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Pronunciation changes in Japanese English

A systematic overview of how the Japanese pronounce English words in their own language, and so therefore often when speaking English too

The term Japanese English (sometimes known as Engrish, Japlish or wasei eigo) is being used here to refer to English words which are used and adapted in the Japanese language, and the effect that has on Japanese people when they are speaking in English to other nationalities. Most articles on this topic (including my own overview) tend to concentrate on “made in Japan” expressions like bed town (beddo taun – commuter town), love hotel (rabu hoteru or rabu ho- a hotel that allows short stays), and crank in (kuranku in suru – start shooting a film). This is understandable as these expressions are easy to spot, often colourfully descriptive, explain something in a succinct way that is difficult to do otherwise and/ or have an impact on other languages (e.g. karaoke and Walkman).

Spending too much time on expressions like silver seat (shirubaa shiito- reserved seat for disabled and old people) and heading shoot (heddingu shuuto – a header towards goal) can be a mistake however, be it in articles like this or in classes of Japanese students. For one thing, expressions like go sign (goo sain – getting the go ahead) and meat shop (miito shoppu – a butcher’s) can usually be understood by anyone, especially in context. More importantly, the vast majority of common English words have pretty much the same meaning as in British and/ or American English. Many more have much more minor differences such more restricted meanings, e.g. swing (suingu) only being used to talk about golf.

In such cases, the main barrier to Japanese students international communication when using or coming across such words is pronunciation. This article aims to give a systematic overview of such student difficulties by looking at the differences between how the Japanese pronounce words that have been borrowed from English and how a British or American person might pronounce them. This should also serve as an easy introduction to English pronunciation issues for Japanese learners more generally, as you don’t need to understand any Japanese to read this article. It could also be useful for people learning Japanese, so that they don’t have the same problems pronouncing straw (sutoroo) as I did.

As Japanese script will not show on some computers, I’ve simply transcribed the katakana script in which these words are usually written into English letters. This means that the individual letters have more or less their normal sounds in English, but are not always combined in the way that they would be in an English word. For example, the e in petto is more or less the same as the e in pet, but ee is a double e sound and therefore similar to the ei sound in page and make, and not a long ii as in the English word sheet. In Japanese this ee sound can also be written as e- or ei in different words, but I have written them all as ee. In the same way, an oo represents a double o, which is somewhere between the or in before and the O in open (and not the uu in boot). G is always hard, and e at the end of the word is always pronounced, as in karaoke.

Overview

The differences between how the Japanese pronounce words that are derived from English in their own language and how British or American people pronounce those words can be divided into several major categories.

Perhaps the most noticeable category is how almost all words have more syllables in Japanese. The main reason is that Japanese is a syllabic language, meaning all consonants apart from a final n must be followed by a vowel. This is most noticeable when an English word finishes with a consonant that is not n, for example booto (boat) and hoomu (home/ short for platform).

This is also the reason for the lack of consonant clusters in Japanese. For example, in the often used word strike each consonant must be followed by a vowel, leading to the Japanese pronunciations sutoraiki and sutoraiku, both having four syllables as against one syllable in English. Problems with English consonant clusters are by no means limited to Japanese speakers, but is still one of their greatest challenges in both speaking and listening, especially when the word also exists with Japanese pronunciation in their own language.

Another issue which is common to all nationalities and is a significant one here is sounds and sound distinctions which don’t exist in L1 but do in the English words that the Japanese word comes from. One common example is th, which is usually transformed into s (e.g. saado- third) or z (e.g. mazaa – mother). This can cause problems even for a Japanese learner who can pronounce thatch and this as a British person or American might, as they may remain unaware that the Japanese word shieta (theatre) is supposed to have that th sound when not speaking Japanese.

In Japanese, as in many other languages, this factor is further complicated by the influence that English has had on the Japanese sound system. For example, ti does not traditionally exist as a syllable in Japanese, and so it is often transformed into the closest equivalent of chi, as in anchi (anti). However, a combination of katakana symbols was put together to represent ti, and a cup of black tea is pronounced that way, making it tii rather than chii. There are also many examples where both pronunciations (and therefore katakana spellings) can be found in a dictionary for the same word, such as vippu/ bippu (VIP). The complication with v is that some Japanese speakers remain unable to produce the sound, and some words seem to be reverting back to their b form (e.g. baiorin- violin).

These kinds of pronunciation changes can be further divided into two groups. A b sound in Japanese is indistinguishable from my own British English one (at least to me), so we could describe the v from violence as being transformed into that sound (baiorensu). There is another group of sounds, however, that seem to be between two English ones and so are “merged” when there are two different English words that are distinguishable only by those sounds, i.e. minimal pairs. For example, lock and rock in English are written as rokku in Japanese, but actually that Japanese r sound is somewhere between the two and could just as well be written as lokku. The same thing is true of fur and far (faa), where the Japanese pronunciation is somewhere between the two but probably considered closer to the second by most English speakers.

As I think this distinction is useful to think about when speaking in Japanese and correcting pronunciation, I have attempted to divide the words that are indistinguishable in Japanese into ones where they are changed into another English sound and ones where the sound is between two English sounds. However, it is difficult to say which effect is which and many people would disagree with where I have drawn the line.

The third major influence on Japanese pronunciation actually has nothing to do with English, but as it can be confused with English words by both speaker and listener and so has an effect on international communication I have included it here. As almost all words borrowed from European languages are written in the katakana script (rather than the hiragana and kanji used for Japanese and Chinese words), Japanese people often assume that enquete (anketto, from French – questionnaire/ survey) is an English word and so drop it into English conversation. The same is true of words which do exist in English in a similar form but whose pronunciation in Japanese doesn’t follow any of the rules above because it was actually brought into the language from another source. For example, the syllable se in English in never transformed into ze in Japanese, so the pronunciation zeminaa (seminar) can be confusing until we learn that it comes from the German word Zeminar.

A connected influence on Japanese pronunciation is when the pronunciation has been taken from one particular variety of English in a way that makes it difficult for other speakers to understand. Examples include the a sound for an English o spelling, as in karaa (collar), which presumably comes from the closeness of these sounds in American English pronunciation. There are also words where the pronunciation is surprisingly close to a quick, informal way of speaking, such as kizzu (kids).

The opposite effect of that is when the word seems to have be pronounced as it is written, perhaps because it came into Japanese mainly through written sources. This is less of a problem than in borrowed English words in other languages such as Spanish, but there are still examples such as monkii (monkey) with its o sound.

A small but interesting group is words which are homophones in English and could well also be so in Japanese, but which have different pronunciations in an apparent attempt to avoid confusing two different words. A common example is the two pronunciations of strike mentioned above, which correspond to the very different meanings of industrial action and not hitting the ball in baseball.

There are also a few generalisable changes which don’t quite add up to a rule, plus a huge group of words that change in ways which don’t seem to be generalisable at all.

To summarise, the words I will look at can be divided into these categories:

1. Syllables being added in Japanese, e.g. at the ends of words and in consonant clusters

2. Sounds which don’t exist in Japanese

3. Sounds which don’t traditionally exist in Japanese, but are sometimes written and sometimes pronounced

4. Sound combinations which don’t traditionally exist in Japanese (even though the individual sounds do)

5. Sounds which seem to be between two English sounds, leading to homophones in Japanese

6. Pronunciation that actually comes from another language

7. Pronunciation that is based on one very particular English pronunciation

8. Pronunciation that comes from the English spelling

9. Distinctions in pronunciation that don’t exist in English

10. Other generalisable changes

11. Words that don’t fit any of the rules above

I will now deal with each of those issues one by one, making subclassifications and giving a substantial but by no means comprehensive list of examples for each one.

1. Syllables being added in Japanese, e.g. at the ends of words and in consonant clusters

The description above might perhaps make things sound more extreme than they are, as in rapid casual speech some of the vowels following consonants in Japanese are difficult or impossible to hear, making the pronunciation closer to English that the katakana might suggest. Examples include ku, shi and mu.

Which sounds are added at when an English syllable ends in a consonant is also fairly consistent and logical, making it possible to guess the Japanese pronunciation of an English word even when you have never heard it in that language. The most important generalisations (with common exceptions) are:

final c/ k and g usually change to ku and gu

toranku ruumu – trunk room

but

dekki – deck (of a ship)

jakki- jack (for changing tyres)

final ch becomes chi

biichi – beach

final f, p and b (considered variations on the same sound in Japanese) usually change to fu, pu and bu

shoppu – shop

skaafu – (head) scarf

nobbu – door knob/ door handle

final j usually becomes ji

peiji – page

final l usually changes to ru

fainuru- final

final m usually changes to mu

puroguramu – programme

final n doesn’t change, as it is the only consonant sound that Japanese syllables can end with

fan – fan

final ng sometimes changes to ngu, and sometimes to n

suuimuingu- swimming

chuuin gamu – chewing gum

final r is usually silent (as in British English) but sometimes ru

faa – fur

biiru – beer

final s and z usually change to su and zu, but often the change in pronunciation is minimal

fainansu – finance

final sh usually becomes shu

finisshu – finish

furesshu – fresh

final t and d usually change to to and do

jetto – jet

beddo – bed

but

fruutsu – fruit/ fruits (sounds more like the latter)

supootsu – sport

final x becomes kusu

bokkusu – box

The other consonant sounds that come at the end of English syllables have no Japanese equivalent, and so are dealt with below.

The rules for which sounds are added to consonant clusters are basically the same, but as it is such a big issue for Japanese speakers when learning English (and vice versa), some examples are given here. As with the vowels added to final consonants, the intervening vowels are usually the least obtrusive ones, e.g. the ones mentioned above as being difficult to hear.

Initial consonant clusters

bl and br, fl and fr , and pl and pr change to bur/ fur/ pur plus vowel

burendo koohii – blend coffee

bureiki – brake

furii – free

furii- freelancer

purinsu – prince

purassu- plus

cl, cr, kl and kr change to kur plus vowel

kurikku – click (with a mouse)

dr and tr often change to dor/ tor plus vowel

doraibu – drive

torankku – trunk

but

tsurii – tree

gl and gr change to gur plus vowel

guran purii – grand prix

sc and sk change to suk plus vowel

sukii – ski/ skiing

scr changes to sukur plus vowel

sukurappu – scrap paper/ newspaper clippings

sl changes to sur plus vowel

suriibu – sleeve

sm changes to sum plus vowel

sumooru – small

sn changes to sun plus vowel

sunakku – snack

sp changes to sup plus vowel

supootsu – sport

spr and spl change to supur plus vowel

supuringu – spring

squ sometimes changes to suk plus vowel

sukooru – squall

st changes to sut plus vowel

sutoppu – stop

str changes to sutor plus vowel

sutoraiki – strike

There are far too many final consonant clusters in in English to give a full list, but they basically follow the same rules as above, e.g.

final -nk changes to -nku

ranku – rank

final –st changes to –suto

tesuto – test

2. Sounds which don’t exist in Japanese

the short u sound always changes to a short a sound (as in some American accents)

torakku – track and truck

ranchi – lunch, but could sound like ranch

baketsu – bucket

fando – fund

kampanii – company

ur/ er/ ir, as in fur, often becomes aa

gaaru – girl

no smooth j sound in Japanese, so it usually changes to the sound in jam

terebijon (rhymes with John) – television

bijon – vision

no th sounds in Japanese, so often transposed as s, sh or z

yuusu – youth and use

basu -bath and bus

esunikku – ethnic

saamomeetaa- thermometer

rezaa- leather

baasudei keiki – birthday cake

baasu konturoru – birth control

seorii – theory

shinku tanku – think tank

3. Syllables which don’t traditionally exist in Japanese, but are sometimes written and sometimes pronounced

The traditional Japanese syllable system consists of:

a/ i/ u/ e/ o

ka/ ki/ ku/ ke/ ko- ga/ gi/ gu/ ge/ go

sa/ shi/ su/ se/ so – za/ ji/ zu/ ze/ zo

ta/ chi/ tsu/ te/ to – da/ ji/ dz/ de/ do

na/ ni/ nu/ ne/ no

ha/ hi/ fu/ he/ ho – ba/ bi/ bu/ be/ bo- pa/ pi/ pu/ pe/ po

ma/ mi/ mu/ me/ mo

ya/ yu/ yo

ra/ ri/ ru/ re/ ro

wa

n

sha, shu. sho – ja, ju, jo

cha, chu, cho

With the same five vowel sounds plus consonant sounds that do exist in Japanese, the syllables that would seem to be “missing” to an English speaker would be si, zi, ti, tu, di, du, fa, fi, fe, fo, hu, yi, ye, wi, wu, we, wo, she, je, and che. In fact, many of these are writable with combinations of katakana system that is used to pronounce foreign words, e.g. in the words:

tii – (black) tea

dibeeto – debate

faazaa – father (Christian priest, not dad)

fianse – fiancé/ fiancée

ferii – ferry

foa – four

yesu man – yes man

shea – (market) share

jetto koosutaa – jet coaster (= roller coaster)

chekku in – check in

However, in most of those cases there are also words where the English pronunciation of that syllable is converted into a sound that exists in traditional Japanese:

anchiiku (not antiiku) – antique

jirenma (more often than direnma) – dilemma and rajio – radio

hire – filet and koohii – coffee

telehon kaado – telephone card

ieero (not yeero) – yellow

sepaado (not shepaado) – German shepherd and miruku seeki (more commonly than miruku sheeki) – milk shake

