先輩 is a Japanese word that you can use to refer to your senior classmates, colleagues, and the like.
The counterpart to this word is 後輩, which you can use to refer to your junior classmates, colleagues, etc.This word is commonly used in anime and other Japanese media — so much so that it’s not all that uncommon to see it appearing in English nowadays.This brings us to a somewhat confusing issue: How should we spell 先輩？Written in hiragana this word is せんぱい.Based on this, you would think that we should write 先輩 in Roman letters as “senpai.” But some people write it as “sempai,” putting an “m” for the ん instead of “n.”What gives?
Is it “senpai” or “sempai?”The simple answer: Both spellings — “senpai” and “sempai” — are acceptable.However, Japanese people tend to pronounce it “sempai.”No, I don’t! yells Japanese person reading this article.To that person, I have an exercise for you: Try saying just the second half of the word, ～ぱい, without touching your lips together when you make the “p-” sound.You can’t, right? Because it’s impossible to make a “p-” sound without closing your mouth. When you make an “m-” sound, your lips also touch. This is because “p-” and “m-” are both what are referred to as “bilabial consonants.”When an “n” sound comes right before a bilabial consonant, it changes to an “m” sound. This is because it is impossible to make an “n” sound if you close your mouth.Still, you think, I can make an “n” sound and then make a “p” sound. They don’t have to meld together.I agree that this is possible… if you are talking slowly. But native speakers do not talk slowly. They speak at native speed. And as such, that “n” sound from the ん in せんぱい ends up being pronounced like “m” — “sempai.”Thus, if we wanted to write the word 先輩 in roman letters that are a relatively accurate representation of how the word is pronounced, then we would write “sempai.”But if you want to stick with the this-kana-equals-this-letter approach, then go ahead and write “senpai.” In other words, write “n” for the ん in せんぱい. Either way is fine.When should you pronounce ん as “m” rather than “n?”You would pronounce ん as “m” whenever it is coming before a Japanese kana that is a bilabial consonant.That is, you make the “m” sound for ん right before “p,” “b,” and “m” sounds:
ぱ ぴ ぷ ぺ ぽ
パ ピ プ ペ ポ
ば び ぶ べ ぼ
バ ビ ブ ベ ボ
(If you need to work on your hiragana and katakana skills, check out our kana-learning tools.)You’ll see this happening with a lot of Japanese place names written in Roman letters. The official spelling has an “m” for the ん sound instead of an “n.”Some examples:
ま み む め も
マ ミ ム メ モ
NambaThis is a popular district of Osaka.
Nihombashi StationThis is a subway station in Tokyo.
Sometimes, thinking about the nitty-gritty details of Japanese pronunciation can be very helpful. But thinking about these kinds of things are rarely ever as useful as actually exposing yourself to them — for instance, by using our shadow loops. キャンペーン
campaignThis is the katakana spelling of the English word “campaign.” It usually refers to “sales campaigns,” not political ones.
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