|sci.lang.japan FAQ / 5. Japanese and English|
|Turn English into katakana:|
|Barber's sign: English "thank you cut" |
has been transformed into "3 (san) Q"
Japanese usually writes words from English and other languages in katakana. See 1.1.9. What is katakana used for?. English spelling is not phonetic, in other words the spelling may not represent the way the word is pronounced. Japanese katakana is phonetic, so the katakana transcription of an English word is usually based on its pronunciation rather than its spelling.
The first place to look for a Japanese version of an English word is a dictionary, to find the usual katakana equivalent. If the word is not in the dictionary, try to find a Japanese person to help you. If you can't find anyone, appendix 1 of the book A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar contains a list of rules for transcribing English into Japanese. Other tricks are explained in 9.9. How can I find the Japanese name of a film, person, plant, etc.?. If all these fail, transcribing an English word into Japanese is tricky. It depends on how the word is heard by native speakers. Some Japanese versions of English words, such as guzzu for "goods", may not be intuitive to English speakers who don't know Japanese. Some Japanese representations are based on spelling as well as pronunciation. For example the Japanese monkii for English "monkey" would be mankii if the Japanese was based on the pronunciation alone.
Plurals usually become singular, thus "pyjamas" becomes pajama, "slippers" becomes suripaa, etc. Thus in Japan you will see shops selling "Book" and "CD" rather than "Books" and "CDs".
Words with existing Japanese gairaigo forms usually keep that form. For example, "black coffee" becomes burakku koohii, even though koohii for coffee originally comes from Dutch (see 4.4. Which Japanese words come from Dutch?). On the other hand, "beer garden" becomes bia gaaden, although the Japanese word for beer is biiru, from German (see 4.3. Which Japanese words come from German?).
Japanese has fewer vowels than English, only five, and thus multiple English vowels may turn into the same Japanese vowels. For example, both the English vowel æ in "thank" and the vowel ʌ in "cut" become the Japanese a vowel. Similarly, long vowels such as ɑː in "car" and ɜː in "cur" both become Japanese aa.
Japanese has tended to favour British pronunciations, with words like "vitamin", becoming a British-sounding bitamin (ビタミン) rather than American-sounding baitamin (バイタミン). The vowels used in Japanese are usually taken from the British (southern English) pronunciation rather than the American. The rhotic "r" of some forms of English is almost never represented in Japanese.
|English sound||Japanese||Examples|| Japanese transcription
Capitals indicate small kana
|ɪ||イ, i||pit||ピット (pitto)|
|ɛ||エ, e||pet||ペット (petto)|
|æ||ア, a||ham||ハム (hamu)|
|æ after k||キャ, kya||cap||キャップ (kyappu)|
|ʌ||ア, a||mug||マグ (magu)|
|ʌ spelt with an "o"||オ, o (sometimes)||monkey, front, London||モンキー, フロント, ロンドン (monkī, furonto, rondon)|
|ɒ||オ, o||socks||ソックス (sokkusu)|
|ʊ||ウ, u||book||ブック (bukku)|
|Schwa (weak vowel)|
|non-final ə||not fixed, based on spelling.||about, pilot, London||アバウト, パイロット, ロンドン (abauto, pairotto, rondon)|
|final position ə||aa||carrier, hamburger||キャリアー, ハンバーガー (kyariā, hambāgā)|
|ɑː||aa, a||car||カー (kā)|
|ŋ spelt "ng"||ng||singer||シンガー (shingā)|
|n (occasionally)||Washington, surfing||ワシントン, サーフィン (washinton, sāfuIn)|
|ŋ spelt "nk" or "nc"||n||sink||シンク (shinku)|
|v, written as ヴ (the u katakana) plus a small vowel||visual||ヴィジュアル (vuIjuaru)|
|Consonants taking small vowel kana|
|w||u + small vowel kana||win||ウィン (uIn)|
|f||hu + small vowel kana||fight||ファイト (fuAito)|
|Special consonant and vowel combinations|
|ti, di||ティ, ディ (te or de + small i) (newer method)||Disney||ディズニー (deIzunī)|
|chi, ji (older method)|
|tu||to + small u (newer method)||Tourette's syndrome||トゥレットシンドローム (toUrettoshindorōmu)|
|Label from a children's toy |
"funky monkey buggy"
In some cases, a mis-reading of a word survives into Japanese. For example, the woodworking tool "router", which should have become rautaa, is universally known as a ruutaa, based on the spelling.
Japanese tends to transcribe into near-equivalent versions not based on the pronunciation. For example, the English name Sarah is often transcribed into Sara rather than seeraa. Naomi is transcribed into Naomi, a common Japanese female name with a similar romanized spelling but different pronunciation, rather than neeomi, a much closer representation of the pronunciation. Similarly, Thomas is transcribed as Toomasu using a long first vowel, and even more extremely, Paul may be transcribed into Paoro.
For people who want to transcribe their katakana names into kanji, for instance for the purpose of making a hanko (判子) (Japanese seal used in place of a signature), the book Write your name in kanji may be useful, or just use the index of any kanji dictionary to find things that fit your name. Note however that registered seals (the ones needed for house or car purchases) are required to show exactly the same name as is written on your alien registration card. See 9.8. How do the Japanese sign their names?.
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