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Japan Fun Fact #3

November 28th, 2004

Some words get bounced back and forth between languages. A good example of this is karaoke. The word is a combination of the Japanese “kara,” meaning “empty” (as in karate, or ’empty hand’) and the English “orchestra,” shortened in Japanese to “oke,” the Japanization–minus the “r”–of the first two syllables of the word. (When compound foreign words are used in Japanese, each element is typicallly shortened to two syllables, as in “seku-hara” for “sexual harassment.”) As a result, we get a hybrid Japanese-English word, karaoke.

What’s funny is that when the word gets mangled even further when brought back into English. The original Japanese word is pronounced “kah-rah-oh-keh.” In English, it gets pronounced “carry-okie,” with the English “orchestra” bent almost beyond recognition.

Not that this kind of bending of Japanese pronunciation in English is uncommon. Many Japanese words spoken by English speakers are unrecognizable to Japanese people. Saké is pronounced sah-keh, not sah-kee. Kamikaze is pronounced kah-mee-kah-ZEH, not kah-mah-KAH-zee. And “harry-carry” is a completely mangled form of “hara-kiri,” pronounced “hah-rah-kee-ree,” with hard “r”s. But we do pronounce tsunami, sushi and tabi correctly. Though “Mt. Fuji-san” is redundant, as “san” means “Mt.”

Just so you know.

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  1. Errol
    January 27th, 2006 at 21:45 | #1

    I usually hear tsunami as sunami from Americans.

  2. Luis
    January 27th, 2006 at 22:51 | #2

    Ah, but is that due to their pronunciation or to your hearing? We can often be deaf to the distinctions as well, or expect stronger pronunciation than is necessary. Have you ever heard a Japanese say the word? To an American ear, it’s barely distinguishable.

    In any case, when I brought up those examples, I was not thinking about such subtle variations in pronunciation, but rather gross ones. As far as fine distinctions go, we pronounce “Fuji” incorrectly. It’s not really an “f,” which is a labio-dental sound, instead a bi-labial sound, closer to “h” than “f.” “Bonsai” is a more intermediate screwup for Americans, who often pronounce it like “banzai,” a completely different word (correct is “bone-sigh”). But what we say is close enough, as with “sunami”–although we do spell that correctly, which means that we know there’s a “ts” sound, as opposed to how we butcher “kamikaze” and “hara-kiri.”

  3. DonDon
    May 19th, 2007 at 00:45 | #3

    I am sorry about the timing of this post but I had the same feeling about Jima and Shima. Iwo Jima means Iwo island not Iwo Jima island. I see that a lot and it just drives me nuts.

  4. Luis
    May 20th, 2007 at 09:38 | #4

    You mean like some people say “Mt. Fujiyama”?

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