My first question is about the rules of pronunciation of the letter "H".

Some people pronounce the "H" as if it were "Sh". For example, "Shijutsu" instead of "Hijutsu", or "Shiyori" instead of "Hiyori".

Is there any rule about it? Or is it just a matter of regional accent where some southern Japanese people pronounce the "H" as "Sh"? Or maybe, the older you get, the more you accentuate the letters.

  • 6
    and Hi-to as Shi-to
    – YOU
    Jun 23, 2011 at 8:49

6 Answers 6


The sound you hear in HI is not really a "sh" (as the English "sh"), but neither is the sound SHI an "sh". While it's very easy to learn to pronounce Japanese sufficiently, Japanese pronunciation does have its quirks, and you have to get used to it. The "sh" situation (or fricative situation, as we'd call it in linguistics lingo) is one of them.

Let's first consider the sounds in hand. SHI and HI are both just romanized transcription of the Japanese hiragana letters し and ひ. These letters (like most kana letters) represent a combination of a consonant (//h// or //s//) and a vowel (//i//), but in Japanese, some of these consonant+vowel combinations can make the consonant sound change drastically. We usually see it in the common transcription system (Hepburn), so when we combine //h// and //u// we get FU (ふ) and when we combine //s// and //i// we get SHI (し). But in the case of //h//, although the pronunciation changes (and it changes for everyone in the standard dialect — you just don't always get to hear it), the transcription system falls short of representing that change.

Now let's look at the combination //s// + //i//: the vowel //i// causes a sound change that belong a very common class of sound changes called palatalization. These changes usually happen before front vowels (such as //e// or //i//) and this is the origin of the "soft" C and G in English that usually come before an E or an I (this palatalization originally occurred in Latin, so it has equivalent in most European languages since they've all borrowed stuff from Latin, or are direct descendants of it).

In Japanese, the palatalization we speak about occurs before //i// and //j// (not before //e//). //j// here means the consonant that's usually transliterated as Y (since it sounds like "y" in English), in combinations such as RYO (りょ). When this consonant is combined with //s// we usually transliterate it as sh, so しゃ (//s// + //j// + //a//) is transliterated SHA, although you sometimes always find the transliteration SYA.

So how does this changed pronunciation really sounds? To the ears of an English speaker (or most Westerners) this usually sounds exactly like the English "sh" — but it is not. The sound of the English "sh" is pronounced with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth, but pointing toward the palate (the roof of the mouth), while the Japanese SH is pronounced somewhat similarly, but the tip of the tongue is not pointing up, and the "sh"-like sound is actually produced by the having back of the tongue raised against the palate. These sounds are different, and some languages may distinguish between them. As it happens with English in Japanese though, it doesn't matter, and we'd just perceive the first one as "English accent" and the second as "Japanese accent". Linguists mark the first (English) sound as [ʃ] and the second (Japanese) sound as [ɕ].

With that settled, we can move to what happens with HI. In essence, it's very similar to SHI — we also have palatalization that happens in the same way (so it also occurs in HYA, HYO and HYU, although it is not reflected in the transcription), but //h// is palatalized to something slightly different. This consonant is called palatal fricative, and it's theoretically simpler to pronounce — you just raise your back of the tongue against the palate (you don't do anything with the tip, as opposed to the Japanese SH). This sounds a lot like a softer, more fluid version of "h".

Learning to differentiate between all these sounds takes practice, but I suggest listening to the recordings at the Wikipedia articles and trying to see the difference yourself. The articles themselves are highly technical, but they also contain a list of examples from other languages where you may find these sounds.

  • 2
    that is one of an answer! Exhaustive and gave me more willing to linguistically learn it all. many thanks Yaniv! Jun 23, 2011 at 12:01
  • I don't think /sja/ is an attested phonemic sequence. /s/ has phonemic status as does /ɕ/, but I'm pretty sure the "shi" phone is the result of /ɕi/ not a palatalized /s/ in /sja/. To convince you of this, take the following attested CV (V=semivowel) strings {pj, bj, tj, dj, kj, ɡj} as in {ぴょいと /pjoito/, 病気 /bjoːki/, テューバ /tjɯːba/, デュオ /djɯo/, 今日 /kjoː/, 逆 /ɡjakɯ/}. The point is that if the consonant has a [∓voicing] feature, then both [+voicing] and [-voicing] forms can occur as C/j/ sequences. To follow this pattern you would have to accept /zj/.
    – taylor
    Jul 16, 2012 at 11:31
  • i just read that /s/ can be neutralized with /h/. so, nvm.
    – taylor
    Jul 30, 2012 at 14:41
  • @taylor necropost, but isn't /zj/ present in じゃじゅじょ?
    – ithisa
    Nov 24, 2013 at 18:53

This question has a useful answer by Boaz Yaniv which points out that you may simply be mishearing ひ as し, but it misses the fact that some speakers actually do pronounce these the same way! This merger is mentioned briefly in The Phonology of Japanese, Labrune 2012, p.69:

For certain speakers, the opposition between /h/ and /s/ is neutralized before i: hi /hi/ and shi /si/ are pronounced identically. The opposition is neutralized to the benefit of /h/ in the Kansai area (/hi/, /si/ = [hi]), to the benefit of /s/ in the Kantō area (/hi/, /si/ = [çi] or [ɕi]), as shown below. These mergers were already attested at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

                     Kansai           Kantō
  shima /sima/       [hima]       [çima] / [ɕima]       'island'
  hima /hima/        [hima]       [çima] / [ɕima]       '(free) time'

So you're right, ひ is sometimes pronounced like し or vice versa, depending on both regional accent and the individual speaker. You may hear 東 pronounced like しがし rather than ひがし in Shitamachi, for example.

