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I love katakana, mostly because of how the characters look. But I am constantly baffled by why certain loan words from English are constructed using certain katakana sounds.

For example, if someone asked me to say "energy" in Japanese, I would have guessed エナジー or maybe エネルジー...but definitely not エネルギー. Same with "cake": ケーク sounds more natural than ケーキ. I understand that there are clearly many cases where there isn't an obvious "best fit" for certain words, but often it feels like some loan words pick the worst or least-likely sounds.

Who or what decides what loan words will sound like? Is there a governmental office that takes part in this? Seemingly, since a lot of loan words are from English, a Japanese-English speaker would be able to best form a loan word.

Am I reading too much into this? :)

EDIT: To be clear, I don't want to come across as, "How dare Japanese not try to perfectly pronounce loan words from my language!" It's more like, "Hm. I wonder why they say it this way when it's pretty easy to make a more accurate-sounding word."

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    Why is katakana your favourite part of Japanese? Just curious...
    – istrasci
    Apr 25, 2012 at 22:14
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    +1 because people are allowed to make wrong assumptions here without silly accusations being levelled at them, followed by down votes and close votes to a question that has generated useful discussion.
    – ジョン
    Apr 26, 2012 at 1:40
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    no offense but i really wanted someone to make a gag answer for this question...like yes there is someone with the job to make katakana words.....what would that guy's job title be? that dude would probably be such a trip to hang out with! :D
    – yadokari
    Apr 26, 2012 at 4:49
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    a Japanese-English speaker would be able to best form a loan word. You're making the mistake that Katakana should reflect the original pronunciation of the language it originated from. Imagine if you mandated everyone in America to pronounce "karaoke" the original way it is pronounced in Japanese, language doesn't work like that.
    – Jesse Good
    Apr 26, 2012 at 6:48
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    @LucasTizma: I understand your reasoning now. However, like any language, there is a natural tendency to use certain combinations of sounds, and if a word does not fit that pattern, then it is "adjusted" accordingly. Basically, what you are saying ("it should match as closely to the original") is going against the grain of nature.
    – Jesse Good
    Apr 26, 2012 at 7:06

3 Answers 3

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The second paragraph can be answered in large part by What changes are made to the pronunciation of gairaigo? and by Less-approximate and more-approximate forms of loan words and by Different transcriptions for words with related origin .

As for the third paragraph, Wikipedia says the Agency for Cultural Affairs (文化庁) at the Ministry of Education of Japan (文部科学省) plays a role in language regulation. I don't know whether it influences spelling of words. I know that it deprecated hentaigana and certain kanji.

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  • I don't see why it would have to be a high-rep user asking it...
    – atlantiza
    Apr 26, 2012 at 4:40
  • +1: The other answers don't actually answer the question. There are meetings held every year to regulate loan words and neologisms including the spelling.
    – Jesse Good
    Apr 26, 2012 at 6:34
  • @Andrew Grimm Wow, thanks for those resources. I'll take a look.
    – user1316
    Apr 26, 2012 at 6:58
  • I've decided to ask a general-purpose question on how the language is regulated: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/5364/… Apr 28, 2012 at 11:34
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but I am constantly baffled by why certain loan words from English are constructed using certain katakana sounds.

Loan words do not necessarily need to be borrowed from English. In fact, most old loan words (in the 外来語 sense) were borrowed from Portuguese.

For example, if someone asked me to say "energy" in Japanese, I would have guessed エナジー or maybe エネルジー...but definitely not エネルギー.

The word エネルギー is borrowed from German Energie, not English energy. There is also the word エナジー which is borrowed from English energy, but it is not very common.

There are many factors that come into effect when borrowing words. Other than the source language, another is spelling: some loan words are based on the original spelling rather pronunciation. Presumably the original speakers only know the spelling and have no access to native speakers to base the Japanese on.

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  • Very interesting! Yes, I do realize that not all of them are of English origin. I guess I should check on that before making judgments. :)
    – user1316
    Apr 25, 2012 at 22:06
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    +1 for mentioning that it can be based on spelling instead of how it actually sounds
    – atlantiza
    Apr 25, 2012 at 22:51
  • @LucasTizma Don't worry, I made the same mistake, only with the word "virus" japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/2147/… Apr 26, 2012 at 4:05
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    +1 for " most old loan words (in the 外来語 sense) were borrowed from Portuguese" history for the win. Apr 26, 2012 at 7:46
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No one decides really.

Japanese people construct them in the way that they hear them. However this can differ from listener to listener and speaker to speaker.

So some loan words that have been in use for a long time have accepted "spellings" however others my have multiple spellings in use, possibly even several dictionary entries.

Remember you could ask the same about English. Why "tuna" and not "tsuna". Why pronounce the eh sound at the end of "karaoke", "sake", "karate", etc as E? And so on.

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  • I definitely had in mind your last point that languages often assimilate borrowed words into their own "format", but I figure—and I'm no linguist—that Japanese is a largely phonetic language, whereas English isn't. So I could see the argument made that how we pronounce loan words is expected to be different. In my opinion, I feel like loan words in a phonetic-based language should just match as closely to the original word's pronunciation as possible, given the native syllabary. My $0.02, anyway. :)
    – user1316
    Apr 25, 2012 at 22:09
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    No one decides really. Well, actually the government regulates a lot of the words.
    – Jesse Good
    Apr 26, 2012 at 6:29
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    Not sure I understand the "tuna" example... why would it be "tsuna"?
    – dainichi
    Apr 26, 2012 at 8:51
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    @Jesse No they do. The government can't regulate the use of the language beyond official documents and the minimum requirement for education. There is no rule stating "news papers can only use these words", or "books can't use these words". Japanese magazines are famous for just making up new katakana words.
    – Ian
    Apr 26, 2012 at 21:54
  • @dainichi some americans pronounce tuna like "tsuna" or "chuna". I think I mostly hear women say "tsuna"
    – Mel
    Apr 27, 2012 at 13:27

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