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Sorry for using romaji. I'm referring to the sounds made when a word contains a kana sequence like 「ない」 or 「たい」or 「さい」 「かい」

I've read that the two together sound like the word "pie" sounds in English. I've also read that both sounds are fully pronounced. This seems like a contradiction to me? Does it vary from word to word? Does it vary from person to person?

In this YouTube video of 「ちいさい」being said by two people the word sounds to me like it rhymes with English "pie."

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4-BvtEisTU8

In this song video, 「せかい」 sounds like it has two distinct sounds at the end. (I've linked to a spot right before the word is sung.)

https://youtu.be/368lRPMdajw?t=1m30s

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To an unaccustomed English ear, "ai" will sound like it should rhyme with "pie". However, the two values are indeed pronounced separately, each constituting a full mora. In rapid speach, this may be difficult to hear, but the longer you immerse yourself in the sounds of the language, the more you'll be able to hear this as not one vowel sound, but two.

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Those examples only sound like "pie" if you say "pie" in a very brief manner, such as "pah-ye." You can say "pieeeeeeeee" or "piiiiiiieeeee" like a southerner, and it still means pie. Nobody would misunderstand you. If you tried stretching Japanese mora like that, you would not be pronouncing correctly and you would create confusion. On the other hand, when I cannot understand someone due to background noise (I am old) or unfamiliarity with a word that sounds like a known word, the person will often repeat himself by emphasizing each mora: "ku-da-sa-i," which is like spelling for a similar situation in English.

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    Question, "southerner" as in from a place like Texas or a place like Kagoshima? – Tirous Jul 27 '17 at 0:16
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If you're asking about the vowel sound of two kana/mora in the sense of one English vowel sound, you're going about this language the wrong way.

I would strongly suggest that before you continue to study the language, first study the individual sounds of the vowels in Japanese, in the sense of あ い う え お. Once you fully grasp how these vowels sound and can make them individually and accurately, proceed in learning the rest of the kana. These vowel sounds DO NOT CHANGE.

With that in mind, the sound "ai" あい is "a-i", not "ay" like "hay" or "ie" like "pie", however close "ie" like "pie" is.

The important thing to grasp is that "ai" is not one syllable, because Japanese uses a "syllable-like" system called the "mora" もら, which assigns (in the basic sense) one kana, one syllable-length. So, あい is two-mora in length, and so you must consider each kana an individual sound.

Then, as you learn the rest of the kana, you will then begin to group them correctly with this knowledge:

あい is two-mora, "a-i". かい is two-mora, "ka-i". さい is two-mora, "sa-i".
せかい is three-mora, "se-ka-i". きいて is three-mora, "ki-i-te"

...and so on.

As you gain fluency, you'll speak words in a way that doesn't sound disjointed, but rather natural.

Hope this helps clarify.

  • 1) As someone coming to Japanese late in life, I don't expect to ever pronounce Japanese 100% correctly. 2) The 1st thing I learned was that Japanese vowel sounds don't change, and that written kana could be simply sounded out. The 2nd thing I learned was that this is a simplification. Devoicing is a simple example. (Imagine sounding out 「です」 or 「けしき」exactly as written.) More complex examples happen when sound variations that are a single phoneme in one language are 2 phonemes in another language. (The answers are telling me it's not a difference in phonemes, but I couldn't know till I asked.) – cloveapple Jul 27 '17 at 9:10
  • I fully comprehend your stance, and in a lot of ways, yes, it is a simplification to say that there aren't some discrepancies in flow when it comes to pronunciation. In the case of the examples you've provided, that is a discussion of mora/syllable stress in a word. For example, the fact that the 「う」 sound in the 「す」 of 「です」 is not because the vowel sound is changing but rather because the length is changing, as a result of the emphasis of 「で」. If anything, any vowel pronunciation inconsistency I've observed is closer to different people with different accents/dialects. – psosuna Jul 27 '17 at 17:27
  • And from a learner's standpoint, concern yourself less with whether the pronunciation is 100% correct to start -- I can't claim to have native pronunciation myself, but I aim for a degree of consistency and clarity. It helps and I am generally easily understood, save for grammar mistakes I might make or when vocab fails me – psosuna Jul 27 '17 at 17:28
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    I may have taken your suggestion that I "first fully grasp" the vowel sounds too literally. And yes, the examples of pronunciation differences I gave weren't the best. – cloveapple Jul 28 '17 at 1:22

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