What is the precise etymology of the word? Was it borrowed at the time when it was pronounced [hwait] or they just perceived it like that?

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    Some dialects of English still pronounce it like that! – Zhen Lin Oct 5 '14 at 17:58
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    Oh, like this? Thanks, now it makes sense! – katspaugh Oct 5 '14 at 18:41
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    books.google.com/… – snailplane Oct 5 '14 at 22:35
  • @snailboat, thanks! According to that book it sounds like [hw] is very widespread. – katspaugh Oct 6 '14 at 8:03
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    Just for your information, Soseki used ホワイト in this article, which is written in 1911. He had studied abroad in Great Britain from 1900 to 1903. Kafuu also used ホワイト in this article in 1916. – marasai Mar 8 '15 at 18:13

Yes, it is derived from English classical pronunciation wh /hw/. English wh + vowel is transcribed using ホワ /howa/, ホエ /hoe/, ホイ /hoi/ in Japanese.

( In other words, English wh /hw/ is transcribed as /how/ in Japanese, but loses its /w/ sound when followed by a vowel other than /a/, because only /a/ can follow /w/ in traditional modern Japanese.)

When English words were first introduced and sound transcription rules were gradually formed, they tried as far as possible to keep distinctive English sounds being distinctive in Japanese too.

At least, in this case, English wh /hw/ had to be transcribed as different from both English /f/ and /w/.

So, under the conservative phonetic system of those days, which only allowed syllables listed in traditional modern 五十音図, English /f/, /w/ and /hw/ became to be most likely rendered following rules as below:

  1. En. /f/ > Jp. /hu/ :
    e.g. fat フアット /huaQto/ -- fair フエア /huea/ -- fit フイット /huiQto/
  2. En. /w/ > Jp. /w/ before /a/, /u/ otherwise :
    e.g. watt ワット /waQto/ -- wear ウエア /uea/ -- wit ウイット /uiQto/
  3. En. /hw/ > Jp. /how/ before /a/, /ho/ otherwise :
    e.g. what ホワット /howaQto/ -- where ホエア /hoea/ -- whip ホイップ /hoiQpu/

Subsequently, as for lines #1 and #2 above, non-traditional sounds like ファット /FaQto/, フェア /Fea/, ウィット /wiQto/, etc. gradually came into use. But sounds of #3 seem to remain unchanged until now.

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Depending on where they are from, some native English speakers pronounce the "H" in "white". This reminds me of how Stewie from Family Guy pronounces Cool Whip.

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Tons of words that trickled into Japanese came first through European English.

Which is why things like cup/glass are "garasu" (because it sounds more like "gloss" ...coming from an American English vernacular)

Howaito probably came from the same path-of-travel... So when you look at words spelled in Katakana, the earlier they came into the Japanese lexicon, the more likely they are from Portuguese or Queen's English.

the more you know

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    I'm doubtful about some of the info in this answer. Wiktionary says that ガラス comes from the Dutch word glas, rather than English. – Andrew Grimm Mar 8 '15 at 6:57
  • Cool. So it came from Europe and not North America. – sova Mar 8 '15 at 7:01
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    A reminder to certain posters of deleted comments: whether you agree or disagree with someone, please be polite about it. – snailplane Mar 8 '15 at 11:35

Edit with some new info:

I happened to find some exciting info regarding this question which is supported by our National Television:

「信長 KING OF ZIPANGU」 ("Oda Nobunaga King of Zipangu"), historical drama. Broadcast by NHK in 1992.

You can watch it here on youtube with English subtitles. This is the national TV mainly focusing on Japanese history and Nobunaga Oda, who I personally love. I reccomend you watch it from the first episode and pay attention to what the narrator says.

As I proposed below, it says that many Portuguese language were "imported" during the mid 16th century by the Christian priests in the European continent at that time. And as the narrator himself says Japanese people took the European words as they would like to pronounce them.

For example, consider the word Christ, in Portuguese Cristo. At that time it was adopted by the Japanese as キリシト (today we call him キリスト). Zeus, in Portuguese Deus, was imported at that time as ダイウス (Daius, today ゼウス).

On a side note, it is quite interesting to see that the English word tempura was not merely imported from Japan, but that it had been imported from Portuguese first and then got exported to English.

Rules by the Ministry

From another point of view: the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is setting the rule.




