Before discussing the Japanese writing system, it is necessary to learn a little about the Japanese language, sometimes in relation to Chinese, Korean, and English. Linguistically, Japanese is unrelated to Chinese; it is believed to be related to Korean, yet it is similar to Korean only in syntax, not in speech sounds and native vocabulary. Despite the linguistic differences, Japanese, like Korean, has borrowed many thousands of words and characters from Chinese.
The Japanese language has many different dialects, most of which are mutually intelligible, except between those spoken in regions widely separated geographically. The dialect least intelligible to most Japanese is spoken in the Ryukyu Islands, a string of 60 tiny islands lying between Japan and Taiwan in the west Pacific Ocean. Even among these islands different dialects are spoken, as indicated in the saying,
Mijinu kawaree kutooba kawayun (Ryukyu dialect)
Mizuga kawareba kotobaga kawaru (standard)
'When water (island) changes, speech changes'.
The two main dialects of the Japanese language are the eastern dialect, Kantoo, which includes the Tokyo dialect, and the western dialect, Kansai, which includes the Osaka and Kyoto dialects. ... The eastern dialect, especially the variety spoken by cultured Tokyo residents, is more or less the standard language, which today is understood by almost all Japanese, including those on the Ryukyu Islands, thanks to spread of education, mass communication, and transportation. Standard Japanese is discussed in this book.
The small inventory of Japanese sounds is used to produce a small inventory of extremely simple syllables. A syllable may consist of a vowel alone--any of a, i, u, e, o; a consonant and a vowel (CV), or any of the 14 consonants (other than N or Q) followed by any of the 5 Vs, as in pa, mi, ku, be, do. Japanese does not use closed syllables that end in consonants, as in English dog, except when a syllable ends in -N. Nor does it use consonant clusters, such as the English FRieND, anywhere in a word.
Besides the two now familiar sound units, the phoneme and the syllable, the Japanese sound system uses a unit called a "mora," which is a short beat, the time to pronounce a short syllable, such as the vowel e or the consonantvowel syllable de. That is, the time to pronounce one mora, be it e or de, is constant. A lengthened vowel, such as oo, or a sequence of two vowels, such as in ie (pronounced as two discrete vowels, i and then e), is counted as two moras. Whereas a syllable (e.g., ka, ne) normally includes at least one vowel, a mora need not. So, the final nasal N, called the moraic nasal, is counted as one mora. If you were to clap your hands at an even rate, you would clap four times to mark four moras while you pronounce each of the following words: wa.ga.ma.ma ('headstrong'), ga.k.ko.o ('school'), and shi.n.bu.n ('newspaper').
The mora is the important phonetic unit in Japanese because it is the unit of the Japanese phonetic script: Each mora is represented by one Japanese syllabary sign.
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