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I was on the phone with NTT the other day and things were going well (or as good as they could), until I had to spell some email address for the customer rep, and fell upon the letter 'Z'.

Instinctively, I went with 'zed' as a pronunciation, which seemed to stumble the NTT lady, so I tried a 'zee', which did not seem to elicit more comprehension...

Eventually, after trying a few more variations, I had to give up and was told to send that piece of info by email (a rather silly situation, considering I had just been giving and receiving bits of information in Japanese for 15 minutes until that point).

According to Wikipedia, pretty much any pronunciation goes:

Z; Zetto, zeddo, or zī (ゼット, ゼッド, or ズィー, though sometimes pronounced jī, ジー)

It is very possible that, while trying to figure which of the two common native pronunciations to use, I omitted to stress the second mora enough (saying 'zed' instead of a frank 'zeddo' or 'zetto'). But I'm still a bit surprised that she would stumble on this particular instance.

In your experience, is there a more common/natural pronunciation of the letter 'Z' in Japanese? Any circumstances that might dictate the choice of either?

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I always thought ゼッド was pretty common too, but I wonder if you could also say something like ざじずぜぞのゼッド to help elicit the correct letter or if that would be even more confusing... –  atlantiza Jul 2 '12 at 3:31
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「ロマ字の最後の文字のゼッド」...? I know this isn't addressing the real meat of your question (which is about what would be the most commonly accepted way to say it), but for anyone finding accent or stress issues when trying to convey alphabet characters, I find the most reliable method is to convey the sequence. 「エー、ビー、シーのビー」 to convey B and not V, for instance. 「エックス、ワイ、ゼッドのゼッド」 would have been my approach on the phone. –  Dave M G Jul 2 '12 at 4:29
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For the benefit of those who learnt English as a second language, Americans use "zee" to pronounce "z", whereas Australians and British people use "zed". This might explain why both zeddo and zī exist, though I don't know why they'd use "Zetto" rather than Zeta. –  Andrew Grimm Jul 2 '12 at 12:49
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@AndrewGrimm Devoicing is seen regularly in borrowing. For example, "bed" is either ベッド or ベット. "bag" is バッグ or バック. Greek is irrelevant. –  sawa Jul 4 '12 at 14:06
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted
  • ゼット is the most common pronunciation for Z.
  • ズィー is used by younger generation or by realists, but elderly and conservative people may not understand it.
  • ゼッド is rare. Actually, I have never heard of it.

Traditionally, there are several English alphabet letters that are pronounced departing from mere transcription of the sound. They are

  • デー (DEe, HL) for D
  • エッチ (Ecchi, HLL) for H
  • ブイ (BUi, HL) for V
  • エッキス (Ekkisu, HLLL) for X
  • ゼット (ZEtto, HLL) for Z

I (as well as many people) thought that they (particularly D and Z) are mixture of German pronunciations, but that does not necessarily seem to be the case. It may have come from some British English dialect.

  1. Among them, the following have almost replaced the old forms in present Japanese:

    • エイチ (Eichi, HLL) for H
    • エックス (Ekkusu, HLLL) for X

    Thus, the old form エッチ will imply "sexuality" and エッキス is used mostly to refer to the variable x by some mathematicians dragging the old habit (There is a rumour that this pronunciation エッキス can be traced back to a certain academic school, which happens to be my alma mater. Not sure of the credibility).

  2. Younger people or "realists" will pronounce

    • ディー (DIi, HL) for D
    • ズィー (ZIi, HL) for Z
      but aged or conservative people will not necessarily understand them. デー and ゼット are the most widely comprehenced pronunciations.
  3. For V, there is a more realistic pronunciation:

    • ヴィー (VIi, HL) for V
      but I don't think this is much popular yet.
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I think that エッチ for H and ブイ for V are in a similar situation to デー and ゼット. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 2 '12 at 10:17
    
@TsuyoshiIto Incorporated your comment. –  sawa Jul 2 '12 at 10:42
    
Thanks for the very complete answer. If you don't mind, it would be perhaps good to summarise the relevant part (concerning 'Z'/'zetto'/'zee') at the beginning... –  Dave Jul 3 '12 at 2:03
    
@Dave Thanks for the improvement. I added the summary for Z. –  sawa Jul 3 '12 at 8:07
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I hate to bring anime into this reply but all Japanese people I have met know the pronunciation "zetto", and all of them have heard of Dragon Ball Z. Which in Japanese is "Doragon Bo-ru Zetto". I work in a Junior High School in Japan and whenever students don't understand "zee" if I say "zetto" or even "zeddo" they understand immediately what letter I mean - even 6 year olds in Elementary School,a fact I would attribute to Dragon Ball Z.

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Valid point. Damn, why didn't I think of saying 「ドラゴンボールゼットのゼット」... –  Dave Jul 3 '12 at 2:01
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