Languages share many speech sounds in common, but organize them in different ways. Languages also feature different speech sounds. Both issues present challenges for those learning Japanese. In this article, we’ll examine the pronunciation of the syllables rya, ryu, and ryo.
The transcription “ry” suggests that it consists of the English “r”sound followed by the “y” sound, but that is not the case.
It’s actually a single sound that has been modified.
The Japanese “ry” sound is made by modifying the initial position and motion of the English “y” sound. Instead of the usual starting position, the tip of the tongue touches the ridge behind the upper teeth and the tongue moves from there toward the positioning of the following vowel sound.
Spelling and pronunciation don’t match. This can be especially problematic in reading transcriptions of foreign languages. We’ll examine this issue as well as guide you from a familiar sound in English toward the Japanese “ry” sound.
The Problem of Transcription
Written Japanese uses three writing systems. The Roman alphabet is not one of them. So, it is often transcribed using the alphabet to make the language accessible to those who can’t read the language.
This presents some challenges. Namely, that non-Japanese speech systems are use to pronounce those sequence of letters.
Languages using the Roman alphabet allow sequences of consonant sounds, called consonant clusters. Sequences of two consonants, like pl, st, and shr, are common. English also has a few three consonant sequences, like spl and str.
The letter sequence “ry” presents a problem. There isn’t a consonant cluster for those two sounds.
When faced with this sequence of letters, English speakers will typically insert a vowel after the sound they associate with “r.” So, the transcription ryu will sound like “ree you.” A Japanese speaker may mistake that pronunciation for the word riyu, which means “reason or pretext” rather than the word ryu, which can mean “dragon.”
English organizes sounds in a certain way. We can think of this as an operating system for speech sounds. When the brain decodes a sequence of letters, the parts of the brain that process and coordinate speech will use the best available processes to replicate the sounds associated with the sequence of written symbols.
Part of the challenge of learning to speak a second or foreign language is the training of mind and body to not only produce the sounds of the new language, but to organize them in ways that are recognizable by the speakers of that language.
Hopefully, you can appreciate the challenges that language learners face and why learning a new language is said to be good for mental health and training.
We’ll see if we can use a sound found in English to help us pronounce the Japanese “ry” sound. We will start with the “y” part of the sequence.
Using the “y” Sound as a Shortcut
Spoken Japanese is organized into syllables that feature a consonant followed by a vowel sound or vowel sound by itself. (There is an important exception to this, but we’ll save that for a later article.) We will use the syllables ya, yo, and yu as our starting point toward rya, ryu, and ryo. We’ll start by looking at how the “y” sound is made.
The English “y” sound is defined as a voiced, lingua-palatal approximant. It is a glide consonant, meaning that something moves during the process of producing the sound. The term lingua tells you that the tongue moves. Palatal tells you that the body of the tongue ends up under that hard palate, or the roof of the mouth.
Try making the sound. Can you make it without moving your tongue?
Didn’t think so.
Notice where the tongue begins. The blade, or front portion, of the tongue is floating in mid-air. If you raise the tip, it will touch somewhere on the shelf behind the upper teeth.
The tongue begins in this position and moves toward the position of the following vowel. When English speakers try to pronounce the “y” sound by itself, they will end up in the “uh” sound position. By the way, this vowel sound has a name: the schwa.
Now, say the following syllables:
|ya||the German word for yes, ja|
|yo||the expression/greeting Yo|
|yu||the English word you|
Say them again, but shorten the length of the vowel sounds. If you’re successful, you’ve pronounced three Japanese syllables: ya, yo, and yu.
Now, onto the “ry” sound.
Palatalization: Raise Your Tongue
Palatalization refers to the modification of how a speech sound is made by moving part of the tongue closer to the hard palate, or the roof of the mouth. This adjustment changes the acoustic properties of the mouth as air flows through to produce a sound.
Let’s compare the “y” sound with another sound to get a feel for this.
Notice the “e” vowel sound as you pronounce the following words: seat, feet, need, siege, cease.
Now, set up your mouth to make the “e” sound. Notice the position of your tongue. Where is the blade (front portion) of the tongue? Where are the body and back of the tongue located? Pay particular attention to the part of the tongue behind the blade.
Make the “e” sound. You’ll notice that the tongue stays in the same position throughout the sound. This contrasts with the “y” where the tongue moves, but there is also an additional difference.
Set up your mouth to make the “e” sound, but don’t make the sound.
Now, set up your mouth to make the “y” sound. Don’t make it. Just put your mouth in position to start making the sound.
Did something move when you shifted from the “e” position to set up for the “y” sound?
Although there are some differences in how people pronounce specific sounds, the general mechanism is usually similar. For most of you, the middle of the tongue shifted upward toward the roof of the mouth.
This is palatalization.
As a further test, try moving the tongue back from the “e” vowel position as you’re trying to make a sound. It probably doesn’t sound like the “y” sound. Try raising the body of the tongue up and back slightly. Probably, closer to the “y” sound than before.
Moving the tongue upward slightly is the adjustment we’ll make to a Japanese sound to help you produce the “ry” sound.
The Japanese “r” Sound
When Japanese is transcribed with the Roman alphabet, the letter “r” usually refers to a sound that is not found in English, the lingua-alveolar tap. This sound is formed when the tip of the tongue momentarily touches the alveolar ridge.
(At this time, you might want to visit this article, then return here to continue our journey.)
The alveolar ridge is the ridge-like boundary between the shelf-like structure behind the upper teeth and the upper surface of the mouth as it begins to slope upward toward the roof of the mouth.
You can feel the edge of that shelf with the tip of your tongue.
When this sound is made, the tip of the tongue touches on or near that edge.
Position your tongue there and immediately release it as you follow it with a Japanese vowel (i.e., a, i, u, e, o). In this way, you pronounce the syllables ra, ri, ru, re, and ro.
Now, we’ll move on to palatalizing this sound.
Palatalizing the Japanese “r”
Palatalizing the Japanese “r” sound will feature two modifications: raising the body of the tongue slightly upward toward the roof of the mouth and the movement of the tongue toward the position of the following vowel sound.
You can start by touching the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. The rest of the tongue will be in a neutral, resting position. Now, move the body of the tongue upward slightly. You should feel a slight tension as the body of the tongue is compressed behind the blade.
As soon as you begin to make a sound, release the tip from the ridge and move the tongue back toward the position of the following vowel. Try this with rya. Follow with ryu and ryo. It should sound like the “y” sound is following the first sound.
You may have noticed that the tongue’s position changes slightly as you practice with the different vowel sounds. Your brain is already anticipating the next sound and adjusting the positions of the muscles of your mouth in preparation.
To help you distinguish Japanese sounds, contrast “ra, ru, ro” with “rya, ryu, ryo.”
“Ra, rya.” “Ru, Ryu.” “Ro, Ryo.”
Remember, “ry” is one sound, not two in Japanese. It’s the palatalized version of the Japanese “r” sound.
Is the Japanese “r” the only sound that is palatalized in Japanese? Palatalization also occurs with the k, sh, ch, n, h, m and r sounds in Japanese.
Does palatalization occur in English? Yes, palatalization occurs in many languages, including English. Notice the sounds in the underlined syllables: cute, computer.
If you have any questions with the Japanese ‘ry” sound or palatalization, please leave comment in the form below.