In this article (courtesy of Martin), we’re looking at why sometimes ん gets written as “n,” like in “senpai,” while other times it is written as “m,” like in “sempai.”
I actually learned some new stuff from this article, and it’s a good chance to clean up your pronunciation in addition to learning the rules for writing Japanese words with romaji.
Thanks for the article, Martin!
So if you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, then you’ve come across Hiragana and Katakana by now. Great. Maybe you saw you something like this:
In other words, you learned Hiragana and Katakana via Romaji (roman letters or ABC’s).
That is totally fine.
But you’ll notice we have the ん ン circled in red.
How do you read these?
Most learners of Japanese would already know the answer: “N”
Well actually, it can change.
No man is an island they say. Well, in languages like Japanese and Spanish, no consonant is an island either. Each consonant is potentially affected by the preceding or following consonant. This all sounds very technical, yeah? Let’s break it down a bit more.
Mixing Up “N” and “M” for ん and ン
Look at how some of the following are written in Japanese and then how we should accurately transliterate them (i.e. write them out in letters).
Below we can see a popular Japanese dish with a peculiar name: 天麩羅 ・天ぷら （てんぷら）
How do we transliterate it?
According to the hiragana chart above: Tenpura is correct
But it is not accurate!
Even my spellchecker doesn’t like what we have up there.
The correct transliteration is “TeMpura”
How about below?
Ignoring the Kanji for now, what does the Hiragana come to?
The correct answer is:
But similarly as above, the phonetically accurate transliteration would read as:
Just like the famous station in Tokyo.
We have more examples too.
Japan is famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for the words Senpai and Kohai (先輩・後輩)
先輩: The senior student/learner/martial artist etc… せんぱい⇒Senpai ⇒ Sempai
Another famous station in Tokyo, 日本橋 comes to ⇒ にほんばし ⇒ Nihonbashi– ⇒ Nihombashi
Some English loan words are written with the ん
キャンペーン : A campaign (usually means a sale and not used so much for political campaigns) ⇒ Kyanpein or Kyanpe-n ⇒ Kyampein or Kyampe-n
The Difference Between “N” and “M”
Why do the ん’s in front of certain consonants change and others not?
By the way, this perplexes Japanese natives just as much as it does us. If you can read Japanese, check out this forum.
It says, ローマ字で難波 ⇒ Namba, 本舗 ⇒ Hompo など何故（なぜ）「ん」はNではなくMになるのでしょうか？
Essentially, his/her question comes to why do the Roman characters for Namba (a famous spot in Osaka) and Hompo (main or head office/shop of a chain of other offices or shops) use the letter M and not the letter n for the ん hiragana?
Why is it “important,” and not “inportant?”
Before we explore this any more in the target language, let’s do like the native speakers and Japanese and ask why does this happen in our own language? Yes. English does something similar.
Why do we say Important with an m instead of Inportant?
If you look at the word, it is just two words “in,” the Latin prefix for “into, in, on, upon” and port from Latin portare “to carry.” The Latin word Importare became English Import and over the centuries we developed the word “Important.”
*The “in” in “Important” is not to be confused with “In,” the Latin prefix to mean “not, opposite of, without,” as in Inflammable and invincible)
If you see there, the “n” in “in” came before the “p” just before it switched to “m.” This is not by accident. Or, maybe by slip of the tongue but certainly it is not by chance.
P is a special kind of consonant. It is what we call in linguistics, a bilabial consonant. This is all a bit technical, so bear with me, please.
All bilabial means is that you need to use both lips to make the sound.
Hold your lips apart with your hands and try to say “Put Perry Pow in his place.” Unless you cheated, you cannot say this, because both of your lips need to touch in order to make the “p” sound. That is, it’s a bilabial consonant.
“Bi-” means “two” and “labial” means “pertaining to the lips,” from the Latin labium, which means “lip.”
P, B, and M are all bilabial consonants. They’re “bilabial” because both of your lips touch, and they’re consonants because air gets a bit caught at your lips while trying to escape your mouth.In fact, a consonant is just that.
Unlike vowels, where the air is free to flow out of your mouth (or sometimes your nose, too, like in French 😉 ), with consonants, the air gets stopped or held up somewhere. Like a checkpoint. Next thing to note is that n in particular is very flexible.
How “N” Reacts To Bilabial Consonants
I remember taking a phonetics course in Spanish back in uni and learning that there were 7—Yes, 7!—different types of N’s.
Japanese and Spanish have a lot in common when it comes to pronunciation, as it turns out. In Japanese, the ん is also very flexible.
The simple rule is this:
In front of P, B, and M, always change the ん to an “m.”
So if there is an ん in front of any of the following kana, then you should pronounce it like an “m:”
So that’s the rule for pronouncing ん・ン. But what about for writing ん・ン with Roman letters?
How To Write ん & ン With Roman Letters
I sometimes see people write out 新橋（しんばし）as Shinbashi with an “n.”
Is that wrong?
Contrary to how you actually pronounce the word, there are various romaji renditions out there, and in some, they always write ん and ン as “n.” Others do not always write “n,” sometimes changing it to “m.”
There is no wrong way, per say, to write out the romaji.
So don’t worry about it.
Just know that it’s pronounced like an “m” when you see it in front of the p, b, or m.
Language Hacks That Work For Multiple Languages
Extra! Just in case you learn Spanish or Italian, you just learned a language hack that you can use for those languages too.
Like in Spanish, I have a boat is
Tengo un barco
But the un isn’t pronounced “un.” It is pronounced Um.
We’ll discuss a few other combinations for ん in another article.
For example, sometimes ん can disappear entirely in the middle of certain consonant clusters, sometimes it turns into “ng” (in front of “g:” が、ぎ、ぐ、げ、ご) ,etc.
Some other tricky consonants to watch out for are the t and d ones, like た、て、と、だ、で、andど. These are alveolar (tongue touches the back of the teeth or the alveolar ridge).
By the way, Spanish and Italian do the exact same thing. No better way to sound totally like a gaijin than rolling your T’s and D’s like we do in English.
In English, we make our t and d sounds by rolling our tongue at the end of the alveolar ridge. If you cannot roll your R’s, try putting your tongue where you put the t and d and roll it like when you say, “I edited it.”
If you exchange the t’s and d’s, voila, you now can roll your R’s just like Yakuza in Japanese or Russians, Spaniards and the rest of the R-rolling world. We hope this helps you on your journey to master Japanese. Let us know what you think in the comments and feel free to ask a question!
Other Ways To Improve Your Japanese
There’s like a million of them in here: