Now-a-days, it’s commonplace to point and laugh at someone’s craptastic use of a foreign language, especially when it’s something ingrained into the culture-like someone meaningfully says Tortilla as ‘Tor-till-a’. This is particularly true of Japanese usage of English (let’s face it, though; all of us have been guilty of using foreign terms to sound cool at some point in our lives, like the guy who learns about 5 phrases of French to impress the opposite sex). Their usage has yielded many ways for people to poke fun at/fetishize ‘em, most popularly through tons of needless adjectives (e.g. Mega Yummy Fun Fun Handstand) and incredibly awkward grammar and pronunciation, which Engrish.com documents for posterity (for other countries, too!).
Whether it’s to be ironic, cute or mean-as the mixing up of R and L sounds are meant to be, towards Asians-it’s not something that was made out of thin air; all those horrible, horrible assumptions and uses had to be formed from some manifestation of it observed in the real world. This is why people around the world are likely to see the typical American as an aggressive, out-of-shape meathead that couldn’t pronounce a foreign term to save their life, as well as why American and other cultures sees Japan as they do (i.e. weird, anal retentive perfectionists). All that begs the question: why do people struggle with it, even after years of study and practice?
The short version is that when we first learn it, the knowledge makes its initial trip through the filter of how we’ve said stuff all our lives. Encountering brand new sounds, like the つ sound is for many students of Japanese and the L, TH and countless others are to those studying English, can amp up the confusion, more so the moment informal language and dialects come into play. Likewise, the way we say certain things can become so collectively ingrained that it becomes tough to recognize if it’s said another way, like how colonel would be said in American English (which is much like the world kernel). Japanese pronunciation of foreign terms falls square into this category, and knowing how to say it their way will fill a major gap in communication and understanding, in terms of vocabulary and introducing terms specific to our language and lifestyle (For example, take the words RomCom, Bromance and Grinding). With that established, let’s kick it off with some basic principles.
In case you need a refresher on the subject, here’s what makes Japanese phonetics-or the study and naming of the sounds our mouths make-work: its center is formed around short syllables called Mora.
What does that mean for a student of the language?
For one, that means every single sound is considered a Mora. This includes brief pauses in a word’s pronunciation (like in the word ‘しっかり’, which has many meanings relating to firmness, one popular sentiment being ‘get your mind right’) and extended vowels, such as in the words ‘名作 (めいさく) [Masterpiece]’ and ‘通 (とお) り [generally means street]’-by the way, if you ever feel up to trying Japanese poetry forms, this rule applies there, too. Now, when this principle is applied to foreign words, all those blended sounds we learned as kids, like those in the words small, flame and brave, are broken apart the way we were taught to say ‘em: by their bits and pieces.
Take, if you will, the term Scrumdidiliumptious. If it caught you off guard, you’d start breaking it down into easily digestible chunks, much like you’d tackle a hunk of fresh off the grill porterhouse, so you could stow it away and savor it (this would be my breakdown of the term: S-Cuh-Rum-Dih-Dih-Lih-Ump-Tih-Ous). Japanese breakdown of foreign terms have a similar mindset, but with a different eye for a details, such as the first two letters of the aforementioned term having their Mora assigned to them (which are determined by attaching an appropriate vowel to the letter to match how they feel comfy saying it, the process, itself, known as either Anaptyxis or vowel epenthesis, depending on who you ask). That would make the ‘Scrum’ part sound out in a more familiar fashion, as shown here: ス(s) ク(c) ラ (ru) ン(m)
After you learn to break words down this way, find which Japanese Mora best fit in line with the word’s original pronunciation, so Japanese speakers can get a better grip on it. Generally, you’ll get into the habit of inserting the appropriate vowel-which is often either u or i-after breaking it down, but here are a few pointers to get you off on the right foot.
When you see the letter S not followed by a vowel-like in Scramble-, use ‘ス’ to render it(If it’s a hard S sound, like in Rosa, use ズ to render it). When S is followed by an H-like the words shell and sham-you’d use the Mora the word’s sound calls for (So Shag would be rendered as ‘シャッグ’). The same principle applies to the letters C and K-using ク to render ‘em when they’re not followed by a vowel and the appropriate Mora when they’re followed by an H (thus rendering Champloo as ‘チャンプル’). Likewise, when B, P or F aren’t followed by a vowel or H, ブ (for B), プ (for P), or フ (for F) are used, making names like Brad into ブラッド, Preston into プレストン and Fran into フラン. With practice and listening to other Japanese speakers using foreign terms, you’ll get a better grip on it, but to help you speed up the process, let’s take a more detailed look at the process, starting with some of the sounds not present in Japanese. (coming very soon!)
- Everything counts as a Mora
- Breaking words up the Japanese way will help you pronounce it their way
- After breaking it up, attach the necessary vowels to find the pronunciation
- When no vowels follow S, C/K, B, P or F, ス(S), ク(C/K), ブ(B), プ(P) or フ(F) are used to render it
- Hard S sound->ズ (EX: Rose->ローズ)
- When H follows either of those, use an appropriate Mora to render it