|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. Katakana is phonetic, so a katakana transcription of an English word is based on how the word sounds, not how it is spelt. This page discusses ways to search for katakana versions of English words, and the rules for katakana transcription.
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. Other tricks are explained in How can I find the Japanese name of a film, person, plant, etc.?
Transcribing an English word into Japanese depends on how the word is heard by native speakers. The rules are complex. Some Japanese versions of English words, such as guzzu for "goods", are not intuitive to English speakers. Some Japanese representations are based on spelling as well as pronunciation. For example the Japanese monkii (モンキー) for English "monkey" would be mankii (マンキー) if the Japanese was based on the pronunciation, mʌŋki in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA symbols), alone.
Plurals usually become singular, thus "pyjamas" becomes pajama, and "slippers" becomes suripaa. Thus in Japan shops sell "Book" and "CD" rather than "Books" and "CDs". Sometimes singular also becomes plural, as in furūtsu for "fruit".
Words with existing gairaigo forms usually keep that form. For example, "black coffee" becomes burakku kōhii, even though kōhii for coffee originally comes from Dutch (see Which Japanese words come from Dutch?). Sometimes this doesn't happen. "Beer garden" becomes bia gāden (ビアガーデン), although the Japanese word for beer is biiru (ビール), from Dutch (see Which Japanese words come from Dutch?).
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 "far" and ɜː in "fur" both become Japanese ā.
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, although there are some exceptions, such as kariforunia (カリフォルニア) for the American state of California.
The following table outlines the rules for transcribing English sounds. The English sounds are represented in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) form.
|English sound (IPA)||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 (monkii, 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||アー, ア aa, a||car||カー (kā)|
|iː||イー: ii||shield||シールド (shiirudo)|
|ɔː||オー: oo||horse||ホース (hōsu)|
|oa||オア: door||ドア (doa)|
|ɜː||アー: aa||bird||バード (bādo)|
|uː||ウー ū||shoe||シュー (shū)|
|juː||ュウ yū, see What is yōon?||cube||キューブ (kyūbu)|
|eɪ||エイ, ei||day||デイ (dei)|
|aɪ||アイ, ai||my||マイ (mai)|
|ɔɪ||オーイ, ōi||boy||ボーイ (bōi)|
|オイ, oi||toy||トイ (toi)|
|əʊ||オ, o||phone||フォン (fon)|
|オー, ō||no||ノー (nō)|
|aʊ||アウ, au||now||ナウ (nau)|
|ɪə||イア, ia||pierce||ピアス (piasu)|
|ɛə||エア, ea||hair||ヘア (hea)|
|ʊə||ウアー, uaa||tour||ツアー (tsuā)|
|θ||シャ, シ, シュ, シェ, ショ s||think||シンク (shinku)|
|r||ラ, リ, ル, レ, ロ: r-kana||right||ライト (raito)|
|l||ラ, リ, ル, レ, ロ: r-kana||link||リンク (rinku)|
|ŋ spelt "ng"||ンガ, ンギ ng||singer||シンガー (shingā)|
|ン, n (occasionally)||Washington, surfing||ワシントン, サーフィン (washinton, sāfin)|
|ŋ spelt "nk" or "nc"||n||sink||シンク (shinku)|
|ヴァ, ヴィ, ヴ, ヴェ, ヴォ: v, written as ヴ (the u katakana) plus a small vowel||visual||ヴィジュアル (vijuaru)|
|Consonants taking small vowel kana|
|w||ウィ: u + small vowel kana||win||ウィン (win)|
|f||ファ, フィ, フ, フェ, フォ: hu + small vowel kana||fight||ファイト (faito)|
|Special consonant and vowel combinations|
|ti, di||ティ, ディ (te or de + small i) (newer method)||Disney||ディズニー (dizunii)|
|chi, ji (older method)|
|tu||トゥ: to + small u (newer method)||Tourette's syndrome||トゥレットシンドローム (turettoshindorōmu)|
|ツ: tsu||two||ツー (tsū)|
|dz||ッズ zzu||goods, kids||グッズ, キッズ (guzzu, kizzu)|
|Label from a children's toy |
"funky monkey buggy"
Although most of the conversion from an English word into Japanese is based on the pronunciation, in several cases the pronunciation is based on spelling. In particular the schwa sound, the "uh" at the end of "doctor", has no near equivalent in Japanese and so is usually transcribed depending on the spelling of the vowel. Other cases where spelling takes precedence include the ʌ vowel, the "u" in "cup" and "hut", which is usually a, but when spelt with an o becomes o. For example "monkey" is monkii rather than mankii. Japanese also lengthens n sounds, such as Anna (アンナ) for the English name Anna, when they are spelt with two ns.
In some cases, a mis-reading of a word survives into Japanese. For example, the woodworking tool "router", which should have become rautā, is known as a rūtā, based on the spelling.
Japanese tends to shorten three-mora constructions ending in syllabic n (ん) into two moras. For example "stainless steel" becomes sutenresu (ステンレス) rather than suteinresu (ステインレス).
In the case of people's names, Japanese tends to transcribe into near-equivalent versions not based on the pronunciation. For example, the English name Sarah is often transcribed into Sara (サラ) rather than Sērā (セーラー). For example American politician Sarah Palin is known as Sara Peirin (サラ・ペイリン) in Japan. Naomi is transcribed into Naomi (ナオミ), a common Japanese female name with a similar romanized spelling but different pronunciation, rather than Nēomi, a much closer representation of the pronunciation. For example British model Naomi Campbell is known as Naomi Kyamberu (ナオミ・キャンベル) in Japan. Similarly, Thomas is transcribed as Tōmasu using a long first vowel, and even more extremely, Paul may be transcribed into Paoro.
Copyright © 1994-2018 Ben Bullock
If you have questions, corrections, or comments, please contact Ben Bullock or use the discussion forum / Privacy