Although at the moment only a minority of speakers have this merger, it's possible that in a few hundred years most speakers will treat し and ひ as the same thing, like what happened with the じ・ぢ or ず・づ pairs historically. It's also possible that this may never happen―language change is hard to predict!

Regardless, you should be careful to distinguish these sounds in your own speech; all you need to do as a learner is be aware of how other people talk so you can understand what they're saying.

  • 江戸っ子って「ヒ」が言えなくて「シ」になるらしいけど、「ハ」「フ」「ヘ」「ホ」は言えるんだろうか・・・ググったけどわからないわ・・
    – user1016
    Oct 24, 2014 at 7:37

Your first assumption is correct, it is a matter of accent.

Consider the mouth shape and action required to form the sound for ひ (hi). By tightening and pressing the tongue closer to the roof of your mouth, the air rushes across your tongue and hits the back of your front teeth creating the SHHH sound.

Also consider that in the native Japanese phonology し is SI or SHI depending on dialect and even mood. As there is no distinction between the two, it is no surprise that a similarly formed phoneme suffers the same speaker bias / side effects.

At least, this has always been my observation over the last 16 years.

  • Concise and lucid explanation from an experienced member! Thanks crunchyt! Jun 23, 2011 at 11:57
  • In Tôhoku, し may even be pronounced "SU" :)
    – Axioplase
    Jun 24, 2011 at 1:57

I think I can really help you here with pronouncing these sounds correctly. You heard of IPA? It's a phonetic language to represent most of the sounds of the languages of the world. Each symbol represents a completely separate sound. I won't show you the IPA symbols, but they're on wikipedia for any language you want to learn with audio examples and everything.

The "sh" in English "shoe", the "sh" in Japanese "shi", the "h" in Japanese "ohayo", and the "h" in Japanese "hito" are ALL different phonemes. Formants are what make different vowels and consonants sounds separate to listeners. Formants are like extra pitches layered on top of the fundamental pitch of a sound. For human speaking, there are about 3 important formants that help distinguish our vocal sounds, but I won't get into that. I'll just tell you that changing the position of the tongue and lips changes the shape of the oral cavity so that sound resonates differently, with different formants even on the same fundamental pitch or "note".

For "shoe" and "shi". Hold the "sh" sound for "shoe", and just slightly raise the middle of your tongue relative to the tip. A formant will raise in pitch, and you'll be pronouncing Japanese "sh" as in "shi". It'll feel further back in your mouth than English sh, and have a higher pitched "hiss". Also, your embouchure will widen to accommodate your raised flattened tongue as it uncurls. It'll feel as though you're almost smiling instead of pouting out your lips like with English "sh".

Now, raise the back of your tongue on that same "shh" sound instead of the middle. The sound should have an even higher hiss now. The sound will be coming from nearer to where your English 'h' originates. This sound is the Japanese "h" from "hito". Not really a "sh" or an "h" sound to me, more like a cross between "h" and "y" like the "hy" from "hue".

Guess what? If you can make this sound you can say "ich" in German! "Ch" in German has two sounds. The more guttural one that's in common with Scottish "loch" is in words like "macht" and "Woche". Many English people have no problem making this sound, albeit they usually say it too harshly and hold it too long. However, being a German allophone with the other pronunciation, English people aren't told by Germans that the sound in "ich" and "sprechen" isn't the same as "macht". That sound is the one you made for Japanese "hito". If you can say "ich", you can say "hito" and vice versa.

Put a "t" sound before the Japanese "shi" "sh" sound like "tsh" and you have the real Japanese "ch" sound like in "chizu".

Hope this helped! If you have any questions, just ask (:

  • Thanks a lot! That was also very helpful. Very clear to me :) Dec 7, 2013 at 16:51

just chiming in to say the word that nobody hasn't so far: sibilants.

sibilants are fricatives with a greater proportion of energy in the higher frequencies. in English, we have at least [s, ʃ, z, ʒ] for sibilant and [f, v, θ, ð ] for non-sibilant fricatives; think of sibilants as 'S-sounds', and the distinction should be clear.

the important thing about the /sima/—/hima/ [ɕima]–[çima] distinction (for those who observe it) is that the /s/ phoneme retains sibilance throughout its allophones [s, ɕ], whereas /h/ retains non-sibilance throughout its allophones [h, ç, ϕ].


Easiest example: Tokyo dialect. They often pronounce 人 as しと, with a very short i, more like "shto" than "shito".

It's just a matter of pronunciation in different dialects.

Other examples would be う which is somewhere between "u" and the German "ü", depending on the person.

  • Naruhodo :) Things are clearer to me now! Thanks Kdansky! Jun 23, 2011 at 11:56

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