5 「ファ」「フィ」「フェ」「フォ」は、外来音ファ、フィ、フェ、フォに対応する仮名である。

〔例〕 ファイル フィート フェンシング フォークダンス

バッファロー(地) フィリピン(地) フェアバンクス(地) カリフォルニア(地) ファーブル(人) マンスフィールド(人) エッフェル(人) フォスター(人)

注1 「ハ」「ヒ」「ヘ」「ホ」と書く慣用のある場合は、それによる。

〔例〕 セロハン モルヒネ プラットホーム ホルマリン メガホン

注2 「ファン」「フィルム」「フェルト」等は、「フアン」「フイルム」「フエルト」と書く慣用もある



「ファ」「フィ」「フェ」「フォ」 is not native to Japanese but came from outside Japan and thus should be written in Katakana.

Example: ファイル フィート フェンシング フォークダンス [File, Feet, Fencing, Folk-dance]

バッファロー(地) フィリピン(地) フェアバンクス(地) カリフォルニア(地) ファーブル(人)マンスフィールド(人) エッフェル(人) フォスター(人) [Buffalo (place), Philippine (country), Farebanks (place), California (place), Farbre (person), Mansfield (person), Eiffel (person), Foster (person)]

Note 1: If it is established practice to spell a word with「ハ」「ヒ」「ヘ」「ホ」, then do so.

Example: セロハン モルヒネ プラットホーム ホルマリン メガホン [cellophane, morphine, platform, formalin, mega-phone]

Note 2: There are some exceptions.

Example: ファン フィルム フェルト [fan, film, felt] are sometimes spelled フアン フイルム フエルト as well.

Unfortunately, ホワイト is not included in the list above. But if you scroll down, there is a list of examples beginning with ホ:


ホイットマン(人) ボウリング〔球技〕 ホース ボートレース ポーランド(地) ボーリングboring ボクシング ポケット ポスター ボストン(地) ボタン ボディー ホテル ホノルル(地) ボランティア ボルガ/ヴォルガ(地) ボルテール/ヴォルテール(人) ポルトガル(地) ホルマリン

The case of Koizumi Yakumo

So here's my guess for why the English white is written ホワイト instead of ファイト:

The case of Koizumi Yakumo and gives us a clue.

His original Greek name is Lafcadio Hearn. He should've been called ハーン, for Hearn.

However, when you take a look at the Japanese version of wikipedia, you find the following:



Since when he came to Japan and received the letter of appointment to teach at Shimane Prefectural Junior High school in Matsue city, the appointment letter wrote his name "Hearn" as ヘルン, thus he was called ヘルン and he seemed to have liked to be called that way.

パン and imported words

Now I'd like to talk about パン, in English bread.

パン came to Japan via Portuguese, they said pãon and pronunciation-wise this should have been パオン. To the Japanese ears, however, due to the different phonetics of the Japanese language, they took it as パン.


To summarize, I think due to the difference in how foreign words sounded to Japanese native speakers compared to speakers of the source language, the English white became ホワイト, not ファイト or something else. Thus it became an official rule as ruled by the administration.

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  • Thank you for your always kind edit, senshin. By the way, I answered something like a big one, like administration thing..blah blah blah, but as you might be able to see, we can not "pronounce" California as キャリフォルニア as is I think said in English. I think it is same with English, you call Sushi like Su(here,stressed)shi, but we pronounce SU-SHI ( both stressed same ). Japan has not had for a long time land to land contact unlike Europeans, so we "consumed" foreign words as we heard. So analyzing this kind of stuff too deep is not so "profitable", so please take these terms as they are. Thanks. – Kentaro Mar 8 '15 at 22:31
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    This is simply not an answer to the question. The Ministry is just reporting on what is the case: it has no control (really!) over how people say or write things. The reason is historical, as usual for language. – Brian Chandler Mar 9 '15 at 10:47
  • Yes, sorry about that. Though, you see, we can not "scrutinize" every word we borrowed from the European countries... you know. I haven't known yet the ボタン "button" is originally from Portugal and we do not call it like...bu-tton in English but BO-TA-N. I thought it came from English. But cake ケーキ came from English gogen-allguide.com/ke/cake.html and same with the button it is not called Kei-k like in English but ke-i-ki. Sooooooo, you see, I think we have no clear scope if we try to check every word, you might be able to guess too, I think.... – Kentaro Mar 9 '15 at 12:58
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    The list of words that came from European countries in mid 16th. hp.amakusa-web.jp/a0226/MyHp/Pub/Free.aspx?CNo=5 And we ought to add English words that came around late 19th. Can not count how many.....haha.... – Kentaro Mar 9 '15 at 13:01
  • So if you say, the ministry is reporting quoting several cases in order to "control" how to write, we need to go accordingly. I can not find any "historical" source about White. As Marasai san is quoting Soseki' case, only what I can say is "at that time", Japanese took it so ( even though the sound is different ). – Kentaro Mar 9 '15 at 14:40

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