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First, I'd like to mention that I've seen this question, which is related but doesn't quite seem to be a duplicate.

I've covered some Hiragana lessons and it seems there is no L in Japanese. The Japanese R seems to be a bit closer to L than the English R, but still, the Japanese accent stereotype doesn't seem to be far fetched. For example, the nice lady in this tutorial(at the very beginning) says:

Konnichiwa, let's start(u) tuday's reson.

But on the other hand, when she speaks about numbers(0:38), she pronounces the number 6 with a clear L sound: /lok(u)/, although the romaji spelling seems to be roku

From the linked question I understood that the difference between L and R sounds in Japanese is not clearcut. My question is: what exactly does "not clearcut" mean? Does it mean that certain words are pronounced with r (such as suru) and others with l (such as roku)? Or is it a dialect thing? Or is it personal preference, i.e. some people from the same region will say /rok(u)/ while others will say /lok(u)/?

I actually have a similar question about /dz/ and /j/ sounds (in particular, I can't understand how is 10 supposed to be pronounced). If the answer is similar, please mention that, otherwise I'll ask a separate question.

Thanks in advance for clarifying this basic thing to a newbie!

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possible duplicate of How do you pronounce the Japanese "r"? –  istrasci Sep 13 '13 at 14:28
    
The accepted answer in istrasci's link answers this perfectly. –  Ataraxia Sep 13 '13 at 18:07
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@Ataraxia I don't think that it does. It only describes the intervocalic allophone of /r/, not the utterance-initial /r/, which I think is what the OP is hearing in /roku/. It also doesn't mention the "unspecified for laterality" aspect, which could also explain the discrepancy in what the OP is hearing. –  snailboat Sep 13 '13 at 20:23
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Remember that we shouldn't close questions as duplicates just because they're about the same subject. We should only close as duplicates if the answers on the other question answer this question as well, and in this case, I don't think they do. (This is different from how we used to use "close as duplicate"; for more information, please see this question on MSO.) –  snailboat Sep 13 '13 at 20:32
    
@snailboat Yea, I agree with that rule. I only voted to close because I thought the answer to the other question answered this one, but you're right, it doesn't. Close vote rescinded. –  Ataraxia Sep 13 '13 at 23:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The sound called /r/ in Japanese is not quite the same sound as the L or R sounds of English. And as you've correctly observed, there's more than one way to pronounce /r/ in Japanese. There are a couple technical terms from linguistics that might help:

  • /r/ is considered a phoneme. That means it's considered a single sound, even if it's technically pronounced a little bit differently sometimes.
  • The individual pronunciations are called allophones.

With the /r/ sound, there are two main allophones to consider. (The following is based on The Sounds of Japanese by Timothy Vance, page 89):

  1. The first one is the one described in the answer istrasci links to; it's called an apico-alveolar tap, and it's written with the IPA symbol [ɾ]. This sound involves quickly tapping the tongue on the roof of the mouth, specifically on the alveolar ridge (the ridge located behind the teeth). The apico- part of the name means that you use specifically the tip of your tongue, not the blade.

  2. The second one is what Timothy Vance refers to as a non-tap allophone. In this version of /r/, the tongue is already resting on the roof of the mouth, so all you do is pull your tongue off instead of tapping. And this is the allophone you heard in roku. (For whatever reason, Vance chooses not to give this allophone a separate symbol, so I'll refer to it by name instead.)

This non-tap allophone occurs when it's the first sound you say (called utterance-initial position). And that's why you heard it in roku, because she wasn't saying anything before she started to say the /r/ sound. The non-tap allophone also occurs immediately after an /N/ sound, as in the words benri or jinrui.

The tap allophone occurs in any other position, which in Japanese amounts to intervocalic position (meaning between vowel sounds).


Understanding the two allophones described above is important, but there's also some personal variation in exactly how the /r/ sound is pronounced. It varies from speaker to speaker, and it may vary a bit even for a single speaker. Although I described a central tap above, which is written [ɾ], the Japanese /r/ isn't specifically central. It can instead be a lateral tap, which is written [ɺ]. I think it's possible that you may perceive the lateral tap as sounding more like an English L sound.

Unfortunately, I've been unable to find any references that describe exactly when [ɾ] is used and when [ɺ] is used. They're described as being in free variation in Japanese, which means that speakers can use either central or lateral versions of /r/ in any context without it being considered strange or in error. However, it's often true that sounds described as being in "free variation" are not actually selected at random, and I suspect this may be true of Japanese as well.

It's possible that these or other variations in the Japanese /r/ may lead you to think that sometimes it sounds more like L, and sometimes it sounds more like R. That's fine, of course, but it's important that you realize all these sounds are simply one phoneme in Japanese. That is, no matter how you pronounce /r/, it's still mentally /r/ to a native speaker of Japanese. And the more you study Japanese, the more you're likely to feel the same way.

In my opinion, you should focus on learning when to use the tap allophone, and when to use the non-tap allophone. I wouldn't worry as much about the other sorts of variation. If you do that, then I think the idea of an L versus R contrast in Japanese will disappear for you, and before long, it'll just be /r/ to you, too.

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From my experience, the lateral version is used in the non-tap variant except after the moraic nasal /N/; in all other cases the central version is used. The lateral version is also used when talking very slowly, such as in a slow song, a large part of the /r/'s could be lateral rather than central. Then again, I have not much experience in Japanese except watching NHK every now and then. –  user54609 Sep 13 '13 at 23:17
    
Fantastic answer. I had always wondered about what I was suppose to do with /nr/, and have been doing some complicated maneuver which is impossible in fast speech. Not tapping actually sounds fine; I've no idea why I haven't been doing that this whole time! –  Darius Jahandarie Sep 14 '13 at 2:46
    
One thing I noticed from living near Tokyo (other regions may vary) but I noticed that when the /r/ came at the start of a word it tended to have an "L" like character to it, but when it was inside a word, it tended to have more of an "R" character to it. I often hear らーめん pronounced like "laamen" but something like バラ pronounced like the romaji "bara". If I said "bala" that sounds totally wrong, but "laamen" doesn't sound so bad. –  atheistwithrum Sep 14 '13 at 23:12
    
Do you know why the Japanese /r/ was transcribed as R rather than L? As native English speaker (which I'm not) I would have chosen L, I think, because to my ear the standard English R (Scottish pronunciation aside) is much further from the Japanese /r/ than the English L... –  Earthliŋ Sep 15 '13 at 0:54
    
@Earthling Hepburn wrote "r in ra,ri,ru,re,ro has the sound of English, r; but in ri, it is pronounced more like d. But this is not invariable as many natives give it the common r sound." (From A Japanese and English Dictionary: with an English and Japanese Index, page ix.) To me, this explanation sounds like a bunch of nonsense, but that's what he wrote :-) –  snailboat Sep 15 '13 at 2:51

First of all, let's make a distinction between romaji (which only has r) and actual pronunciation, which alternates between l and r.

The truth is that l and r and in free distribution in Japanese, ie. both sounds are possible surface realizations of the same underlying sound (similar to how t in top and in stop are different in English but are considered to be the same sounds by native speakers).

In general, the sound is a flapped r, but you will find an increasing rate of occurrence of l: 1) in woman, 2) in slower speech, 3) at the beginning of words. If dialectal or regional considerations come into play, I haven't heard or noticed anything to that effect.

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