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Foreign Sounds

As you can tell, the Japanese syllabary doesn't have that many sounds to go by. So when borrowing words from another language, there are general two options - adapt them to the Japanese script, or bend the phonetics of Japanese to use the word.

For instance, the Japanese do not have the "v" sound as you can see here. But they try to represent the 'v' sound by adding てんてん to ウ (so it becomes ヴ). For instance, the word "violin" could be written as ヴァイオリン. But even though they write it this way, they tend to transliterate it to a "b" because that is easier for them to say (and you should pronounce it this way too).

The list below explains some foreign word conventions for Katakana (these can be used in Hiragana as well, but it is less common). It should be noted that each "pair" is pronounced as one syllable.

The Characters

'K' Sounds

Starting with ク, you can add a small ア、イ、エ、or オ to it to represent sounds that start with "kw," like クァック (quack).

  • kwa (クァ)
  • kwi (クィ)
  • kwe (クェ)
  • kwo (クォ)

The same can be done with グ.

  • gwa (グァ)
  • gwi (グィ)
  • gwe (グェ)
  • gwo (グォ)

'S' Sounds

You can add a small エ to シ to make a "sheh" sound. You can also do this with ジ. My boyfriend's name uses this - ジェイミ (Jamie).

  • she (シェ)
  • je (ジェ)

'T' Sounds

Similar to シ and ジ, you can add a small エ to チ and ヂ.

  • che (チェ)
  • je (ヂェ)

You should know in the "T" sounds there is not a "ti" or "tu" sound respectively. If you add a small イ to テ you get "ti," and デ you'd get "di." You can add a small ウ to ト or ド to get "tu" or "du."

  • ti (ティ)
  • tu (トゥ)
  • di (ディ)
  • du (ドゥ)

Conversely there is not a "tsa, tse," or "tso" sound like you might see in "pizza" or "fatso." These can be represented with a ツ and a small ア、エ or オ.

  • tsa (ツァ)
  • tse (ツェ)
  • tso (ツォ)

'H' Sounds

Japanese lacks the "f" sound (except for フ which is a light "f"). To represent these sounds, you combine フ with a small ア、イ、エ、or オ.

  • fa (ファ)
  • fi (フィ)
  • fe (フェ)
  • fo (フォ)

'V' Sounds

To represent the 'V' sound, you take ウ with てんてん (ヴ) and add a small ア、イ、(nothing for "vu") エ、or オ. Normally these would be written and pronounced as バ、ビ、ブ、ベ、ボ respectively.

  • va (ヴァ)
  • vi (ヴィ)
  • vu (ヴ)
  • ve (ヴェ)
  • vo (ヴォ)

'W' Sounds

We can create the other "w" sounds by adding a small イ、エ、 or オ to ウ. Originally, ウィ and ウェ had their own characters which you can see below. The sounds fell out of use and became obsolite but you may encounter them in older literature. ヲ is typically pronounced オ so ウォ is used to represent "wo."

  • wi (ウィ) / ゐ in Hiragana, ヰ in Katakana
  • wu (ウ)
  • we (ウェ) / ゑ in Hiragana, ヱ in Katakana
  • wo (ウォ)

Contractions

Lastly, the original "glide" sounds all end in -ya, -yu, or -yo. It would be silly to have them end in -yi (as in ヒィ) since it would effectively elongate the -i and not be pronounced with a y. However, you can do this with エ with the following sounds (the others are pronounced differently and are mentioned above).

  • kye (キェ)
  • gye (ギェ)
  • nye (ニェ)
  • hye (ヒェ)
  • bye (ビェ)
  • pye (ピェ)
  • mye (ミェ)
  • rye (リェ)

On a final note, if you encounter a small vowel following a sound ending in the same vowel (like トォ or アァ), the sound becomes more open mouthed.

Vocabulary

  • クァック - quack (normally クワック)
  • クェンチャナヨ - "kwenchanayo" (Korean for "it's okay, don't worry about it")
  • チェック - check
  • ジェイミ - Jamie
  • ヴァイオリン - violin
  • トゥルー - true
  • ティルデ - tilde
  • ファツォ - fatso
  • ヒェルルフ - Kjerulf ( (・.・;) )
  • ウィキ - wiki

Summary

This concludes the Katakana guide! Now you're on your way to learning Japanese slowly but steadily. Be stubborn about it, because what's next (Kanji) will take a bit of effort to master.


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