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Girl: Do you guys understand humans?
Wobbaffet (Sonansu): Soonansu!! (Here means: Yes!!!)
Tabunne: Tabun . . . ne? (Here means: Maybe . . . I think?)
オオキド博士： ようこそ,ポケモンの世界へ！わしの名前はオオキド。ポケモンの研究しておる,ポケモン博士と呼ばれている者の一人じゃ！このようの中には,ポケットモンスター,ちぢめ,ポケモンと呼ばれている不思議な生き物がたくさんおる！森に,海に,町に,様々な所に暮らし,そしてその数は何百か,誰も分かっちゃおらぬ。ポケモンのこと,そして彼らが持つ不思議な力をもっと深く理解するため,わしも研究続いておるじゃ。しかし,わしのような者以外に,この世界の多くの人々がポケモンと一緒に暮らし,出会ったり,戦い合ったり,助け合ったりして,彼らと友に生きておるじゃ。君も,これからの冒険で,苦しみも,喜びも覚え,ポケモンと一緒にすてきな想いができるであろう。それじゃ早速,君の事ちょっと教えてくれんかの？ お名前は？
Ash Ketchum: Say what?
There are always times in our lives as Pokémon players where we all have to face the fact that at the heart of it, this is a game meant for Japanese children. These times usually come when a new game is released. Platinum? Heart Gold! All right, the fifth gen is coming out! You boot up your DS sit on the edge of your seat and . . . oh wait, that's right . . . the game is in Japanese . . .
This article's aim will be to familiarize you, the English speaking Smogonite, with the basics of Japanese comprehension. Of course it is impossible to master a foreign language by reading a simple magazine article, but it is the aim to give you skills that will be useful for your in-game travels. Hopefully it will help you take away more from the experience of playing in a foreign language, and even better—maybe even spark an interest in Japanese language and culture! After all, learning language is truly fun and rewarding.
Just think back to the first time you logged onto Smogon and had no idea why people were saying that Scarf-Tom lacked the BST to truly abuse its excellent STABs in OU Metagame, and realize—yeah, foreign language, I can handle this!
With that out of the way, let us get down to a bit of Japanese study. By the way, it is not called Japanese in Japanese. It is called Nihongo, and Japanese people are called Nihonjin. Hope you guys are not intimidated yet—after all, Japanese people cannot even properly pronounce the word Japanese.
We will start with the Japanese Alphabet. The bad news is that it contains a total of 46 characters.
The good news is that they are extremely easy to remember and always pronounced the same way. While in English, "a" could be pronounced like "cat", "came", or "want", in Japanese anytime you see "a", it is always pronounced "ah". With that explanation out of the way, let us move into Hiragana, the basic alphabet displayed above.
The first row is independent vowels, あ,い,う,え,お,(a, i, u, e, o, pronounced ah, ee, oo, eh, oh). Seeing these characters indicates the vowels are without consonants. They also set the standard pronunciation for vowels for all the characters! In other words, there are no other pronunciations for vowels in any words other than what has been outlined above. Just these five. There is no "a" sound like "can". There is no "u" sound like "would." Only the five, ah, ee, oo, eh and oh, represented in roman letters with a, i, u, e and o. Please keep this in mind when reading the below descriptions.
The next row is the "k" group. か,き,く,け,こ (ka, ki, ku, ke ko, pronounced kah, kee, koo, keh, and koh). It should be noted that if a ten-ten, a pair of small dots, is written to the upper-right of the character, it changes to the "g" group. In other words, が,ぎ,ぐ,げ,ご is read as ga, gi, gu, ge and go. It would be a good idea to think of "k" and "g" sounds as being related and similar.
You have probably noticed from the above table and this explanation, but most of the characters do not represent a single roman letter, but usually a consonant + a following vowel. Interestingly, there are no Japanese words that end with a consonant—except for "n", and end-of-the-word "n" has its own special character. Do you know "Kirin", the beer brand?
