Gimme Mora Dat Japanese

Have you ever spoken to a Japanese person who—excuse my rudeness—was really bad at pronouncing English? Go to Japan, and you’ll find that this is quite common. I mean, trying to speak any language with sounds and intonation that do not exist in your native language is kind of a nightmare, right?

When I was living in Vietnam, my apartment was on Pham Ngu Lao (Street). Every time I got a taxi there, saying the name of that street was a lesson in shame. I just couldn’t get the pronunciation right; because (1) I was trying to make sounds that we don’t use (in the same way) in English, and (2) I had never gotten a chance to hone my pronunciation with a native speaker. Japanese students of English have this same problem. Native English speakers, however, can already make virtually all of the sounds of Japanese. (Yay!)

If you speak with a Japanese person that has trouble with the sounds of English, listen closely, and you may find that they are sticking a vowel sound onto the end of every word. They try to say “more,” but ending a word with an “R” sound is difficult, so it becomes “moa.” In extreme cases, words like “made” will become “may-do,” because it’s difficult for them to end the word with a “D” sound.

While, technically speaking, there are a plethora of reasons for these pronunciation problems, one of the main reasons is that Japanese sounds are (for the most part) divided up into nice, clean syllables, called mora.

Note: I’m about to nerd out on some phonotactics [= the area of phonology concerned with the analysis and description of the permitted sound sequences of a language]. Please don’t hate me.

Additional Note: I'm going to mention hiragana and katakana a few times in this section. For absolute beginners that don’t know about these, hiragana and katakana are the characters making up the Japanese “alphabet.” [It’s not really an “alphabet,” but we’ll get into that later.] Hiragana “あ” is katakana “ア” is romaji “a,” and those are all pronounced like “ah.”

To quote this boss article on Wikipedia, “Japanese words have traditionally been analyzed as composed of moras; a distinct concept from that of syllables. Each mora occupies one rhythmic unit, i.e. it is perceived to have the same time value. A mora may be "regular" consisting of just a vowel (V) or a consonant and a vowel (CV), or may be one of two "special" moras, /N/ and /Q/.”

Huh? Yeah, sorry. That confusing quote is basically saying that the sounds of Japanese words are divided into mora, which are kind of like syllables in that they express the timing of a word. We already saw the two types of regular mora a few pages ago—(1) just a vowel and (2) a consonant-vowel combo.

You can also just think of it this way:

1 Hiragana/Katakana Character = 1 Mora*
*With the exception of the characters for the “n (&m)” sound, ん (Hiragana) and ン (Katakana), which I’ll talk about later.

As I’ve pointed out, Japanese students of English are much worse off than English-speaking students of Japanese. Yet another huge problem that these students have is catching English words that link together. Consider these English sentences:

  • “She has no social life.”
  • “He hit Tom in the face.”

In these examples, some students might have trouble catching the word pairs “social life” and “hit Tom,” because they are geminates (the linking of identical, double consonants). The L’s combine to make “socaiLLife,” and the two T’s combine to make “hiTTom.” This never happens (in the same way) in Japanese. You don’t just randomly shorten, lengthen, or combine sentences or words just because they are similar.

Words don’t mesh together because each (hiragana / katakana) character in a word deserves its own mora, which means that we can’t just go around cutting them out or smashing them together out of laziness.

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