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katakana konfusion pt III

"I think katakana’s the worst thing ever invented! That’s why they can’t pronounce English words!" OK, so that statement is a bit extreme, but it’s something that a coworker of mine actually said. The logic seems to go like this: "Japanese people pronounce English words in a funny way, and English words sound funny written in katakana, therefore katakana must be the culprit." Before discussing whether this point of view is valid or not, it’s necessary to get some understanding of the differences between Japanese and English pronunciation. First, there is the issue I mentioned below: English allows several consonants per syllable while Japanese allows only one. Then, there is the related issue that all Japanese consonants except for the nasal "n" sound must be followed by vowels. That’s where all those extra vowel sounds at the end of words come from: why "salad" becomes "sarada," for example. The consonant issues are well-known: the single sound occupying the space between "l" and "r" has long been a source of jokes, both witty and otherwise. Japanese also lacks both of the English "th" sounds, the sound represented by "si" in "Asia," and the "v" sound as well, though the latter does seem to be creeping into the speech of some Japanese. Other Japanese sounds like the "f" in "Fuji," and the "z" in "Zen" are different from their English counterparts. Less well-known are the lack of certain vowel-consonant combinations. For example, Japanese usually distinguishes between "s" and "sh" clearly, but not before the vowel /i/. This accounts for the infamous and probably apocryphal story of the Japanese college student in the US who asked "Where should I sit?" and was rewarded with a shocked look from her professor. Another example is the "t" and "ts" sound. Many katakana words end in /u/, which can be "devoiced," making, for example, the "u" in "basu" and "kurasu" nearly inaudible. This reduces the issue of having extra vowel sounds popping up at the end of words. The problem is, Japanese has no syllable pronounced /tu/–it’s "ta, chi, TSU, te, to"–so words like "fruiT" "donuT" and "suiT" become "fruuTSu," "doonaTSu," and "suuTSu": permanently plural to English ears. This is why you will hear sentences like "I’m wearing a suits." The biggest difference between Japanese and English pronunciation involves vowels. Most English dialects have more than 20 vowels sounds, but Japanese has only five. That means that when words are borrowed from English into Japanese, a lot of reduction needs to take place. For example, here is a list of words that Japanese happens to share with English: bUs, bAR, sOccER, plAza, stAff. In the dialect of English that I speak, the vowels written in capitalized letters are all different from each other. Let’s try it in Japanese: bAsu, bAA, sAkkA, purAza, sutAffu. In Japanese, all 6 vowels sounds are rendered as one sound: /a/. Actually, there is more variation than that, since /a/ and other Japanese vowels have long (/aa)/ and short (/a/) forms. Still, to untrained English ears, the capitalized vowels in the Japanese words above all sound the same. What all of this means is that when Japanese people learn English, they have to learn to make and differentiate between a very large number of sounds and combinations of sounds that don’t exist in their native language. Of course, like foreign-language learners everywhere, they do this to varying degrees of success. The term "katakana English" is often applied to the pronunciation of those who haven’t learned to distinguish many of these sounds, as they pronounce English words as if they were written in katakana, and are particularly apt to do this when pronouncing katakana words like "basu" or "suutsu" that Japanese has borrowed from English. So, there does seem to be a relationship between katakana vocabulary and mispronounced English. Whether it is katakana that is CAUSING these mispronunciations, however, is another story entirely. I’ll address that question in the next installation.