The basic structural unit for building Japanese words is the syllable. Traditionally, Japanese has 51 syllables (although some are considered obsolete), 50 of which follow the pattern consonant + vowel. (Note that the consonant can be null and the vowel can be short or long.)

But there is one exception: the syllabic nasal N (/n~/ in IPA/ASCII), a sound which does not exist in English. The syllabic N is pronounced as its own syllable (ie. its length is one mora), even if followed by a vowel. The difference in pronunciation is subtle but important in some contexts. For romanized Japanese, if the syllabic N is non-final and is not followed by a consonant, an apostrophe is postfixed, like so:

kinen -- "memorial", no syllabic N: ki/ne/n, 3 mora
kin'en -- "no smoking", syllabic N: ki/n/e/n, 4 mora
kinnen -- "recent years", syllabic N: ki/n/ne/n, 4 mora

In addition, the syllabic N undergoes phonemic changes in some contexts according to the following rules:

"n'" is pronounced "m" if before P, B, M (eg. sanmai, three sheets)
"n'" assimilates the following consonant and is pronounced "ng" (IPA/ASCII /N/, English sing) if before K, G (eg. ningen, human)

The first rule also presents a problem for transcription: should the pronounced M be recorded instead of the written N? Most sources for the layman do so, but scholarly writings (and word processors) usually follow the original Japanese.

The changes caused by the second rule, however, are (almost) never shown in writing.
ん is a character in the Japanese hiragana alphabet, written in Romaji (Roman alphabet) as an n or sometimes as an m. It is a comparatively new addition the Japanese syllabary, introduced as part of Meiji era reforms to the education system.

ん is the only character in Japanese that is a solitary consonant; all other characters are pronounced as vowels or consonant-vowels. Therefore, it is the only consonant that a Japanese syllable (or word for that matter) can finish with (remember this fact, it appears as a Trivial Pursuit question). Examples include Nissan, Aum Shinri Kyo, Kirin Beer, and of course Japan.

It is (almost) pronounced like an N, or to be technical, as a syllabic voiced dental nasal. Yet there are subtle exceptions:

  • if the next sound is a bilabial (p, b) or m, then you should pronounce ん as a voiced bilabial nasal (m). For example, bimbo (adj poor)
  • if the next sound is a velar plosive (k, g), then it should be pronounced as a voiced nasal velar (ng). For example, Manga (n comic strip thingy)

    ん can also appear by itself in a question as some kind of semantic nuance not found in the blunter English language. It basically turns a simple yes/no question into a statement that requires confirmation, and the speaker is sufficiently confident the fact will be confirmed because of the obvious presence of some evidence that suggests the fact is true. An example is perhaps more helpful:

  • Umi ni ikimasu ka ? : Are you going to the beach ?
  • Umi ni iku n desu ka: You are going to the beach aren't you ? (I guess you are because you are wearing swimming trunks)

    So people speaking with a hidden agenda will use this shadowy marker. Like when sussing out your partner who comes home late smellin’ like perfume, all you can think of are things that make you go ん

    groan !

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