The other day, I got into an extended conversation about how we recognize sounds in different languages with a friend from the USA who speaks Chinese. My mother tongue is Japanese. Curiously, besides two kinds of phonetic original characters, Japanese language uses Chinese originated characters called “Kan-ji” that came to Japan from the continent long time (like 1500-2000 years) ago, which then evolved within Japan as a part of Japanese language. Yet the characters retain some of the originality – or fundamentals that whenever I look at Chinese written texts, I got 60-75% of the idea of what’s written. Funny thing is that I have no concept on how a Chinese letter should sound. (Sometimes I communicate better in written conversation with my Chinese friends.) As this friend from the USA quite impressively not only is good in oral Chinese, but learned to read and write it (which is way harder), and although we both speak English, we have a second language (or written language) to communicate with each other and have fun.

After thoroughly talked about Chinese, Japanese, and English languages in different angles, we got into how we recognize sounds in a word. The friend goes “I think this word has one syllable.” Then I reply, “No, actually I think there are two sounds.” After going back and forth with some words, we had to look up the definition of “syllable”.

“Syllable: a unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word” by google

Ultimately, we found out that Alphabets have letters with several sounds, at least, to Japanese. Because Japanese sounds do not have the same sounds as Alphabets do, Alphabets’ syllable rules don’t apply. Alphabets in English are building blocks of a word, and the reading of the word changes depending on the condition of the order of the letters. Whereas Japanese words are purely collection of sounds. Combination of letters does not change how the word supposed to be read.

Take “I”. I is a vowel without consonants, therefore it is one syllable according to the definition. In pure sound, it is “a” and then “i” = two sounds. In other words, only this way can we recognize the sound of the letter “I” in Japanese…

I knew there was something about syllabic and phonetic languages, but I never thoroughly thought about it. It was indeed a very fun exercise to discuss through.

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