The next group is the "s" group. さ,し,す,せ,そ, or sa, shi, su, se, so. Keep in mind that there is no "si". The "ee" sound is always preceded by "sh". Also, when using ten-ten, this becomes the "z" group. ざ,じ,ず,ぜ,ぞ,for za, ji, zu, ze and zo (again, there is no "zi").
Following the "s" group, we move onto the "t" group. See how similar to English this is! た,ち,つ,て,と read ta, chi, tsu, te, and to. You will notice here too that Japanese has no "ti" or "tu". It is always "chee" and "tsu". Tsu is pronounced as in "Tsunami", which is originally a Japanese word—though most English speakers do not pronounce the "t" in front of the "s" strongly enough. It is not silent. Tsu can be a bit difficult to pronounce for English speakers.
With ten-ten, the "t" group becomes the "d" group, だ,ぢ,づ,で,ど,or da, ji, zu, de, and do. Now I am sure many of you are thinking, "Hold it! We already had ji and zu! This is true. じ and ぢ are pronounced almost exactly the same, as are ず and ず. The "d" versions have the slightest "d" pronunciation on the front of them (though it is almost completely unnoticeable, even by Japanese). Generally speaking, the "s" versions are much more popular. Some rare examples of "d" versions include chijime ちぢめ,which means to shorten, and tsuzuku つづく as in continue.
Example: Pocket Monsters, ちぢめ,Pokémon
Pocket Monsters, Pokémon for short. Look, you are already reading Japanese!
The next group is the "n" group, な,に,ぬ,ね,の, na, ni, nu, ne, no. This group is pretty straight forward.
Next, we come to the "h" group, は,ひ,ふ,へ,ほ. Ha, hi, fu, he, and ho. The one to pay close attention to is fu. There is no "f" group, and even "fu" is not a true f. The Japanese "fu" is softer than a true f, and is somewhere between f and h. Try saying kung-"fu" without touching your bottom lip to your teeth. The resulting sound will probably be similar to the Japanese "fu". Putting f aside, the "h" group has 2 alternative pronunciations. With ten-ten it becomes the "b" group, and with maru (a circle) it becomes the "p" group. ば,び,ぶ,べ,ぼ,ba, bi, bu, be, bo, ぱ,ぴ,ぷ,ぺ,ぽ, pa, pi, pu, pe, po. H is the only group to use maru.
It gets simpler from here. The next group is "m" and it is about as straightforward as "n". ま,み,む,め,も,ma, mi, mu, me, and mo. Ok, next!
The "y" group is next, and there are only 3. や,ゆ,よ,or ya, yu, yo. It seems that in ancient Japanese, a yi and ye did exist, but not in modern Japanese. Convenient, no?
The next is the last of the 5 symbol groups, the "r" group. ら,り,る,れ,ろ or ra, ri, ru, re, and ro. This is one to be a bit cautious of. It is often said that Japanese have trouble with "l" and "r", but most English Speakers also have some intial trouble with the Japanese "r", which is not an "r" in the English sense. If anything, it is more like a Spanish "r"—you have to roll your tongue . . . I hope you know how. It can take awhile, but with practice, learning to use the tongue muscles to roll your rs is not that difficult, and Japanese only needs a half-roll compared to Spanish. Do not worry—you can get it!
3 symbols left, わ, を, and ん.
The first two make up the "w" group, wa and wo, though the "w" on wo is silent (again, apparently wi, wu, and we existed at some point but not in modern Japanese). The difference between お and を is that the later is used only as a particle of speech. It is the "to" in "to do something". The last word, ん (n), we have talked a bit about already. It is the only independent consonant, is always used to end words.
With this, we have completed the Japanese alphabet! But wait, before you can celebrate, there are some letter combinations we have to go through in order to fully master Japanese pronunciation.
The first is small つ,or っ. Little tsu represents a slight pause in the middle of a word. Ever wonder why it was "Isshu" region and not "Ishu" region? The second "s" indicates that in Japanese, it is spelled with っ in front of the "shi" to indicate a slight pause, perhaps better described as an extention of the "shi" sound.
