I was very much embarrassed when I was pointed out by ELU Senpai that I made a great mistake by misspelling ‘Mod election’ as ‘Mod erection’ during ELU chat.

We Japanese often make a silly mistake of mixing ‘l’ and ‘r’ characters and sound in writing and speaking, as we don’t have ‘r’ sound. We pronounce Lace and Race with the same sound “lehsu -レース.”

I understand Chinese have distinction of l and r sound. Particularly Beijin locals are well-known for frequent use of r sound, which is known for the word, "R化-R-lization" in speaking.

I’ve read that English l and r sound come under allophone (or phoneme.)

Kenyusha’s Readers English Japanese Dictionary provides definitions of both ‘allophone” and “phoneme,” but both in scanty two lines. It reads as if both ‘allophone” and “phoneme” are akin, which I’m doubtful of vaguely.

What is the difference of ‘allophone” from “phoneme,” and to which of them do English ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds come under?


Also We do not have θ and ð sound AndrewC has referred to in his comment. We cannot tell the difference between θ and ð, and pronounce both with s sound, e.g. “think” and “sink,” “thick” and “sick” in the same way.

Until post WW II, most Japanese couldn’t pronounce v sound, though there was the letter ‘ヴ’ to express a 'foreign' v sound (only) in writing. We pronounce “Best” and “Vest” in the same B sound. But because of the influx of American culture and spread of English language, most Japanese come to distinguish b and v in speaking. We also pronounce “cofee” as “koh-hee.”

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    a phoneme is the representation of a sound, allophones are different sounds representing the same phoneme. For Japanese speakers the sounds /l/ and /r/ might be allophones but not so for english speakers. (just as different kinds of 'r' or 'l' sounds might be perceived as different phonemes in some languages but are allophones in english.)
    – msam
    Jun 27, 2014 at 11:17
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    As an aside, I had a Japanese friend Named "Hiromi" and to my ear she pronounced it Hilomi and when she spoke of what we call "Ramen" noodles, it sounded like Lamen, so I think that MOST of the time, that Japanese sound transliterated as "R" should have been "L". I helped her with our "R" by suggesting it sounds like a growling dog.
    – TecBrat
    Jun 27, 2014 at 17:40

3 Answers 3


A phoneme is the smallest sound component of speech. A syllable will often consist of more than one phoneme. Speech synthesis software operates by playing a sequence of phonemes to produce intelligible sounds.

Allophones are phonemes with differing sounds. For example, the B in trouble and bitter are considered to be allophones as they both consist of the plosive phoneme for B but are enunciated slightly differently.

While in English, the letters L and R have different phonemes - they sound different, in languages such as Japanese and Korean there is often a single phoneme whose sound is part way between the L and R sounds of English. This can cause confusion to both eastern and western ears.

  • Allophones don't have to have slightly differing sounds; they can have reasonably distinct sounds. For example, [f] and [v] were allophones in Old English (this is why the plural of leaf is leaves), and modern English speakers hear them as quite distinct. I suspect they sounded much more similar to Old English speakers. Jun 27, 2014 at 11:42
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    Allophones are not two phonemes with different sounds—they're one phoneme with two different phonetic realisations. Jun 27, 2014 at 12:19
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    @JanusBahsJacquet this is why the question of whether two phones represent the same phoneme or not (that is, whether they're allophones or not) varies from language to language. In Japanese, /l/ and /r/ (better, perhaps, [l] and [r]) are allophones; in English they're not ([lo] and [ro], for example, are a minimal pair). Jun 27, 2014 at 13:17
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    "oriental languages" isn't a useful way of classifying languages. /l/ and /r/ happen to be allophones in Japanese and Korean, but this is not reflective of any broader areal feature (particularly since Japonic and Korean are not genealogically related to any other languages in the area).
    – senshin
    Jun 27, 2014 at 18:02

The two l s in little are allophones - they're two different sounds representing the same phoneme (basic sound)/grapheme (symbol representing a sound).

Native speakers don't normally think about those two l s as making a different sound.

In Japanese, はげ can be pronounced haɣe instead of hage, so this is an example of g and ɣ being allophon In some languages like Japanese, r and l are allophones, so speakers don't think of them as different, and are more likely to use the wrong one.

In English l and r are not allophones, because they represent different phonemes.


As others have expressed, r and l are distinct phonemes in English since they can occur in exactly the same environment (lace vs race) and allow two words to be distinguished by that variation alone. Conversely, they are allophones in Japanese (let's call this Japanese phoneme R), for the opposite reason.

Japanese R will, to English speakers' ears, sometimes sound like an l and sometimes like a foreign r. The idea that Japanese R is "in-between" l and r is not accurate per se.

Indeed, when R is pronounced fast (as it usually is in natural speech), it sounds like a foreign type of r in English. English r is made with rounded lips and the tip of the tongue cannot touch the alveolar ridge.

On the other hand, a slowly pronounced R will sound like an l to English speakers. When the tongue rests against the alveolar ridge long enough for air to pass through the sides of the tongue, a clear l is produced. Except for the fact that English l is often produced with a curled tongue, this is for all intents and purposes the same as English l.

Whether the tongue flaps or stays against the alveolar ridge, and whether air comes through the sides of the tongue or not do not constitute distinguishing features of the Japanese R, but they are essential components of the l and r English phonemes.

Similarly, place of articulation is not a distinguishing feature of nasals in word-final position in Japanese, causing Japanese speakers to mix up done, dumb and dung.

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