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What changes are usually made to the pronunciation of gairaigo?

I notice that vowels are often added between multiple consonants and to the end of words (eg "programmer" => "puroguramaa" (プログラマー)), and that sometimes multiple words are turned into portmanteaus (eg "personal computer" => "pasokon" (パソコン)).

Are there other changes made?

Additionally, if you have an English word and you think it may have a gairaigo equivalent, will pronouncing it in a "more Japanese" style make it easier to understand?

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    プローグラーマ is not a word! “Programmer” is プログラマー. Jul 23, 2011 at 13:59
  • @Tsuyoshi Ito: I got it from sarahmei.com/blog/2010/09/04/speak-ruby-in-japanese , though she admits she's still learning Japanese.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jul 23, 2011 at 14:01
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    It is incorrect even if it is used in one blog. Jul 23, 2011 at 14:02
  • Japanese vowel length distinctions don't have a very high functional load; at any given point in a conversation mistakenly pronouncing a long vowel as a short vowel or vice versa is very unlikely to result in something that a listener could interpret as a plausible alternative utterance (The Sounds of Japanese, T. Vance, 2008). Vance's statement is too vague to be of any real help, but it does suggest that if プローグラーマ is impermissible, it is likely by an arbitrary and conspicuous preference of speakers and not by ungrammaticality.
    – taylor
    Jul 10, 2012 at 13:52
  • 外来語 is a term used for a class of loanwords that have already undergone/completed/finished rephonemizication. To be technically scrupulous, the source word (of the source language) that is being imported must undergo phonemic and prosodic transformation, the result of which is a 外来語. In other words 外来語 is not the thing that is being imported, it is the result of an importation.
    – taylor
    Jul 10, 2012 at 14:03

4 Answers 4

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Additionally, if you have an English word and you think it may have a gairaigo equivalent, will pronouncing it in a "more Japanese" style make it easier to understand?

Absolutely. There's a linguistic thing going on here whereby sounds outside of the language you grew up speaking are much harder for your brain to process. This is why certain English sounds (such as /r/ and /l/) are hard for the Japanese brain to process, and why certain Chinese sounds (/chī/ comes to mind) are difficult for the English brain to process. Also, since many Japanese learn the "Japanese pronunciation" of English in school (which is often closer to gairaigo than English), as long as you pronounce your English in a Japanese way, chances are good that they'll understand.

Certain English speakers neglect this step with gairaigo and insist on pronouncing things the "English way", so they end up with sentences like 「昨日、golfをしました。」. This actually hinders understanding, because Japanese people are more accustomed to hearing ゴルフ, not "golf". So although you may weep inwardly at the butchering of English that goes on in everyday Japanese (I know I do), if you want to be understood, you have to follow the crowd and pronounce gairaigo in the funky Japanese way.

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    Should native Japanese speakers feel sad when they pronounce “karate” in English with the English accent and the English consonant /r/ in place of the alveolar flap? This happens in all languages, I guess. Aug 9, 2011 at 13:56
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    @Tsuyoshi: You mean "kuh-RAH-tee"? :) That sounds so wrong, and I hate it, but how does one go about changing the bad pronunciation of millions of people? (Plus in the U.S., there's a subliminal rule which says that if you pronounce "karate" as からて, suddenly you're the stuck-up aficionado who thumbs his nose at the poor commoners who don't know the correct pronunciation.) Aug 9, 2011 at 14:28
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    Actually I accept it as a matter of life. karate is a word in English loaned from Japanese, not a word in Japanese. Similarly, ゴルフ is a word in Japanese loaned from English, not word in English. I do not find anything wrong with what you describe as the “butchering” of foreign languages. You may find it wrong, but I just felt like expressing my disagreement…. Aug 9, 2011 at 16:47
  • @Derek: I find this reassuring. I was worried that gairaigo-izing a word might be interpreted as a bit patronizing (as if the listener is incapable of understanding the original word). With regards to butchering: my take is that they're butchering (or not) Japanese, rather than English, when they're gairaigo-izing a loanword. I only really care about English right now.
    – Golden Cuy
    Aug 17, 2011 at 7:39
  • 「昨日、golfをしました。」 Are you talking about code switching?
    – taylor
    Jul 10, 2012 at 14:38
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A couple of "gotchas" that I've noticed that are easily confused are:

  • The sounds of "x" or "ecks" within a word are usually written as キ instead of ク, but not 100% of the time.

