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Monday, April 25, 2011

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Manglenese: Pronouncing Foreign Terms through Japanese Phonetics(part 2)

There are abundance of factors that make English a dense language to learn, from words written far differently from how they’re spoken-including the name of my chosen major, Psychology-to the fact that there 2 ways to learn the complete language, American English and The Queen’s English. For Japanese speaking students and others, one of the major factors out of the bunch is learning brand new kinds of sounds, particularly the ‘Th’, ‘V’ & ‘L’ sounds. The L sound has been a long standing sticking point because it’s formed almost the precise way Japanese R sounds, which involve the tip of the tongue flicking the roof of the mouth.
The main difference, for those not privy to the mechanics, is this: the L sound places the tongue’s tip for the beginning and middle parts of forming the sound, where the Japanese R sound only places it there for the middle portion (assuming it’s the crisp type of R sound, and not the soft, growl-like R familiar to English speakers). It takes lots of time, lots of practice and lots of getting wrong to ingrain these into the tongue’s muscle memory; as anyone ridiculed for not sounding like a native speaker will tell you, it can shred on your nerves when you have to learn it all from scratch.
Consequently, since L sounds aren’t part of their phonetics, R sounds are used to render words like Light(ライト) and Lonely(ロンリ)-Side Note: ロンリ is a fairly popular way to mock Japanese nerds and Japanophiles, mainly among other Japanophiles-in-denial.
V sounds, similarly, weren’t around when the language was first forged and honed, so an approximate Mora is employed to render ‘em, namely the Japanese B sounds, with words like Valve (バルブ) and Volleyball(バレーボール). However, unlike L sounds in Japanese, a way to render actual V sounds was constructed for Va(ヴァ), Vu(ヴ), Ve(ヴェ) and Vo(ヴォ) Mora, for those who want use sounds closer to the language the word comes from. When and where you should use each one will come with experience and chatting with Japanese-speaking friends, but the general rule of thumb is to use Japanese ‘B’ sounds to render V sounds(since the other can be construed as cocky, much the same way insisting someone pronounce Champagne as Cham-Pan-Ye can be construed as cocky)
Speaking of context, the way ‘Th’ sounds are rendered depends on how the word is spoken (or in other words, sounds over spelling, a key principle to remember when sounding foreign words in Japanese). Japanese ‘S’ sounds, for example, are used to render softer sounding ‘Th’ sounds, like those in thunder (サンダー) and thumbnail (サムネイル). Harder sounding ‘Th’ sounds, in contrast, require Japanese ‘Z’ sounds, as they render words like the () and smooth (スムーズ) more faithfully. If this seems a bit mind boggling, you be sure that it can be, for Japanese speakers, as well, especially when they render it from Japanese Mora into Roman lettering (I.E. trying to determine if サウザー is written as Souser, Souther, or Thouther, or any variation therein).
In case you’re wondering, this is as tough as it’ll get, in terms of saying foreign terms in Japanese, so once get this down, the rest’ll be a cakewalk (the other sounds unique to English, like Germinate Consonants, will discussed at a later time). That in mind, we’ll now move on to the sounds Japanese shares with other language.
Key Takeaways
  • L Sounds->Japanese R Sounds (EX: Lyger->ライガー)
  • V Sounds->Japanese B Sounds (EX: Visa->ビザ)
  • The Japanese language has it’s V Mora (Va(ヴァ), Vu(ヴ), Ve(ヴェ)and Vo(ヴォ))
  • Soft Th Sounds->Japanese S Sounds (EX: Bertha->バーサ)
  • Hard Th Sounds->Japanese Z Sounds (EX: Smooth->スムーズ)


  1. Interesting read. Did not know about the "th" replacements sa and za

  2. Neither did I, until my source on the matter told me about it. Lots of interesting things about the way certain sounds are rendered (and this isn't even including the unique sounds from other languages!-which I unfortunate can't get to, as of now, since I'm mostly focused on the the pronunciation of English words for this article series)