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The English pronunciation of Brunei is /bɹuːˈnaɪ/ and the Brunei Malay pronunciation ends in something like /ai/, as far as I can tell (I'm not totally sure about this, but here's the Sultan and the Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying it that way - although they're speaking in English - and this news reader clearly says it here), yet in Japanese the country's (short) name is ブルネイ, not ブルナイ.

Wikipedia lists 4 ways of writing the country's name in 漢字 that all end with /ai/:

  • 文莱 (ブンライ?)
  • 文萊 (ブンライ?)
  • 芠萊 (ブンライ?)
  • 婆羅乃 (バラナイ?)

and the Simplified Chinese 文莱 (wénlái) and Traditional Chinese 汶萊 (wènlái). In Korean it's 브루나이 (beurunai).

Given all this, how did Japanese end up using ブルネイ?

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    I think a lot of people (myself included) pronounce it in English with a nei instead of a nai due to the spelling.... – Ringil Dec 3 '18 at 12:27
  • I have no factual backing for this, but my personal experience suggests that katakana is based off spelling more than pronunciation. – ajsmart Dec 3 '18 at 14:12
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I'm no expert on Malay. That said, if this Wikipedia article is anything to go by, it appears that the ⟨ei⟩ combination in Malay spellings in general is pronounced as //ei//, in line with the Japanese katakana rendering of ブルネイ. Checking the spellings of the country's name in the different languages available on Wikipedia, I see that most use the same Brunei spelling, rendered in the local phonology as something approaching either //brunei// (such as for Spanish, Hawaiian, Welsh, or Russian) or //brunai// (such as for German, English, or Danish).

A close reading of (the Wikipedia article on Malay phonology shows that ⟨e⟩ is occasionally realized as //ə// (the schwa sound), which might account for the variance. Alternatively, the variance might reflect different transmission routes for how the term was borrowed, and influence from the native orthographies and phonologies of the borrowing languages.

For the Japanese term in specific, I cannot find any source that definitively states the source language. The notation used in Shogakukan's monolingual 国語大辞典 matches that used in the Daijirin entry, where the etymon (source term) is listed simply as 【Brunei】 with no source language given. We can probably safely interpret this to suggest that the katakana rendering is based on the spelling.

  • It being a spelling pronunciation seems plausible. I found some more history on the country's name here (notably 'Brunei' wasn't settled on as the spelling until relatively recently: 'Berunai' and 'Brunai' were both used in the past). I do find the disconnect between the modern Japanese pronunciation and the older Japanese pronunciation and the current Chinese and Korean pronunciations interesting, however. – Quppa Dec 5 '18 at 12:06
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Japanese loanwords, especially place names, are often derived directly from the language used by the people who live there (an endonym) rather than English names for non-English speaking countries (an exonym). For this reason, the pronunciation in Japanese may differ considerably from the English name.

It is now typical to write the names of foreign places in katakana and use the foreign names for those places. The foreign (modern) names are mostly commonly used in spoken Japanese. Even when written in kanji, these are often read as the modern names rather than the historical reading of the kanji name.

There are forms of kanji for place names used in formal contexts and for historical reasons. These often have non-standard readings to reflect to local name. Kanji are often used for places that have/had a name in Chinese (including much of south east Asia). For example, 北京 is read as “Beijing”, not “Hokukyō” or “Peking”. There are also systems of abbreviations 米 for America、英 for the UK, 西 for Spain, 土 for Turkey, etc. These are mainly used on maps. Before the existence of katakana, a system of phonetic kanji called man’yogana were used.

Thus for Brunei the Japanese once used the Chinese name 文莱 and now use the Malay name, writing it as 婆羅乃 and more recently as ブルネイ. The other forms are still used in writing for historical reasons but are not common in spoken Japanese. While these should be pronounced differently, they all mean Brunei (ブルネイ).

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