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I love katakana, mostly because of how the characters look. But I am constantly baffled by why certain loan words from English are constructed using certain katakana sounds.

For example, if someone asked me to say "energy" in Japanese, I would have guessed エナジー or maybe エネルジー...but definitely not エネルギー. Same with "cake": ケーク sounds more natural than ケーキ. I understand that there are clearly many cases where there isn't an obvious "best fit" for certain words, but often it feels like some loan words pick the worst or least-likely sounds.

Who or what decides what loan words will sound like? Is there a governmental office that takes part in this? Seemingly, since a lot of loan words are from English, a Japanese-English speaker would be able to best form a loan word.

Am I reading too much into this? :)

EDIT: To be clear, I don't want to come across as, "How dare Japanese not try to perfectly pronounce loan words from my language!" It's more like, "Hm. I wonder why they say it this way when it's pretty easy to make a more accurate-sounding word."

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+1 because people are allowed to make wrong assumptions here without silly accusations being levelled at them, followed by down votes and close votes to a question that has generated useful discussion. –  ジョン Apr 26 '12 at 1:40
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Also upvoting because of hostility against the OP. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 26 '12 at 3:43
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no offense but i really wanted someone to make a gag answer for this question...like yes there is someone with the job to make katakana words.....what would that guy's job title be? that dude would probably be such a trip to hang out with! :D –  yadokari Apr 26 '12 at 4:49
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a Japanese-English speaker would be able to best form a loan word. You're making the mistake that Katakana should reflect the original pronunciation of the language it originated from. Imagine if you mandated everyone in America to pronounce "karaoke" the original way it is pronounced in Japanese, language doesn't work like that. –  Jesse Good Apr 26 '12 at 6:48
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@LucasTizma: I understand your reasoning now. However, like any language, there is a natural tendency to use certain combinations of sounds, and if a word does not fit that pattern, then it is "adjusted" accordingly. Basically, what you are saying ("it should match as closely to the original") is going against the grain of nature. –  Jesse Good Apr 26 '12 at 7:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The second paragraph can be answered in large part by What changes are made to the pronunciation of gairaigo? and by Less-approximate and more-approximate forms of loan words and by Different transcriptions for words with related origin .

As for the third paragraph, Wikipedia says the Agency for Cultural Affairs (文化庁) at the Ministry of Education of Japan (文部科学省) plays a role in language regulation. I don't know whether it influences spelling of words. I know that it deprecated hentaigana and certain kanji.

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I don't see why it would have to be a high-rep user asking it... –  atlantiza Apr 26 '12 at 4:40
    
+1: The other answers don't actually answer the question. There are meetings held every year to regulate loan words and neologisms including the spelling. –  Jesse Good Apr 26 '12 at 6:34
    
@Andrew Grimm Wow, thanks for those resources. I'll take a look. –  LucasTizma Apr 26 '12 at 6:58
    
I've decided to ask a general-purpose question on how the language is regulated: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/5364/… –  Andrew Grimm Apr 28 '12 at 11:34

but I am constantly baffled by why certain loan words from English are constructed using certain katakana sounds.

Loan words do not necessarily need to be borrowed from English. In fact, most old loan words (in the 外来語 sense) were borrowed from Portuguese.

For example, if someone asked me to say "energy" in Japanese, I would have guessed エナジー or maybe エネルジー...but definitely not エネルギー.

The word エネルギー is borrowed from German Energie, not English energy. There is also the word エナジー which is borrowed from English energy, but it is not very common.

There are many factors that come into effect when borrowing words. Other than the source language, another is spelling: some loan words are based on the original spelling rather pronunciation. Presumably the original speakers only know the spelling and have no access to native speakers to base the Japanese on.

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Very interesting! Yes, I do realize that not all of them are of English origin. I guess I should check on that before making judgments. :) –  LucasTizma Apr 25 '12 at 22:06
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+1 for mentioning that it can be based on spelling instead of how it actually sounds –  atlantiza Apr 25 '12 at 22:51
    
@LucasTizma Don't worry, I made the same mistake, only with the word "virus" japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/2147/… –  Andrew Grimm Apr 26 '12 at 4:05
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+1 for " most old loan words (in the 外来語 sense) were borrowed from Portuguese" history for the win. –  Jamie Taylor Apr 26 '12 at 7:46

No one decides really.

Japanese people construct them in the way that they hear them. However this can differ from listener to listener and speaker to speaker.

So some loan words that have been in use for a long time have accepted "spellings" however others my have multiple spellings in use, possibly even several dictionary entries.

Remember you could ask the same about English. Why "tuna" and not "tsuna". Why pronounce the eh sound at the end of "karaoke", "sake", "karate", etc as E? And so on.

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I definitely had in mind your last point that languages often assimilate borrowed words into their own "format", but I figure—and I'm no linguist—that Japanese is a largely phonetic language, whereas English isn't. So I could see the argument made that how we pronounce loan words is expected to be different. In my opinion, I feel like loan words in a phonetic-based language should just match as closely to the original word's pronunciation as possible, given the native syllabary. My $0.02, anyway. :) –  LucasTizma Apr 25 '12 at 22:09
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No one decides really. Well, actually the government regulates a lot of the words. –  Jesse Good Apr 26 '12 at 6:29
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Not sure I understand the "tuna" example... why would it be "tsuna"? –  dainichi Apr 26 '12 at 8:51
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@Jesse No they do. The government can't regulate the use of the language beyond official documents and the minimum requirement for education. There is no rule stating "news papers can only use these words", or "books can't use these words". Japanese magazines are famous for just making up new katakana words. –  Ian Apr 26 '12 at 21:54
    
@dainichi some americans pronounce tuna like "tsuna" or "chuna". I think I mostly hear women say "tsuna" –  Mel Apr 27 '12 at 13:27

protected by snailboat Mar 13 '13 at 16:02

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