    "Text" → テスト, not テスト
    "Mexico" → メシコ, not メシコ
    "Expert" → エスパート, not エスパート
    But "Express" → エスプレス, not エスプレス

  • Different sounds of the English 'a' usually produce a ャ instead of the associated ア kana; or sometimes a different Japanese sound altogether.

    "Cat" → キャット; not カット which is "Cut"; Except in "Kit Kat" (the candy bar, which are really popular in Japan) which is キットカット
    "Character" → キャラクター
    "Air" → エア, "Square" → スクエア

  • The sound "or" usually turns into オア at the end of a word

    "Door" → ドア
    "Store" → ストア

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  • Sometimes, it depends on the usage. When meant to be 'textbook', or 'text file', it is テキスト. When it means 'discource/context', it is テクスト.
    – user458
    Jul 24, 2011 at 1:03
  • @sawa Interestingly enough テキスト and テクスト is a minimal pair in the segments /i/{[front]} and /u/{[back]} and the fact that speakers distinguish the words (at the discourse level) attests to the status as [front/back] as a distinctive feature of Japanese vowels. こりゃ教えてくれてどうも!
    – taylor
    Jul 8, 2012 at 18:23
  • @taylor Besides that, that is obvious. 愛 and 会う are different words.
    – user458
    Jul 8, 2012 at 19:26
  • Possibly the different pronunciation of Kit Kat comes from is origin as a Britidh chocolate bar: The japanese キャット is closer to the American prounciation of cat then the British (certainly to my British ears!)
    – Tim
    Nov 10, 2012 at 12:59
  • Idle off-shoot question about 'text': as an English speaker, I have a tendency to approximate the /ks/ sound by devoicing the vowel in キ/ク in words like テクスト/テキスト, which essentially renders them phonetically identical. Do native Japanese speakers do the same, or would such a lexical error (between テキスト and テクスト) be easily perceived in speech?
    – Seralt
    Jun 20, 2014 at 16:43
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The following is just a few rules that may stand out.

Consonants:

  • si => shi [Change happens not in kana writing but in pronunciation]

    system => shisutemu システム

  • ti => chi [Change happens not in kana writing but in pronunciation]

    ticket => chiketto チケット

  • l => r

    rails => reiruzu レイルズ

  • v => b [Sometimes]

    virtual => baacharu バーチャル

The default vowel to be inserted to avoid consonant cluster or coda is 'u'. However, when the consonant is 't', 'd', the vowel tends to be 'o'.

Stravinsky => sutorabinsukii ストラビンスキー

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  • English has "outstanding" and "stand out", but doesn't really have "outstand" (unless it's a wasei-eigo I'm unfamiliar with).
    – Golden Cuy
    Aug 9, 2011 at 3:29
  • Does "v" sometimes go to "u", like in virus => ウイルス (uirusu), or is that an exception?
    – Golden Cuy
    Apr 1, 2012 at 10:25
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    @AndrewGrimm No, it's the other way around. "v" is pronounced as voiceless in German (which will be transcribed in English as "w", not "u", by the way). So is the pronunciation of the corresponding sound in the Japanese word ウイルス. It is English that is messed up and pronounces the "v" as voiced sound.
    – user458
    Apr 1, 2012 at 15:26
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    @sawa: a voiceless /v/ is actually an /f/, not /w/ (and FWIW, /w/ is technically voiced as well). German does indeed pronounce "virus" as /wirus/, but that's because "virus" is a loanword from Latin, and thus preserves the Latin pronunciation of "v" as /w/. But you are right that German normally pronounces "v" voiceless, as /f/. tl;dr: yeah ウイルス is an exception, but one of travel vector (Latin > German > Japanese), not of phonology.
    – Seralt
    Jun 20, 2014 at 17:05
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This comment mentions that sometimes consonants are devoiced. That "bed" is either ベッド or ベット, and that "bag" is バッグ or バック.

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