zerii (more commonly than jerii) – jelly

Che in English words always seem to be pronounced that way in Japanese, perhaps because there is no close equivalent in the traditional Japanese sound system, and because all of cha, chi, chu and cho exist in hiragana, making it an easy sound for Japanese speakers to pronounce. It isn’t as easy to explain why fa and fe are always pronounced that way in words that come from English, as there are close equivalents in ha and he. The fu sound in the ha, hi, fu, he, ho characters in hiragana is somewhere between fu and hu in English, but certainly closer to the former and quite different from the first sound in ha, hi, he and ho. Again, this might make it easy for Japanese speakers to make a fa and fe sound, but something similar is true of di and that is almost always changed to ji (see below).

As you can see from some of examples above, there are also cases where both spellings and pronunciations are possible. This is also the case with the one actual sound which does not traditionally exist in Japanese but is added to the katakana list of symbols- v, in the syllables va, vi, vu, ve, vo. Words like vokyaburarii (vocabulary) are written that way in the dictionary, but just as often written and pronounced with a b. In fact, many Japanese people cannot make a distinction between a v sound and a b sound, and perhaps for that reason some words which were often written with a v are not drifting back to more of a Japanese form.

There are also other examples where the word is occasionally written in a way which would seem closer to English, but in reality is rarely said that way in Japanese, e.g. tuu and tsuu are both possible spellings for the number two but it is almost always pronounced the latter way.

4. Sound combinations which don’t traditionally exist in Japanese (even though the individual sounds do)

The remaining syllables from the list of “missing” ones from above would be si, zi, du, hu, yi, wi, wu, we, and wo. Quite a few of these have other combinations of sounds which are close, and so are usually written that way.

an initial w often becomes ue, ui, uo or u (although it usually sounds quite similar)

uddo – wood (in golf)

ueebu – wave

uehaasu – wafers

but wa usually stays that way

wain – wine

wairudo – wild

The other major group of combinations of sounds that hasn’t been mentioned is with semi-vowels like w:

qu sometimes changes to k

kiltingu- quilting

ikooru – equal

banketto – banquet

but

kuintetto – quintet

kuoritii – quality

Zi is impossible to write in katakana and always changes to a ji sound.

zi changes to ji

haujingu- housing

fantajii – fantasy

bijinesu – business

iijii – easy

Hu and si change to sounds which are somewhere between two English sounds, and so are dealt with in the next section. There are very few words beginning with yi even in English, but any in Japanese would probably be converted in i or ii, as in iddishu (Yiddish).

5. Sounds which seem to be between two English sounds, leading to homophones in Japanese

si usually becomes shi (actually somewhere between the two sounds, but closer to the latter)

shiin – scene, but sounds more like sheen

shitii – city, but sounds more like shitty

or and O/ owe/ oh are the same sound

koodo – cord and code

kooto – coat and court

l always changes to r (actually a sound somewhere between the two, but usually written that way in English)

ranpu – lamp and ramp

reesu – race and lace

riidaa – leader and reader

roketto – rocket or locket

gurama- glamour and grammar

hu changes to fu (somewhere between an English fu and hu, but closer to the former)

fuudo – hood and food

6. Pronunciation that actually comes from another language

arerugii (from German) – allergy (note the hard g sound)

Ego (from German) – ego, but pronounced with a short e sound, not a long /i:/ sound

gurume (from French) – gourmet

hokku (from Dutch) – hook

ideorogii (from German Ideologie) – ideology (note the hard g for garden sound)

janru (from French) – genre

kafein (from German Kaffein) – caffeine (ei sound, not ii as in English)

maagarin (from German) – margarine (note the hard g sound)

restoran (from French) – restaurant (note no final t sound)

serenaade (from German Serenade) – serenade (note the final e, which is pronounced)

7. Pronunciation that is based on one very particular English pronunciation

most Japanese words drop the rhotic r, as in most British accents

kyaria – career

o sometimes written and pronounced a, perhaps due to the influence of American accents

baree – short for volleyball

karaa – collar

ds often becomes z, as in rapid English speech

eizu- AIDS

guzzu- goods

kizzu- kids

niizu – needs

8. Pronunciation that comes from the English spelling

There is a chance that some of these pronunciations actually come from other languages, e.g. interia, which would be the usual pronunciation of interior in most Romance languages.

