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I've heard it both as "soo-kee-ya-kee" and "skee-ya-kee". Which is correct?

Some more background:

A native speaker once told me that the correct pronunciation is "skee-ya-kee", and I subsequently learned that sometimes people shorten vowels. (Another example would be "a-sak-sa" for "Asakusa".) Yet at Japanese restaurants I've ordered "skee-ya-kee" only to have the servers (native speakers) repronounce it as "soo-kee-ya-kee". Is it purely a preference? Basically I'd like to use the correct pronunciation when ordering sukiyaki.

  • Where are you living, Tokyo or Osaka? There are dialectal differences. – broccoli forest Sep 13 '16 at 12:50
  • I live in the US. Would be very interested to hear about those dialectical differences as I suspected that that might be a factor. – Willie Wheeler Sep 13 '16 at 16:15
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If you do not intend to speak like a native speaker and you just want to make yourself understood, say like "soo-kee-yah-kee".

I don't know how often native speakers drop vowels between characters in hasty daily speech (since I'm also a native speaker myself who did not use IPA for learning Japanese), but when they speak slowly and clearly, it's certainly "soo-kee-yah-kee" without dropping any vowels. The 4 sounds each correspond to the four hiragana letters of this word (す-き-や-き). The server perhaps said this word slowly for you.

And note that you can never get the "correct" pronunciation if you are thinking in English alphabet like this. English and Japanese are two different languages and have different sound systems (read this for an example). In this sense, neither is "correct"; soo-kee-yah-kee is just a safer approximation of the Japanese word すき焼き.

  • Thanks, this is helpful. I am indeed thinking in hiragana, but don't know the Japanese characters yet, so just writing it phonetically. – Willie Wheeler Sep 13 '16 at 3:45
  • Also, just out of curiosity--the first time you wrote すきやき, but the second time you wrote すき焼き. Why did the third character change? (If it's too hard to explain in a comment then kindly ignore.) – Willie Wheeler Sep 13 '16 at 3:54
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    @WillieWheeler The first one is for showing pronunciation (like furigana), and the second one is for showing how adults should write this word. BTW, the correct pronunciation of midnight is like this, but long time ago I gradually learnt that native English speakers commonly pronounce this like "minnai" in speech. Nevertheless, beginners should start from the longer, complete pronunciation, which is always safe. – naruto Sep 13 '16 at 4:30
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The closest possible notation of すきやき and あさくさ within English sounds I think would be "sss-kee-yah-kee" and "ah-sah-khh-sah" (with right accentuation, of course).

Japanese phonology is build upon a basic principle of "isochrony of morae", that is each unit must be pronounced in the same duration. As you've observed, the vowel is devoiced in this condition, or becomes effectively inaudible, but it doesn't reduce the length of the syllable. If you naively pronounce "skee", they're likely to hear the vowel relatively longer, that's why ski is rendered スキー "sss-kee-ee". The servers might have repronounced it (in English pronunciation, perhaps?) to make sure that you ordered the right menu.

Another possibility is that they come from Western Japan area where the vowel U is more rounded and doesn't get devoiced, remaining similar to English "oo".

  • Thanks very much for explaining the relationship to the isochrony principle. Totally get it now. – Willie Wheeler Sep 13 '16 at 23:47
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As you've noticed, the "u" sound in Japanese is often reduced when it comes between voiceless consonants. Since "s" and "k" are both voiceless, Japanese people say "skiyaki" and "asaksa".

I think this confusion is also a result of the fact that the "u" sound in Japanese is different from that in English. Since we're not familiar with this sound, we hear something between "skiyaki" and "sookiyaki" even when Japanese people say "sukiyaki" clearly.

The difference between the "oo" sound that we hear and the "u" sound that Japanese people produce is like the difference between the vowel sounds in "boot" and "foot". In "boot," our lips are rounded and protruding. In "foot" our lips are neither rounded nor protruding (at least not much). That's like the Japanese "u" sound.(Interestingly, if you say "foot" quickly, you'll notice it also becomes "ft".)

Looking at IPA charts, I see there are some differences between the vowel sound in foot and the Japanese "u" sound, but I'm pretty sure that if you pronounce the "u" sound in "sukiyaki" like the one in "foot," it will be indistinguishable to a native speaker.

I've just started my foray into phonology, so excuse me if I get my terms wrong!

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In the English dictionary and in Japanese. The discrepancy might be because Japanese tends not pronounce vowels within words. In Japanese, it is referred to as "the muting of vowels".

Examples:

sukiyaki -> skee-ya-kee

yakusoku -> yak-sow-koo

  • A native speaker once told me that the correct pronunciation is "skee-ya-kee", and I subsequently saw the thing about shortening vowels that you mention. Yet at Japanese restaurants I've ordered "skee-ya-kee" only to have the servers (native speakers) repronounce it as "soo-kee-ya-kee". Is it purely a preference? – Willie Wheeler Sep 12 '16 at 17:15
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    I'm not sure, I've heard both... It may be a preference, there's also the in-between that I've heard where the "u" sound is faint but still present. Also note that native speakers my enunciate each syllable if they're trying to teach someone so that might be coming into play as well :). – ishikun Sep 12 '16 at 19:41
  • Hey @WillieWheeler I updated my answer with a link :) – ishikun Sep 12 '16 at 23:07
  • So how should I say it? "Skee-ya-kee?" – Willie Wheeler Sep 13 '16 at 1:23
  • This is what we call devoicing of vowels. In Japanese, when high vowels (for Japanese, this would be i and u) are surrounded by voiceless obstruents, they also become voiceless. It's very misleading to say that they aren't pronounced at all or "muted." – Kurausukun Sep 13 '16 at 3:04

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