Wait! What is this, a wild character appeared! ゅ! Oh wait, it is an unevolved Yu! Well, not really. Next we will talk about small ゃ,ゅ and ょ. These are used to add "y" inbetween a consonant and vowel, or else make some other sounds.
ちゅ is read "chu" whereas ちゆ is read "chiyu". In the later, you have to fully pronounce the "y", whereas there is no y in "chu." Small y characters also are used to make "cho" and "cha" as opposed to "chiyo" and "chiya."
Similarly, しゃ is "sha", whereas しや is "shiya". "Sho" and "shu" follow the same rules.
Outside these exceptions, small y group works with K, N, and R groups to insert a "y" sound. In other words "ru" and "ryu" are not the same thing.
Speaking of the of the popular Street Fighter character's name, it is extremely difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Most people say something like "Rie-yu" (which is completely off). You have to roll the r, insert the y (right after the "r" with no consonant in between) and make one coherent noise—ryu. りゅ, which again is different from る.
きゃ is kya, different from か ka
にゃ is nya, different from な na
りゅ is ryu, different from る ru
While it is possible to combine little y group with "b" and "p" groups, it is not used with h, m, or s/t groups, except for the exceptions posted above.
Going back to ryu, our street fighting friend is actually not named ryu—he is names "Ryuu". Now you may be thinking—"what?" A lot of the time when words are romanized from Japanese, they drop the extended vowel sounds, but the truth is that the length of the vowel sound (1 or 2 lengths) changes the meaning of the word completely. You don't get the meaning 龍 (dragon) until you hold the u for an extra note and fully pronounce "Ryuu". Similarly, you cannot pronounce names properly without being aware it should be Tsutaaja or Myuutsuu (Mewtwo). Basically be aware that a double-vowel means that the vowel's length should be extended. Also that おうand おお are both pronounced "ohhh!" Note that a dash such as "ー" can also be used to extend a vowel.
With this, and a bit of practice, you have now mastered hiragana—which means, you are now capable of pronouncing ever single word in the Japanese language! You are also capable of reading the entire Japanese language!
—と,言いたいところだが . . . (is what I would like to say, but . . .) Japanese has 2 other writing systems aside from ひらがな, the alphabet you just learned. They are カタカナ katakana and 漢字 kanji.
Katakana is almost identical to Hiragana. Here is a chart:
The first thing you should notice is that it has the exact same format and number of characters as Hiragana. In fact, they are read and pronounced exactly the same. あ and ア are both read exactly the same. If you line up the characters from the two different alphabet graphs, you will find the corresponding identically pronounced character. Now, I am sure you are really confused here—why would anyone ever need two separate yet identical alphabets?!
The answer is in Nihongo's copycat nature. Like English, Japanese likes to take words from other languages and use them as their own. Katakana is an alphabet used expressly to spell out foreign words. Most of the time these words are English, but there are times when they come from other languages like Chinese, German, French or Portuguese. Without a doubt though, English words are the most common foreign words, and despite the poor English abilities of most Japanese, most English speakers would find it surprisingly easy to get around Tokyo if they just knew how to read and pronounce katakana English. Let's look at some examples:
ビール is pronounced "biiru", means "beer".
トイレ is pronounced "toire", means "toilet".
ハンバーガー is pronounced, "hanba-ga-" and means "hamburger".
ハンバーグ is pronounced, "hanba-gu" and means "hanburger, eaten on a plate with rice".
Now try to understand this word: マクドナルド
I'm luvin' it! A lot of English speakers have trouble pronouncing the iconic American restaurant's name once it is converted into katakana. Please がばれ (try it!). Even in Japanese though, we have nicknames to shorten it. In Kantou (Kanto) people say マック, whereas in Kansai (Johto) people say マクド.
Getting the hang of Katakana?
