Explaining the long vowel sound

In a previous post, I talked about the surprising complexity in explaining long vowel sounds. Since then, I’ve made a little progress and decided to separate the /ei/ and /ee/ long vowel sounds completely.

The decision finally came with a realization late in the night. (Yes, I probably spend way too much time thinking about this stuff.) I though about Katakana and its simplified system of using 「ー」 for long vowel sounds. I thought about words that are obviously long /e/ vowel sounds such as 「ケーキ」 versus /y/ vowel sounds such as 「メイク」. You see, the fact that 「メイク」 writes out the 「イ」 instead of using 「ー」 proves the fact that there is a significant and important difference between the two sounds. You can’t see this in Hiragana because 「ー」 isn’t used for long vowel sounds.

This convinced me that improved pronunciation was worth the little extra complexity it takes to explain this. But really it wasn’t that bad. Here’s what I ended up with.

Before we go any further, we need to revisit Hiragana to talk about a very important aspect of Japanese pronunciation: the long vowel sound. When a sound is followed by the corresponding vowel sound: 「あ」、「い」、「え」、or 「お」, the combination forms a single, longer vowel sound. It is very important to fully extend the vowel sound for correct pronunciation. The table given below illustrates what matching vowel sounds indicate a long vowel sound. The rows in grey are very rare combinations found in only a few words that will be pointed out as we learn them.

Table 1.6. Extending Vowel Sounds
Vowel Sound Extended by Example Pronunciation
/ a / まあ maa
/ i / いい ii
/ u / くう kuu
/ e / せい sei
/ e / ねえ nee
/ o / とう too
/ o / とお too

I plan to replace the ローマ字 with links to the actual pronunciations once I get to adding sound.

Now, this still glosses over the issue the combinations don’t always make a long vowel sound. You also have to consider how the sounds line up with the Kanji. For instance with 「経緯」, the long vowel sound is in the first character: 「けい」. In other words, it should be read as 「けい・い」 and not 「け・いい」. Another example is 「問う」, which obviously can’t be a long vowel since the 「う」 is outside the kanji. But given that I’m explaining long vowel sounds for the first time much less anything about Kanji, I have no choice but to skip the more intricate aspects. Besides, you better know some kanji if you’re advanced enough to actually use words like 「経緯」 and 「問う」.

25 thoughts on “Explaining the long vowel sound

  1. せい, けい, etc should not be pronounced as sei and kei but see and kee. You could make the case that 外来語 written with イ as in メイク should have a distinctive mei sound, but pronouncing メイク as meeku won’t betray your 外人ness. However pronouncing 署名 as shomei instead of shomee, or 経緯 as kei・i instead of keei screams non-native speaker.

    There is room for the argument that the えい sound and ええ sound are distinct, but it’s on such a minute level that I struggle to think of a case where it would ever be relevant. Certainly the average native speaker won’t perceive the sounds as different. The correct pronunciation of えい is, for all intents and purposes, ee.

  2. I disagree. Words like 先生 and 経済 should be pronounced as “sensei” and “keizai”. Though the difference is minute, it does not “scream non-native speaker” as you say. On the contrary, pronouncing for instance 映画 as eega instead of eiga screams non-native to me.

    I agree that the difference is barely noticeable so I don’t go into much detail in my actual explanation. In fact, if you look at the quoted section, you’ll see that the only part that indicates any difference is the Pronunciation row in the table. The only other thing I mention is that ええ is a rare combination.

    Kind of like the difference between n/m for ん, it’s something most Japanese aren’t even aware of and so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal for pronunciation. However, the big difference between this and ん is that the Hiragana is actually different and I have to explain that either い or え can create a long /e/ vowel sound.

  3. You probably already have this in mind but just as a reminder don’t forget to mention that the difference between the two long vowel sounds in question is very minor. Otherwise people using your textbook would be walking around speaking Japanese incorrectly. 😛

  4. Yeah, I think I’m going to take to approach of having the reader actually listen to it and have them decide without going into too much detail of whether they’re different or not.

  5. “I disagree. Words like 先生 and 経済 should be pronounced as “sensei” and “keizai”. Though the difference is minute, it does not “scream non-native speaker” as you say. On the contrary, pronouncing for instance 映画 as eega instead of eiga screams non-native to me.”

    先生 and 経済 are most absolutely pronounced as sensee and keezai in standard Japanese as well as kanto and kansai dialects. Perhaps there are regions out their that have more distinctive ei pronunciations, but in the 5 years I spent growing up in Kobe, and living the past 6 in Tokyo (funny enough currently majoring in 経済 in a 経営情報学部 so I get lots of えいs on a daily basis) I have never heard a “sensei” or “keizai” from a native speaker, and in my mind they sound terrible. Right up their with “dess” and “kooduhsai.” I will grant that for whatever reason, for 映画 “eiga” doesn’t sound so bad so perhaps its not all cut and dry, but “eega” is definitely the standard pronunciation in the west and east.

