: different vowel sounds, consonants, as well as intonation patterns. Of course the really tricky part is when you put letters and words together and things just ‘flow’ naturally – and this is the part that takes years of practice (unless you are very young or a linguistic genius).

The Japanese “ん” is one of the more tricky letters because it seems to similar to the English ‘n’, and yet has some key differences.

To use a simple example, if you were to try and pronounce the word きん (‘kin’, a way to say ‘gold’) using the English ‘n’, it probably wouldn’t end up so bad. (If you’re new to Japanese, the tricker part here would be to make sure you got your ‘き’ vowel right, making a ‘kee’ sound not an ‘kii’ sound).

But when you run into a word where a ん is followed by certain letters the pronunciation gets a little hairy because things can change as a result of the word flow.

The most important thing to know is that when making a ん sound in Japanese, the tongue doesn’t always touch the top of the mouth or teeth like it does in English (like in the word ‘ran’). Instead the tongue sort of ‘floats’ and what you end up with is a light ‘ng’ sound (like in the English word ‘rang’). It’s interesting to note here in English the sound of ‘n’ changes as well because we don’t pronounce ‘rang’ like ‘ran’ + ‘g’ since the letters influence one another.

A great example because it is very applicable to everyday Japanese is when you are counting money when 円, which is pronounced as ‘en’ by itself (note: it can also be pronounced as ‘maru’ depending on the context, but that is when you aren’t counting money).

For example:

  • 百円 (hyakuen) = 100 Yen
  • 千円 (sen’en) = 1 thousand Yen
  • 万円 (man’en) = 10 thousand Yen

Because 百円 has no ‘ん’ sound in the middle of it, the pronunciation is relatively straightforward.

But 千円 and 万円 both have an embedded ‘ん’, and as a result they usually sound more like ‘mangyen’ and ‘sengyen’ when said quickly (which is most of the time in natural Japanese).

The mini-discovery I alluded to in this post’s intro is that I heard someone reading a postcard message written in Japanese which had the word ”万円” in it, and the broadcaster read it very slowly and clearly enunciated. The surprising thing was that there was not even a trace of the ‘y’ sound. I heard him then say that same word a moment later at normal speed and it the subtle ‘y’ sound seemed to come back. I then re-listenened to that portion several times and confirmed what I had heard.

I think the important lesson here is that Japanese speakers are not going out of their way to pronounce this ‘Y’ sound, but it just happens naturally when the sounds flow together well, and it just happens to sound like a ‘Y’ sound to English ears.

Initially you can just try saying ‘mangyen’ but just be aware you’ll likely over pronounce the ‘ng’ and ‘y’ parts at first – remember that Japanese sounds really can’t be accurately represented using English letters, they are just approximations. Just pay careful attention to when you hear native or fluent speakers pronounce this type of word and you can gradually refine your pronunciation.

If you looking for a real challenge you can try to pronounce 恋愛 (ren’ai) and 管理 (kan’ri). These are really tricky to get perfect and I’ve spent a great deal of time practicing them on my own. I won’t talk about them in detail here, but may address that in a future post.

On a side note, if you curious why we call Japanese money ‘Yen’ not ‘en’, see this post. I thought it was for the same reason but there appears to be more historical background involved.

References

http://japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/5915/why-is-the-japanese-currency-pronounced-yen-in-english

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