Vowels and consonants

Vowels:

The five vowels of Ainu are always pronounced in just one way, independently from their position within the word.

Sápo – “older sister”

Ne – “to be”

Ipe – “to eat”

Póro – “big”

Su – “pot”

 

In some cases, a vowel can be silent. This means that it is not clearly pronounced with the features presented just here. This may happen in fast speech, when speakers are not always careful in enunciating sounds, but most importantly it happens after the letter ‘r’. When the letter ‘r’ is at the end of a word a silent vowel is added after it – this vowel is the same vowel that precedes the ‘r’, so that kor would be pronounced kor(o) or kar would be pronounced kar(a). The same happens in some cases within a word when ‘r’ is followed by another consonant (for example arpa pronounced ar(a)pa). This silent vowel is never present in the written language, but it is just pronounced in the spoken language.

A-kor – “I have”

Sayo kar – “she cooked rice”

Pirka – “good”

 

Consonants:

Consonants are different from vowels because their pronunciation may not be unitary – this means that to one consonant in the alphabet there may not be just one corresponding sound. This is true for the following:

  • The letter ‘k’ can be pronounced /k/ as in the English ‘kitchen’ or closer to /g/ as in the English ‘golf’.
  • The letter ‘p’ can be pronounced /p/ as in the English ‘put’ or closer to /b/ as in the English ‘boat’.
  • The letter ‘t’ can be pronounced /t/ as in the English ‘tail’ or closer to /d/ as in the English ‘duck’.

Inkar – “to see”

Ipe – “to eat”

Ramante – “to go hunting”

 

It is far more common that, if ‘k’, ‘p’ and ‘t’ are word-initial, they are pronounced in the first variant given above (that is, the voiceless variant /k/, /p/ and /t/). Some times these three consonants are pronounced half way between k/g, p/b or t/d, in a way that is difficult to master for a non native speaker of Ainu. The pronunciation of these consonants also varies from speaker to speaker, so that there can be great variation even within a same Ainu village. However, this variation does not influence the understanding of a certain word. When writing, these consonants are always written as ‘k’, ‘p’ and ‘t’ regardless of the personal pronunciation of the speaker.

 

On the other hand, only one sound corresponds to the letters ‘c’, ‘h’, ‘m’ and ‘n’, independently from their position within a word.

Cóka – “we”

Húra – “smell”

Ramante – “to go hunting”

Náni – “at once, immediately”

 

All consonants can be found at the end of a word except ‘c’ and ‘h’. The consonant ‘r’ is not the only one to have a special pronunciation word-finally. The consonants ‘k’, ‘p’ and ‘t’, when word-final, are in fact silent. To properly pronounce them you should just put your lips and tongue in place as to say them, but produce no sound. Eventually the word sounds like a final consonant is not even there.

Tek – “hand”

Cep – “fish”

Pet – “river”

 

It can be very difficult to understand which is the final consonant and, sometime, the actual word is recognized from the context it is in.

 

The letters ‘y’ and ‘w’ are considered consonants, but they actually represent a semi-vowel. They are respectively pronounced roughly as the ‘y’ in the English ‘yesterday’ and as the ‘w’ in the English ‘wait’ independently from their position within a word.

Ye – “to say”

Wen – “to be bad”

 

The letter ‘s’ may represent two sounds. It can be pronounced as the ‘s’ in the English ‘sun’ or, very often, closer to the ‘sh’ in the English ‘ship’. ‘S’ is pronounced almost always as the ‘sh’ in ‘ship’ when it is followed by the vowel ‘i’, while this happens more rarely when it is followed by any of the other vowels.

Sápo – “older sister”

Síno – “really”

 

The letter ‘r’ represents a sound that is in between the English ‘r’ and ‘d’. Especially word-initially, ‘r’ tends to be more similar to the English sound ‘d’ in the word ‘duck’.

Retar – “to be white”

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