buzaa – buzzer (note the vowel sound, which is like put rather than up)

komedian – comedian (note the e for second vowel sound)

monkii – monkey (note that first vowel sound is like the O in hot)

neon- neon (note the first vowel sound, which is e from egg)

nyansu – nuance (note the a for apple sound)

raberu – label (note the first vowel sound is a for apple)

rebaa- lever (note the first e sound)

video (bideo)- note that the e is like in bet, not the ee sound that it is in English

watto – Watt (note the a for apple sound)

zero – zero (note the short e sound)

9. Distinctions in pronunciation that don’t exist in English

Many of these pairs of words consist of one word that follows the generalisation about added sounds at the end of English syllables explained above, with the other being the most common exception.

final k changes to ku or ki

bukeeku – (coffee) break

bureeki – (car) brakes

sutoraiku – strike in baseball

sutoraiki – strike, meaning industrial action

The different meanings and pronunciations of meter (meetaa – meter, e.g. taxi meter, with the first vowel is pronounced like A in game, and meetoru – metre/ meter/ metres/ meters, meaning lengths) also follow one of the rules explained above, being the usual lack of a rhotic R or the occasional addition of a ru sound.

Kappu (trophy/ cup with handle) also follows the usual rule of u from English converting into a in Japanese, while koppu (paper cup/ glass) has an o sound that might well be borrowed from another language. Glass (gurasu – wine glass, and garasu – material) and heroin/ heroine (hiroin – heroine, and heroin- heroin) also look like one of the two might be borrowings from other languages.

Hamburger is a strange one as hambaagu (hamburger patty/ hamburger steak) would be the normal Japanese pronunciation of Hamburg, the normal pronunciation of hamburger (hambaaga) being a hamburger in a bun.

10. Other common changes that don’t fit above

the prefix de- is often pronounced de

defure – deflation

deforuto – default

ei sound occasionally changes to e

enjeru – angel (note the short first vowel)

epuron- apron

change – chenji

ka and ga sometimes changes to kya and gya

kyabin- cabin

kyappu – cap (of a bottle)

kyasshu – cash

gyappu- gap

gyararii- gallery/ spectators

but usually ka

karorii – calorie

11. Words that don’t fit any of the rules above

It is possible that some of these actually come from other languages, e.g. onsu, which is also the French pronunciation for ounce:

anchiteeze – antithesis

biza – visa (notice the short first vowel sound)

botan – button

daasu – dozen

deji- digital

howaito- white

kajino – casino (should be kashino according to the normal rules)

manee – money (note the long ei for the second vowel)

pengin – penguin (note the lack of w sound)

purofiiru – profile (note the long ii sound)

ruuzu – loose (z rather than s sound, so sounds more like lose)

ryuumachi – rheumatism

seetaa – sweater (note the missing w sound)

sutajiamu – stadium (note the short first vowel sound)

sutajio – studio (note the a for apple sound instead of oo in food in English)

sutekki – stick/ cane (note the e sound)

tero – terror/ terrorism (note the short second vowel sound)

ton – tone (note the short o sound)

tonneru – tunnel (note the o sound)

uokka – vodka

yuumoa – humour (note the y in place of h)

yuumorasu – humorous

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
September 2010 | Filed under Home and Abroad
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

5 Comments on “Pronunciation changes in Japanese English”

  1. Oli Dammacco Says:

    Very insightful Alex, but I wanted to mention one thing:

    Meter/metre (as in 100cm) is usually me-ta- (メーター), using the Latin /e/ when saying the word ‘beta’.

    Another phenomenon (though off-point perhaps) that seems to occur in Japanese pronunciation of English is when learners decide to drop the final vowel, when in fact, it needs to be there e.g. the ‘o’ is usually dropped in ‘Orlando’.

  2. Alex Case Says:

    Thanks Oli

    Meetaa does have both meanings, but I just Googled “100 メートル” and “100メーター” and the former was 20 times more common. Also in square metres, it seems to be the only option

    Good point about the overcompensating and losing the final o, also common in “Toront” in Canada

  3. Xavier Says:

    Great post. I’m using it as a reference in my class.
    About the last thing Oli mentions, that’s one of my pet peeves :)

    It can even happen for people’s names. I had one guy who insisted on pronouncing his name “sehj”. As you can guess, his name is Seiji. I joked, telling him he would go well in a dish with chicken and cream sauce.

  4. Alex Case Says:

    I was right to suspect some of the ones in the last section come from other languages. Apparently botan (button) comes from Portuguese botao:

    http://www.waseieigo.com/30hogyou.html

    That site is a great resource if you read Japanese, btw. Will try to add all the ones from there that I missed to my various articles here eventually

  5. ziqian Says:

    Beaucoup merci!
    Your article is very useful~ I search a lot of websites and I can’t find some helpful materials until I read your specific anlayse!

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