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I was looking up how the name Will Smith is pronounced and written in Japanese. Why does "Will" become 「ウィル」? I would have expected ワ to be used instead for the first sound.

I found mentions of the "w" sound in English having a more rounded lip shape in English than the closest Japanese sound, and I am guessing that part of my confusion is that I probably don't understand how 「ウィ」 is pronounced in Japanese. I found audio of Will Smith's name in Japanese, but it seemed to be an automated voice and not a recording of a human, so I don't trust it.

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As in many other languages, phonetic changes have occured in Japanese over the centuries. One of them is with "wi". We actually used to pronounce the mora "wi" as "wi". The hiragana for that was 「ゐ」 and the katakana, 「ヰ」.

In our time, however, this syllable has disappeared and has been replaced by the consonant-less 「うぃ」 and 「ウィ」, respectively. Thus, 「ウィル・スミス」 is currently the only "proper" way to pronounce "Will Smith" in Japanese.

In English, you no longer pronounce the letters "g" and "h" in the word "daughter", do you? I won't even mention "knight" as you only pronounce half of the letters in it. So what we are discussing is not a phenomenon unique to Japanese.

"Whisky" in Japanese is 「ウィスキー」. Just as in 「ウィル」, it starts with the vowel 「ウ」 and not the consonant "w".

「ゐ」 and 「ヰ」, which I mentioned above, are now used only for aesthetic purposes. Use them daily and you simply will look very weird. Take a look at the official website for Nikka Whisky:

https://www.nikka.com/story/

It says 「ニッカウスキー」. That does not mean, however, we read it as "Wiスキー". The "wi" syllable is long gone in sound if not in kana/spelling.

Listen to the very first syllable in this commercial.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAVUs8r5tK8

  • I am going to be spending a lot of time listening to the word 「ウィスキー」to make sure I am really hearing the actual sounds and not just hearing what I expect to hear. Also, thank you for the history. I knew that English used to pronounce the "k" sound in "knight" or "knife" and I find that kind of historical shift fascinating, – cloveapple Mar 8 at 15:58
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    @cloveapple, FWIW, the German cognate term for English knight is knecht, with the "k" and "ch" pronounced. I started studying German before we got to Chaucer in my high school English class, and when we got around to reading The Miller's Tale, I realized that the Chaucerian English made a lot more sense as a piece of writing if I read it with German sound values -- suddenly, the lines rhymed and the meter worked out correctly. Sound change and language history can be fun stuff. :) – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 9 at 7:02
  • lélecteur, you state that modern speakers pronounce ゐ and うぃ the same, and as more of a vowel combination. I'm curious if you hear any phonetic distinction in other similar phonemes, such as わ vs. うぁ, ゑ vs. うぇ, etc.? – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 9 at 8:02

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