Based on the pronunciations here, what I hear in Anime, and the way I hear kana pronounced in Japanese class, it seems to me that Austin should start with ア rather than オ, but it is clearly spelled with an オ (reference). Why is this? Am I somehow seriously misunderstanding the way kana are pronounced?

I am assuming that the reason for this has to do with cot/caught merger in English. It seems to me that British people would very likely pronounce words like "Austin" with the オ sound. On the other hand, I pronounce Austin much like this guy.

This issue is particularly important to me because my last name also contains this same sound, and in class, I've been spelling it with an ア.

  • Well, there's also the fact that the "cot" vowel is rounded in some dialects of English, hence more likely to be perceived as an オ than an ア. (But I would say "Austin" with the "caught" vowel.) – Zhen Lin Oct 25 '14 at 22:02
  • I may be wrong (I'm not totally familiar with linguistic terms or the unmerged cot and caught), but in languages without cot-caught merger, isn't caught rounded, while cot isn't? Edit: Never mind I was wrong. – user7432 Oct 25 '14 at 22:25
  • After some research, it appears that only Australia uses a rounded vowel in cot. They use an open o, ɔ. Other dialects use a near open ɒ. American English (which I speak) uses the open ɑ. – user7432 Oct 25 '14 at 22:34
  • 1
    @Sjiveru British accent, not American, I believe. – snailboat Oct 26 '14 at 5:49

The main two factors in transcription from English to Japanese are

  1. (Japanese perception of) pronunciation in English
  2. spelling in English

Transcribing au as オー is the norm (note the lengthening!):

audio オーディオ
auction オークション
Australia オーストラリア
Austria オーストリア
audition オーディション
automatic オートマ (abbr.)
aura オーラ


It takes a long time but I think asking "why" is usually the wrong approach in Japanese. At least I found it that way. Many of these words were adopted ages ago. As such they are Japanese words... they're just based on their foreign equivalents. Memorization & repetition is your friend.

Some others worth mentioning:

Bomb = ボム (I've seen this one done improperly as バム in a gaijin-run restaurant) Paul = ポール Scott = スコット

Tons more. Wait until you have to remember if it's カ vs キャ. Ex: Cat = キャット, Cut = カット, Carrot = キャロット, Carrier = キャリアー

  • I guess my question really stems from the fact that I have been spelling my last name with an ア even though I pronounce the first vowel in Austin exactly as I do the first vowel in my last name. This made me question my entire understanding of Japanese kana pronunciation and the spelling I chose for my last name. I do agree, though, that memorization is more important than knowing why. – user7432 Oct 26 '14 at 23:22
  • Surprisingly, I think I would naturally spell each of your examples of カ and キャ words exactly as you have shown them to be spelled. Generally, it seems to me that キャ is used for front vowels, while カ is for the back vowels. Notice that cut has an open-mid back unrounded vowel (ʌ), while cat, carrot, and carrier all have a near-open front unrounded vowel (æ) or (in some dialects of English) an open mid front unrounded vowel (ɛ). – user7432 Oct 26 '14 at 23:32
  • Indeed... the latter ones aren't too hard, but a few will sneak up on you if you're not careful. ;) – kiss-o-matic Oct 27 '14 at 7:15
  • @user7432 japanese.stackexchange.com/a/13098/1478 – snailboat Oct 27 '14 at 10:58

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