In that case, let us move onto Kanji 漢字. You may notice these look completely different than the first two. That is because these are not an alphabet. Kanji are symbols that have certain meaning, and originate from Chinese hanzi, or characters (and essentially mean the same thing and look very similar). The difference is that while in Chinese, each character has only one reading (generally), in Japanese, any given kanji can have several readings. For instance, 水 (water) could be read as みず or すい, the first is the Japanese reading and the second comes from the Chinese pronunciation shui. But, we are not here to learn Chinese today (we will save that for another day), as it is not the language of Pokémon. Besides, each kanji can have more than just two readings, as three, four, or even five different pronunciations is not uncommon. The only thing that is consistent is meaning, though kanji are used in combination with others to create more complicated meanings. For instance, 外 soto, meaning outside, and 人 hito meaning person, combine to form the word 外人, read gaijin, meaning foreigner.
In order to properly read Japanese at the native level it is necessary to memorize 2000+ kanji and their combinations to form complex words and meanings. Ready now? Alright, we will start with . . .
I am just kidding—that falls way outside the scope of today's lesson. Actually, such a lesson would be largely irrelevant. After all, you are not the only ones who cannot read kanji—small Japanese children cannot read them either. For this reason, every Pokémon game up until now has been written completely with hiragana and katakana, using spaces instead of kanji to organize the sentence and clearly establish the separations between words. While this might seem convenient, it is actually quite painful for the eyes of native speakers, and reading Japanese becomes much more slow and tedious without the inclusion of Kanji. For this reason, Black and White (the first of their kind) have been equipped with a "kanji mode" that lets older players turn kanji on at the beginning of the game.
Do not worry though; as long as you keep saying "yes" during the Professor's info speech, you will definitely get the default setting of "no kanji, just alphabet please!"
This concludes our introduction to the Japanese language and writing system. While from this point, one must begin to actually obtain Japanese vocabulary, the skills learned here will form that foundation and at the very least, help you recognize useful English words (in katakana) and remember/pronounce the names of the places, people and Pokémon you encounter! I wish you the best of luck on your adventures! これからは,冒険の始まりだぞ！
For a list of useful Pokémon-related vocabulary, please consult jumpluff's Japanese-English Dictionary thread, found at Uncharted Terrirory, which you can read here.
Also, here is the opening paragraph of this article written in Hiragana/Katakana only (see how it burns your eyes?) and English, give it a go:
オオキドはかせ： ようこそ,ポケモンのせかいへ！わしのなまえはオオキド。ポケモンのけんきゅうしておる,ポケモンはかせとよばれているもののひとりじゃ！このようのなかには,ポケットモンスター,ちぢめ,ポケモンとよばれているふしぎないきものがたくさんおる！もりに,うみに,まちに,さまざまなところにくらし,そしてそのかずはなんびゃくか,だれもわかっちゃ おらぬ。ポケモンのこと,そしてかれらがもつふしぎなちからをもっとふかくりかいするため,わしもけんきゅうつづいておるじゃ 。しかし,わしのようなものいがいに,このせかいのおおくのひとびとがポケモンといっしょににくらし,であったり,たたかいあった り,たすけあったりして,かれらとともにいきておるじゃ。きみも,これからのぼうけんで,くるしみも,よろこびもおぼえ,ポケモ ンといっしょににすてきなおもいができるであろう。それじゃさっそく,きみのことちょっとおしえてくれんかの？ おなまえは？
Professor Oak: Welcome, to the world of Pokémon! My name is Professor Oak. I am a Pokémon Researcher, one of many called a Professor of Pokémon! In this world, there are many mysterious and strange creatures called Pocket Monsters, Pokémon for short! Living in the forests, ocean, towns and many other places—no one really knows how many hundreds of Pokémon there are! To more deeply understand Pokémon and the mysterious powers they possess, I continue to research. However, aside from those like me, the vast majority of people in this world live with Pokémon—meeting each other, battling each other, rescuing each other—we live in harmony with Pokémon. For you as well, from your adventures I am sure you will experience great sorrow and joy, creating wonderful memories with Pokémon. Well, let's get to it! Perhaps I could learn a bit about yourself? What is your name?
Ash Ketchum: Oh! My name is Ash Ketchum, from the town of Pallet, and I am going to be a Pokémon Master!
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