    “Kind of like the difference between n/m for ん”

    If you want to get technical, there really is no difference. ん is a 歯茎鼻音 but becomes a 両唇鼻音 when followed by a 両唇破裂音 or another 両唇鼻音, just by the very act of turning a 歯茎 into a 両唇. There really is no way to pronounce an ん as “n” in cases where it should be an “m” without serious effort to purposely butcher the pronunciation. But maybe that is what you were driving at.

  6. Good explanation, i never seen a japanese begginer’s textbook that really cares in explaining this, so yours will add definitely something new 😉

  7. @krushaski

    I wonder if our disagreement might come from the fact that we’re using romanization and actually thinking of different sounds. I wish this discussion was live so that I can actually hear what you consider to be an ei sound.

    I was thinking of it as a single long y vowel sound for instance kayzai for 経済 but again it’s really hard to talk about sounds with text.

    I totally agree with you on the n/m sound. Thanks for the technical explanation! Do you have any linguistic background?

  8. @David

    Thanks. I think the most difficult part is deciding how much to explain and how much to leave out for simplicity.

  9. It seems that the questions raised about whether せい is pronounced as
    [sei] or [see] have arisen more from the way it is written/typed rather
    than how it sounds like.

    In both the lengthening of the /e/ and /o/ sounds, an extension
    involving the use of the respective hiragana itself is rare (as you have
    highlighted in grey).

    The /e/ usually employs the い instead of the え itself, while the /o/
    mostly uses the う rather than the お.

    For consistency’s sake, should the table then not list the pronunciation
    under Row 1 as “see” rather than “sei”? Either that or Row 3 should be
    changed to “tou” instead of “too” (which I think would reflect the
    written/typed form instead).

    Using some phonetic alphabet might solve the problem for some, though
    most readers of your guide would probably not be linguistically trained
    to understand that.

    Vowel Sound Extended by Example Pronunciation
    1. / e / い せい sei
    2. / e / え ねえ nee
    3. / o / う とう too
    4. / o / お とお too

  10. It’s not an issue because as I mentioned in the post, it’s temporary and should be replaced with links to the actual audio sounds.

  11. I’m curious to hear the audio recordings.

    It might be just an issue of the differences in the way we are perceiving the romanizations. But to use Japanese characters,
    in my mind:
    先生 is indistinguishable from せんせえ
    経済 is けえざい
    映画 is ええが

    This is how they should be pronounced in my experience.

  12. I think you’ve gone a bit astray here. I’m pretty sure the degree to which ei approaches ee is speaker/dialect dependent. I wouldn’t treat ei as a long e at all. I would just leave it romanized ei, but simply note that in many common dialects it is pronounced similar to long e.

    I can’t remember if I wrote to you before about syllabic n, but if you can get hold of Samuel Martin’s Essential Japanese (it’s quite an old book), the entire first chapter is on pronunciation and has a good treatment of syllabic n.

  13. Don’t worry, I’ve already moved on to other things like trying to explain when to use なん vs なに for 何. 🙂

    In the end, I decided not to talk too much about it and just let the audio speak for themselves. I think the most important thing is they don’t pronounce the sounds separately.

  14. ‘see’ is rather vague. Do you pronounce it like ‘see’ 見る or ‘say’. I think the second ‘say’ is more accurate. ‘sensay’ for 先生。 In the same way とう and とお sound like a long ‘toe’ to me. ‘too’ is too often pronounced as ‘two’.

    I’m not expert on this, but if a normal person looked at some of the romaji you choose they could very easily read it incorrectly. Audio samples would be the best.

  15. Neither “see” as in “I see” nor “say” but せえ.
    I think the crux of the point was that students of Japanese are taught to pronounce おう as “おお” but not taught that “えい” is actually pronounced “ええ”
    I think it’s a very good point to include in a text book as I’ve never seen it mentioned and most foreigners with English-speaking backgrounds (that I’ve encountered) tend to do the “sensay” “kayzai” thing.

  16. I have a little (spurious) theory about this. It’s about how people are “trained” to hear some sounds instead of others.

    I’m totally against those who say that Japanese has sounds that cannot be “heard” by foreigners for supposed evolutionary reasons or something, but I don’t want to make a discussion about this.

    However, something similar may happen on a “habit” level.
    Different languages usually make use of very different sounds, and sometimes these sounds are exclusive of just a few languages, and totally absent in the others.
    If one grows up with one language, he will tend to approximate another language’s “exclusive” sounds with his own, unconsciously. That’s the reason why, for example, Italians and Japanese sound so bad in English: it’s so hard for them (us) to pronounce the vowels in all those different variants and flavors, because in Italian and Japanese the vowels can be pronounced only in one way, あいうえお.

    For example, one method I’ve found to improve my English pronunciation is to recognize a vowel as a mix of two Italian vowels at the same time. So “Baby”, which an Italian would tend to read as “Bah-bi”, “Beh-bi” (a little better but still wrong) or “Beh-ee-bi” (wrong, overdone), becomes “Be(e+i)-bi”, where (e+i) is a single sound, half way between Italian E and Italian I. It’s not a real E and not a real I.

