Saturday October 2, 2004

Kerry Okie

As described in a story on All Things Considered earlier today, Daisuke Inoue won this years Ignobel Peace Prize for the invention of karaoke. If you listen to his acceptance speech by following the link above, clicking on the little audio icon, then fast-forwarding until 1:13, you can hear Mr. Inoue do an interesting thing: he pronounces karaoke [kaɾioki]—closer to the English pronunciation than to the Japanese.

The natural Japanese pronunciation would be [kaɾaoke], with a different second and fourth vowel. When this word (which is a compounded and abbreviated from [kaɾa] 'empty' and the loan word 'orchestra') was borrowed into English, those vowels changed to fit better into the sound pattern of English. In particular, the last vowel changed from [e] to [i] because English doesn't have the monophthongal [e], but instead of becoming the nearby [ɛ], it becomes [i] because English words generally don't end with a lax vowels like [æ], [ɛ], or [ɪ]. For this same reason, the Japanese word [sake] 'alcohol' is usually pronounced [saki] by English speakers, and you can hear the announcer do the same thing to the final vowel in Mr. Inoue's personal name if you rewind to about 0:45: [daisuki] instead of [daisɯ̥ke].

So, what Mr. Inoue has done is to pronounce a Japanese word borrowed into English using the English pronunciation. As a native English speaker studying Japanese, I often find myself torn between using the English pronunciation of loan words like tsunami, samurai, and sukiyaki and using the Japanese pronunciation—I don't want to be an accent pedant, but I also don't want to pronounce them wrong! In a way, the choice is obvious, and I'm already making it when I speak Japanese: I use the Japanese pronunciation for loan words like /conpyuuta/ 'computer' and /guruupu/ 'group' instead of insisting on the English pronunciation. Mr. Inoue has opened my eyes, and from now on I'm going to try relax and use the English pronunciation for loan words from Japanese. Except maybe when I'm trying to show off in restaurants...

I wonder, by the way, if Mr. Inoue actually speaks English or if he's reading a speech that someone transcribed phonetically for him. I'm not sure based only on the short clip above, but his "You see?" around 1:41 sounds pretty spontaneous, so maybe he really is speaking extemporaneously.

[Now playing: "You Really Got Me" by Van Halen]

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I find I tend to use somewhat mixed pronounciations of Japanese words that have made their way into English. I tend to preserve the palatalized consonants, instead of turning them into separate syllables, so ['to.kjo], rather than [']. I also tend to strive for accurate vowel values -- including devoicing where appropriate -- so I'm the lone voice saying ['] instead of ['].

I also get a bit weird about stress, as English speakers tend to place the stresses in spots that sound awful to my ears, having studied Japanese. Stressing "katana" on the middle syllable tends to tweak me.

I get less fussy about the English propensity to turn [t] and [d] into flaps, and I disregard vowel length concerns. The one vowel quality issue that I'm willing to disregard in English is the difference between the high rounded and high unrounded back vowels. The vast majority of English speakers can't hear the difference, and likely many Japanese speakers would forgive me (or maybe even not care that much, since Japanese doesn't distinguisn the two either). Same goes for the difference between the voiceless bilabial fricative and the voiceless labiodental fricative.

The things that I care about and disregard, though, are probably pretty arbitrary.

Oh, and no harm in showing off in restaurants.

Posted by: Erika at Oct 7, 2004 7:31:11 PM