I've read on various web sites that in English, some people pronounce the word "geisha" as "geesha", and that it's a mispronunciation.

For example, from Wikipedia:

They almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in the country, who referred to them as "Geesha girls" (a mispronunciation).[79][80]


Shortly after their arrival in 1945, some occupying American GIs are said to have congregated in Ginza and shouted, "We want geesha girls!"[81]

(I haven't checked the citations, as they seem to be books about history, not language)

and from a blog post at Nubui Kuduchi:

mispronounced, as it often is today by the average person on the street, as gee-shah, not gay-shah

Whether "geesha" is a valid pronunciation in English is outside the scope of this stack exchange, but I'd like to know whether it's a valid pronunciation in Japanese.

The hiragana of "芸者" is "げいしゃ". According to How 「えい」 should be pronounced in the words like 英語, 先生, etc? , Sino-Japanese words can have a pronunciation of えい or ええ. According to jisho.org, the hiragana "げいしゃ" of "芸者" is based on on-yomi readings of the two kanji characters, which according to this comment in another question means that "芸者" is a Sino-Japanese word. This would suggest that "げえしゃ" is a valid pronunciation in Japanese.

However, I'm not 100% sure, partially because some people explicitly claim that "げえしゃ" or "geesha" isn't a valid pronunciation in Japanese. From a discussion page on Wikipedia:

I think to regard Geesha as a mispronunciation is not correct. In modern Japanese written "ei" is quite frequently pronounced as ee (i.e. long e) by Japanese native speakers. True, the Furagana based pronunciation as "ei" is also heard but the GIs stationed in Japan picked up the Geesha-pronunciation from native speakers.

No, it's not pronounced "geesha." Remember, basing pronunciation off of romanization is never a good idea.

And likewise, from the comments section of the blog post mentioned above, which seems in the first sentence to be talking at least somewhat about the pronunciation of words in Japanese:

Ditto Toranosuke here–Americans often don’t understand the “ei=ay not ee” rule. Similarly, my elementary schools think it’s hysterical when I teach them the American English pronunciation of words that came from Japanese (SUmo vs. suMOU, “kerry-okee” instead of “karaoke”), but I always tell them that an American will likely not understand what “suMOU” is…

Also, is there any difference in tone or nuance between the two pronunciations?

One blog post, Words that are different in Japanese and English, claims that in English, the word "geesha" has a different meaning to the word "geisha". The English-language Wikipedia article on geishas also claims that. I used to believe that, but now I regard it as unlikely. I suspect that it's more that people who pronounce it one way have a slightly different mental image of what a geisha is to people who pronounce it another way. However, is there any difference in Japanese between when it's pronounced "げえしゃ" or "げいしゃ"? The Japanese SE post on えい pronunciation claims that えい is more formal than ええ, which would be consistent with the difference between "geisha" and "geesha" in English according to the blog post.

To summarize: is "げえしゃ" a valid pronunciation of "芸者", and is there any difference in tone or nuance between it and "げいしゃ"?

  • 9
    I am 98% sure that the "GI" pronunciation "geesha" refers to something like ぎいしゃ, in other words using the English "ee" in "feet". The conversation on the Wikipedia talk page suggests that the two sides are completely misunderstanding each other. If your question is about Japanese pronunciation I think this just confuses things further. FWIW, I think there are accents of Japanese in which えい is regularly pronounced ええ (Tokyo?) but I forget the details. Mar 15, 2015 at 13:27
  • 7
    This question is confusing because it uses "ee" to talk about two different pronunciations, as Brian Chandler points out.
    – user1478
    Mar 15, 2015 at 13:34
  • It might be a street legend, but many times I heard that the ee pronunciation that results in “kerry-okee”, "haree-keree" were purposeful mispronunciations of Japanese by Allied occupation forces after WWII. When they returned home, such pronunciation became common in those countries. If true, it is kind of sad, really.
    – user3169
    Mar 15, 2015 at 17:14
  • I suggest you listen to some words in this pronunciation dictionary. It is a small one and 芸者 is not listed, but listening to how words like 計画(けいかく)、計算(けいさん) are pronounced, you could infer how 芸者 is pronounced. SE is a terrible place to discuss this matter because English-speaking Japanese-learners bring their own vowels into Japanese. 「えい」 is their favorite vowel and their alphabet even starts with it. I will say no more on the matter. shuwa.weblio.jp/category/shuwj/ke
    – user4032
    Mar 16, 2015 at 1:02

2 Answers 2

  • ゲーシャ (GAY-sha) is the usual pronunciation in Japanese.

  • ギーシャ (GHEE-sha) is not a valid pronunciation in Japanese.

I think "geesha" is supposed to be read GHEE-sha and not GAY-sha, whence "Geesha girls" is indeed a mispronunciation and all the English sources you mention talk about the difference ゲー (GAY) vs. ギー (GHEE) and not about the difference between げえ and げい.


In the real Japanese-speaking world, 「えい」 and 「おう」 only exist in orthography, not in pronunciation for most native speakers on most occasions. Those are pronounced like「えー」 and 「おー」 respectively. So, 「げえしゃ」 is would be a fairly valid pronunciation, if not as much so as 「げーしゃ」.

In fact, these irregularities, together with particles 「は」 and 「を」 are often the causes of "misspellings" among first-graders as they represent the few exceptions in the otherwise completely phonetic kana orthography.

They would write something like:

「ぼくの おとさん はなせます。」

because that is exactly how they will read it.

The correct way to write that will be:

「ぼくの おとさん はなせます。」

On the rare occasions where 「えい」 and 「おう」 are actually pronounced the way they are spelled, it is usually for some kind of emphasis. This tends to occur much more often with proper nouns than with other types of words. For instance, 「[慶応大学]{けいおうだいがく}」 may be pronounced 「けいおうだいがく」 with affection by some of its alumni, but it is just pronounced 「けーおーだいがく」 by everyone else most of the time including professional announcers.

(This is why I do not understand the enormously popular "best" answer to that old question about how 「えい」 should be pronounced that you linked to. That is not something a fluent or native speaker would say at all.)

  • 2
    Completely off topic, but is 英語を話せます being taught as correct in school? Or even as the only correct choice? To me, this choice is at best marked, and 英語が話せます the preferred choice. (Yes, I know that を is gaining ground among younger speakers, and I respect this as evolution of the language, just wondering how accepted it is in prescriptive environments)
    – dainichi
    Mar 16, 2015 at 0:53
  • "On the rare occasions where 「えい」 and 「おう」 are actually pronounced the way they are spelled, it is usually for some kind of emphasis." As another example, I have commonly heard the 「おう」 pronunciation for the ending of volitional forms. From context, I think it is intended to sound cutesy. Jan 25, 2022 at 10:00

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