    So, regarding Japanese, the way the えい is pronounced may just be another example of this. People with different backgrounds “hear” it differently, or rather assimilate it to a sound they’re familiar with.
    I tried applying the above mentioned method to Japanese too. I think that えい isn’t pronounced え-い nor え-え, but as a mixture of the two sounds, like え-(え+い). To a foreigner, i could be heard as えい or ええ depending on the person, but the truth is that they are both true at the same time!

    I explained it horribly, I apologize.

  17. Great comment, I totally get what you mean. You guys have convinced me that the best method is to show directly with the actual pronunciation and not clutter things up with explanations.

  18. It is worth noting that there are English speakers who will swear to you that the vowel in “yore” is the same as the vowel in “floor”, or that the vowel in “bring” is the same as the one in “hint”, even though if you listen to them say the words it does indeed sound different to a trained ear. The key is that even though it does sound slightly different, the difference has no special significance in the language. Whereas, the difference between the a in “hat” and the a in “father” and the a in “bake” *does* have significance in the English language (e.g., the alpha privative always uses the second pronunciation). When a lot of native speakers don’t hear the difference, it’s a good sign that the difference is not semantically significant. Their brains have been trained to find the relevant or interesting information, that which carries meaning, and discard the auditory chaff.

  19. nacest: Yes, the English long A is actually a dipthong. Of course, almost all native English speakers hear it as a single sound. The same thing is true of the English long I (the Anglo-Saxon one, like I in ice; we also have the Latin long I, of course, as in machine, fine (think music, not money), aquarium, and so on). To us the i in ice cream is a single sound.

    We also hear the affricate ch (which is really t+sh) as a single sound, and similarly for j (d+zh, though zh by itself scarcely occurs in English, mostly in foreign names like Jacques Cousteau and Khmer Rouge). Russians will go you one better and hear weird combinations like shch as a single sound. (It took me like five minutes to even manage to *pronounce* that the first time I encountered it, not because I had any trouble hearing it, but because there’s so much going on in such a short time. But apparently it’s so common in Slavic languages that they learn to hear it as a unit.)

    English speakers typically have a pretty time trying to hear the difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, or between the true dental consonants and the retroflex ones in Hindustani languages.

    I initially had trouble pronouncing combinations like りゅ and りょ, because I was naively trying to use an English “r”, and it just doesn’t blend well with y. The tongue has so far to move, you end up with two syllables no matter what you do. When I made myself learn to pronounce り with my tongue in the top half of my mouth, those blends became much easier. (I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing り exactly *correctly*, but I’m confident that I’m much closer than I was with the English r sound. Yet another reason why Hepburn romanization must die.)

  20. Actually, this is not a pronunciation problem at all. It’s an intonation problem. And it has an intonation solution. If you listen very carefully, Japanese use intonation to distinguish what we mistakenly refer to as “long” and “short” vowel sounds.

    I wish I could post it in terms of musical notes, but I will do my best with lines.

    Obaasan would look like this. _–_
    Obasan would look like this. _ _ _

    Japanese native speakers do not lengthen the amount of time they spend pronouncing the aa in obaasan. They raise their intonation.

    The problem is only compounded by the fact that Japanese compare their language to Chinese by saying that Japanese is not a tonal language. It is. It has 2.

    If you notice, Japanese also raise their intonation for words written in Katakana.
    JOHN-san ha IGIRISU kara kimashita. JOHN-san ha sensei desu.

    Notice that sei on the end of sensei is not raised. This only happens with double vowels such as aa, ii, and oo. Oh, they also do it on ou combinations such as TOUKYOU.

    Hope this helps. Sorry, I’m on somebody else’s computer and it doesn’t not have the IME installed. Overall, I can’t stand romanized Japanese. It’s counterproductive.

  21. ええ and えい are distinctive sounds (as are おお and おう), though the difference is often more theoretical than practical.

    ええ == /e̞ː/
    えい == /e̞ːʲ/
    おお == /o̞ː/
    おう == /o̞ːʷ/
    For those who read IPA, I know I didn’t use a couple of those symbols strictly correctly.

    For those who don’t… English long ‘a’ is a diphthong, in most dialects anyway, but ‘ええ’ is not (usually), and ‘えい’ is (usually). English long ‘o’ is also a diphthong, ‘おお’ is not while ‘おう’ is (again, usually). But, as Kim has a habit of pointing out, Japanese speakers have a tendency toward laziness. These different pronunciations were likely not allophonic at some point in time, hence the distinct spellings, but now they may as well be the same sound in most cases.

    This ramble in short: they are technically different sounds, but few speakers realistically pronounce them that way all the time. Kinda pointless babbling about it, huh? ^_^”

  22. Did you ever get around to creating sound files for people to listen to? I can find lots of places that TELL me what the difference is between short and long vowels, but I need to HEAR the difference for myself. You are the only one that had the idea to make sound files. 2008? No Google hit for any sound files means either I didn’t use the right search terms or you never followed through. Oh well, I need to know now.

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