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I was trying satiate my nostalgia by looking for theme songs of classic Japanese dramas on YouTube, when it suddenly occurred to me that 中島 can be pronounced in two ways:

  • 中島 みゆき is Nakajima Miyuki
  • 中島 美嘉 is Nakashima Mika

So I looked up the Japanese Wikipedia for clues about the distinction. It was only mentioned in passing:

清音の「なかしま」から時代が経つにつれて濁音の「なかじま」と変わった家や、中嶋から中島に変えた家がある。

"Some houses have changed from the seion Nakashima to the dakuon Nakajima." There is no reference offered for that claim, however.

The Wikipedia page then lists several different origins of 中島 from different areas of Japan. It explicitly put なかじま between parentheses for the 中島 of 土佐.

Am I to understand that the 中島 of 土佐 is predominantly pronounced "Nakajima", whereas the 中島 from other areas are predominantly pronounced "Nakashima"?

So was there really an evolution of the pronunciation? Was there any traceable record of such?

Is there anyway to infer the origin of a 中島 member from the pronunciation of the surname? Or vice versa?

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    Are you familiar with rendaku? – Aeon Akechi Jul 14 at 21:00
  • @AeonAkechi Somewhat. It's the phenomenon whereby initial consonant of a non-initial prefixed or compound word becomes daku. I know that "Nakajima" is a consequence of rendaku, but what is interesting is that some houses do not apply rendaku here whereas some do. It's not like we are talking about 島 being prefixed by different characters. – Kal Jul 15 at 1:48
  • Aren't there lots of names like this? You can't assume if someone with a 田 at the end of their name will be た or だ in many cases. – Leebo Jul 15 at 3:27
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    You can find listed readings of Ikeda, Iketa, Igeda, and Ichida for 池田. That's not to suggest that they are all common, but at least someone somewhere uses them or has used them. Similarly for 森田, you can find Morita and Morida. 中田 can be Nakata or Nakada (or even Chuuden). And so on. So... I disagree with the assertion that it's "always" or "never." – Leebo Jul 15 at 4:12
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    An incomplete list of others after searching a bit. 山崎 (やまざき, やまさき), 福田(ふくだ、ふくた), 太田(おおた、おおだ), 原田(はらた、はらだ), 上田(うえた、うえだ、うわだ、かみた、かみだ、かんだ、こうだ) – Leebo Jul 15 at 4:40
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According to several sources, なかしま is dominant in western Japan.

But guessing the reading of a 中島さん based on their birthplace is not very realistic. Practically, if you don't know how to read a particular 中島さん, I think it's usually okay to default to なかじま and switch to なかしま after being corrected. As pointed out in the comment section, there are many similar examples, and even native speakers often make mistakes regarding the rendaku of proper nouns.

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  • Awesome answer. And if the second link in your answer is to be believed, it is at least possible to guess the pronunciation depending on whether the person comes western part or eastern part of Japan; or vice versa; with a certain probability. What remains to be answered is whether a) it was an evolution of the pronunciation within ancestries or b) different ancestries simply started with completely different pronunciations. – Kal Jul 15 at 5:27
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    @Kal While it's technically possible, it's unlikely to be able to know one's birthplace before knowing their name, and I was totally unaware of this regional difference (FWIW I'm from Shikoku and 中島 was not very common there). As for the history, I know nothing beyond what is already written in Wikipedia. – naruto Jul 15 at 5:39

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