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I write fanfiction, some of it based on anime. There is the Japanese word うん, used to casually indicate agreement, very familiar to anyone who pays attention to the audio in subtitled works.

I am wondering whether there is any common practice for spelling this word in works written in English. The only example I know of is Sara Backer’s American Fuji. She taught English at Shizuoka University for several years and is clearly very conversant with Japanese; in this novel, she spells it Ng in italics.

Does anyone know of other works in English that use this word? Has anyone noticed a trend?

  • In my experience, うん tends to be pronounced like /m/, and plenty of people casually say 'yes' that way in English too. – Aeon Akechi Jan 7 at 11:54
  • Would this question be better suited for the English SE? – Leebo Jan 7 at 13:24
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    Do you mean you want to add a "Japanese flavor" to someone in your fictional work? Translating it to "uh-huh" is the normal approach, so could you clarify why you want to do this at all? – naruto Jan 7 at 13:48
  • @naruto: Mmm … well, when I write dialogue, I usually “hear” it as I’m writing, and having an anime character say うん just seems more natural to me, especially if the character does that a lot in the anime (e.g., Maggie Mui). – Tualha Jan 8 at 1:13
  • So someone has a habit of saying うん many times, and you want to characterize her with it? If you can assume your readers have watched the (subbed) anime and the うん sound is really characteristic to the character, there should be little chance of being misread... – naruto Jan 8 at 1:29
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This may be a somewhat controversial, but I'm not really a fan of Sara Backer's take on the spelling. For the lay man, Ng will most likely receive the normal 'N' pronunciation with a hard 'g' sound following it (like in 'golf'). However, knowing what I do about the language, using a soft 'g' actually does get the sound phonetically written into English script.

The problem is that most spellings of うん will probably be misread by regular English speakers.

When I lived in Japan for a couple of years, I developed the habit of saying 'うん' to English speakers in normal English conversations. Because we usually both had a strong Japanese background, we knew what it meant. However, when I returned to the states, I started to get weird looks from the people I was talking to. They seemed to understand what I meant by 'うん', but it was still off-putting enough that it occasionally lead to questioning looks.

So in my opinion it depends on the target audience.

If you're writing to an audience that has moderate Japanese experience (or greater, of course). You could use 'Ng,' but I would give some consideration to using 'un' instead. The only issue is that 'un' will likely also be misread. Nither spelling is going to get rid of the natural English tendency to misread what is written, but if you could find a way in the text to explain what you mean by 'Ng' or 'un,' that should at least be helpful to the reader.

As @Aeon Akechi points out /m/ is a pretty good way to write it out in phonetic English. For the target audience with Japanese experience, you might be able to avoid misreadings by just writing 'm' whenever you'd use a Japanese うん.

If you're writing to an audience that has little to no Japanese experience, I would probably suggest that you use the English equivalent of 'uh-huh' or 'yeah.' The benefit of this approach would be that you would be able to avoid confusion in your target audience. The downside is that it feels less Japanese, so you'll have to find another creative way to incorporate the Japanese culture and feel.

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  • Is 'Mhm' not as common as I thought or something? I'm surprised to hear you got weird looks. – Aeon Akechi Jan 7 at 20:01
  • @AeonAkechi Sure, but the pronunciation is different enough here in the southwest region (New Mexico/ Arizona) that it did cause some to pause before moving on. So maybe not always weird looks, but there were definitely reactions as if what I had said was slightly unexpected. – ajsmart Jan 7 at 20:09
  • Good points. I think, given that it’s fanfic based on an anime, most of the audience would be familiar with the anime and would recognize it. When I read American Fuji and saw characters saying Ng, I recognized it immediately, from my exposure to various anime. I wonder whether something like Nn would work? That seems fairly phonetic as well, and probably less subject to misinterpretation. – Tualha Jan 8 at 1:18
  • @Tualha Nn would probably work pretty well, like 'm,' if not better. – ajsmart Jan 8 at 3:42
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    I think perhaps if the first usage is something like Nn,” she agreed, that would not be too clunky and would clue the reader in. There are several ways it could be done. This is a pretty useful answer, thanks. – Tualha Jan 10 at 8:21

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