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As the Japanese "R" is the only liquid in the language, there is a considerable range of allophones used for it.

The first thing to remember is that the Japanese "R" sound is nothing at all like the English "R" sound. It is, in fact, often pronounced just like an English "L" sound. This is, in fact, how a kawaii anime girl is likely to pronounce it, especially when she is singing. If you are an English speaker and have trouble with foreign sounds, it is recommended that you use this pronunciation.

NOTE: This "L"-like pronunciation of "R" was deprecated by a Japanese person I wrote to. He said that it is used by younger people who have not been taught correctly.

If you wish to sound less like a kawaii anime girl, try a quick upward flap of the tongue, so that the tip of your tongue is just behind your front teeth. Do not roll the "R".

Starrynight writes: You might point out that the pronounciation can vary based on regional dialect. I'm fairly sure that some instances of Kansai dialect roll their rs.

The standard Japanese dialect "R" is a voiced alveolar tap/flap. A flap is like a stop/plosive(/p/, /t/, /k/), except the passage is closed for a much shorter time. Flaps are often found in non-southern American English as allophones of /t/ and /d/, such as in bitter, water, potato, latter, and ladder.

In short, it is never an American English "R" sound.

Sometimes, such as when spoken slowly, or at the beginning of a word, or in songs, the Japanese "R" may be pronounced as a lateral "L" sound by some people.

In the mostly extinct dialect of downtown Edo, the "R" is sometimes trilled. In anime, a character may switch to this form of pronunciation when shouting angrily, to depict a rude Edokko stereotype. One thing to keep in mind when watching anime is that the Japanese spoken in it may not accurately depict vernacular Japanese.

Q: How do you say the R?
A: There is no R.

If you can articulate the Japanese "r" sound, you can do something that a lot of Japanese people can't.

And I'm not talking about whether it's an "r" or an "l" or even a "d", as some postulate. Nor am I referring to the myth that Japanese people can't learn the difference between R and L; in this essay, "Japanese speaker" refers to someone who only speaks Japanese and has not studied any other languages.

If you could do as the node title suggests, I would go so far as to suggest that you wouldn't even be speaking Japanese. Indeed, the Japanese language has no singular "r", or the associated /r/ /l/ /d/ aveolar stop, which I will refer to as the symbol "r" for the sake of simplicity. The Japanese language does not contain singular consonants, with the exception of the so-called syllabic n. All of the other syllables contain vowels.

Most Japanese speakers are incapable of separating the /r/ consonant phoneme from the vowels of ra/ri/ru/re/ro, the seventh row ("ra-yuki") of the gojuuon (Japanese "phonetic alphabet"). Thus, while they can easily say the syllables "ra", "ri", "ru", "re", and "ro", as well as the associated dipthongs "rya", "ryu", and "ryo", saying just the "r" is both unexpectedly difficult and completely useless for them.

Gritchka also points out that, as a stop, the Japanese /r/ is impossible to atriculate on its own. The English /r/ is a liquid, and can be prolonged and easily articulated by itself, as in the word "Grrrrrrr!!".

There is no real English analogue to this, but consider the following. Say just the very first part of an "r", but then finish with the middle of "d". This is a rough description of how to say the consonant component that this node focuses on, mapped to English phonemes. That's probably about how hard it is for a Japanese speaker to logically separate "r" from "ra".

So how am I supposed to say the R then!

Most Japanese teachers will recommend that you practice ra/ri/ru/re/ro instead of the R sound itself.

The "r" sound used in Japanese phonemes is almost always tapped, unlike the liquid, retroflex "r" used at the end of words in (American) English. It's also worth noting that the properties of the consonant depend slightly on which vowel is being used, due to the mouth shape. However, compared to other syllables (in particular, ha/hi/fu/he/ho, ta/chi/tsu/te/to) this difference is minimal. Note that the romanization in this case is an arbitrary reflection of how English speakers perceive Japanese phonemes to sound. (Hey, now that'd make a great node!)

The world of difference of R

This is the main reason that Japanese students of English tend to have problems pronouncing the final r in many (American) English words. Consider the word "rare": it actually contains two types of English "r" sounds.

  • The initial "r" and the vowel "ae" are not too hard for the Japanese student to closely approximate with the Japanese "re" syllable.
  • However, the closing "r" is nearly impossible -- lacking a liquid "r" phoneme, the student is left with little choice but the enlongated "a" vowel.

This gives a resulting two-syllable word that sounds like "rayah" or "layah". (The "y" sound is again perceived by the English listener, as in yen.) Actually, this word exists in Japanese as gairaigo to mean uncooked, from the English expression "rare steak".

You read (or skipped) to the end of the essay, now you get the FUNNY ANECDOTE!
I remember trying to figure out why they were calling it "layer cheesecake" when there was only one layer, until my Japanese friend explained that "layer" was supposed to be "rare"; in common English, no-bake cheesecake.
"rya", "ryu", and "ryo" dipthongs

These dipthongs are among the hardest Japanese phonemes for English speakers to master, both in speaking and listening. Again, this is because they move through several English phonemes in a single movement. The only real course of action is to first master the "ri" syllable and then work on combining it with "ya".

Like all of the ra-yuki, these are aveolar tapped sounds, ie., your tongue should make brief contact with the ridge in the top of your mouth at the start of the sound.

rolling?

The trilled / rolling "r" that esteemed noders Juuichiketajin and tongpoo describe above is also seen when Japanese speakers (esp. men) are extremely angry -- for example, the interjection "kora!" (an angry attention-getter) can sound like KORRRAA! This rolling is also seen in stereotypical depictions of yakuza on TV, as in the fundamental expression "kono yarou!"

For a node about linguistics, this made me darn hungry...

Many thanks to Gritchka for clearing up my misunderstanding between phonemes and syllables in Japanese.

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