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I have been trying to teach myself Japanese. I learned the basic hiragana (あ,い,う,お), but I am confused on how to pronounce words like あう. I was trying to combine the sounds あ and う, but when I checked with Google Translate, I found the pronunciation was different (see link).

How did Google come up with that pronunciation? Are the sounds just run together?

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You could also mention what you think あう should sound like, preferably by uploading a soundclip to soundcloud or something. –  user54609 Nov 24 '13 at 18:20
    
@TAAPSogeking Are you inserting a glottal stop between the vowels instead of letting them "run together", as you say? Is that what's different? –  snailboat Nov 24 '13 at 22:54
    
@snailboat Yeah –  TAAPSogeking Nov 27 '13 at 20:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Just pronounce あ and then う. Google Translate does that. If you think that the pronunciation is different, then probably your pronunciations of あ and う are incorrect. None of these two sounds have exact equivalents in English, and う in particular is very difficult to get correct.

More precisely, the う is "mumbled" because it is unstressed and pronounced with low tone (あう has pitch /aꜜu/, and because the Japanese う really does sound like mumbling (むむむ often meaning mumbling). あ is also more to the front of your mouth than fAther but not as much as bAd. Think of the sound you make when you are screaming. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

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+1 for awesome examples. –  TAAPSogeking Nov 24 '13 at 20:13
    
None of these two sounds have exact equivalents in English. Disagree. –  istrasci Nov 24 '13 at 23:41
    
Care to give an example of English exact equivalent? English vowels are badly messed up. Unless you are talking about Engrish... XD –  user54609 Nov 25 '13 at 3:35

Depending on the context, あ and う could either be pronounced as one vowel after another with a clear but subtle space between them or as a diphthong. English has tons of diphthongs too. Take "night" for example. The "i" in night is NOT one sound. Phonetically, it's N-AI-T, right? The "i" is A + I in quick succession. The English word "cow" has a very similar diphthong to あう. The "ow" in cow, isn't pronounced like "oh" how it looks, it's pronounced like AU, Ah + Ooh, Ahooh, or AU. [tatakau is pretty much ta.ta.cow] Starting with "ow" from "cow" is great, because it approximates あう, but you want the EXACT pronunciation right?

Well, turns out the English language really has neither あ or う in it! The Japanese あ "a" sound is very short. It's precise phonetic location is between the "ah" sound in Canadian/General American "pot" and the "a" sound in central Canadian "cat", NOT American "cat". American "a" from "cat" is usually a slight diphthong, so don't even compare あ to the American cat sound. If you know Spanish or French, the short "a" from those languages is nearly identical with Japanese "a". Let's try it! Hold the "a" from "mat" in a Canadian or Californian accent, now drop your jaw ever so slightly, you should be bang on the Japanese "a". Now you can say "Matte"!

Now for う! Dun, dun, dun! Whenever I hear native English speakers trying to pronounce this I usually cringe, but it's definitely possible to master it. I have. There is nothing close to the Japanese "u" in English, not even similar, phonetically speaking, so this'll be a learning curve if you're a beginner.

Americans tend to, again, diphthongize their vowels. "Ooh" is no exception. Whereas Canadians do so less often. If you watch cartoons/dubbed anime, many voice actors are Canadian, so shoot for cartoon character phonemes LOL. Say, "boo!" but don't make the "ooh" like "iuww", make it a pure "oo" sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger would say. See how low and dark that vowel sound is? It's in the right ball park, but much too dark and rounded right now.

Now say "ee" and without changing the position of your tongue, round your lips into an "oo" shape. The sound you're now making should be like the "ue" sound from German, like in "Uebermensch". I can't use the umlaut, so I'm using the digraph "ue" instead, same diff though. Now, drop the tip of your tongue in your mouth ever so slightly, the sound should be less "squished" sounding. Now, unround your lips, make your lips "flat". The sound you're now making should be the Japanese "u" or thereabout. Make it "cutely" nasal, and it'll be even closer.

The sound should be more squashed than our "oo" sound in English, but cuter than the "ue" of "ueber". The back of the throat should be constricted like our "oo" as in "do", but unrounded like our "oo" from "foot". In fact, thinking of it as somewhere between "oo" from shoe and "oo" from "foot" might help you. Just make it a bit nasal and squished with your tongue nearer the palate. You can listen to the right sound in any anime or on the wikipedia article for Japanese phonetics. The IPA vowel chart doesn't have the exact one because it's unique, but a native Japanese girl recorded it for the Japanese phonetics article in the vowel section.

Hope this helped! Oh, and remember, make your diphthongs tight like in English. In tatakau, instead of going ta.ta.ka.oo, go ta.ta.cow - like 1 syllable at the end there.

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