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How To Convert English Phrases to Japanese

Japanese phrases that even probably the most proficient learners of the language discover the toughest to pronounce could be, mockingly, those borrowed from their very own native tongue.

My spouse, who’s initially from the US and now could be a fluent speaker of Japanese after residing in Japan for 15 years, nonetheless struggles to pronounce one in all her dwelling nation’s most well-known manufacturers — “McDonald’s,” which in Japanese is マクドナルド (makudonarudo).

Realizing how katakanization works is a vital sensible talent for native English audio system who examine Japanese.

Phrases of English origin, once they get transformed to katakana, typically throw off native audio system of English. It is because it is onerous to unlearn their native tongue’s phonology — the sound system with a algorithm that they subconsciously observe since their early childhood — after which modify the unique sound to match the Japanese phonology. I name this course of katakanization as a result of overseas phrases tailored into Japanese are sometimes spelled with katakana characters and are generally known as katakana-go (katakana phrases).

In my view as a local speaker of Japanese and a language lover, understanding how katakanization works is a vital sensible talent for native English audio system who examine Japanese. Not solely can the power to pronounce these phrases show you how to to be extra simply understood by Japanese audio system, it additionally has the additional advantage of increasing your vocabulary, and nearly instantaneously, with out as a lot effort as you may assume. And as you may already know, we use loads of katakanized loanwords of English origin. Like, lots.

So I’m writing this text with the hope of serving to native-English-speaking Japanese learners who wrestle with one of many largest quirks of the Japanese language — katakana phrases. Later on this article, you’ll study three fundamental guidelines for katakanize English phrases. I’m hoping they may show you how to to have the ability to katakanize phrases by yourself with the intention to pronounce phrases of English origin in a method that Japanese audio system can simply perceive.

Conditions: To get probably the most out of this text, it is best to already know katakana (particularly pronounce them). If you have to brush up, take a look at our Final Katakana Information.

Why Katakanize?

Earlier than moving into the fundamental katakanization guidelines, first, let me clarify a bit of extra about why I feel it is best to study them.

No person Needs That “Oh-No-This-Individual-Is-Speaking-to-Me-in-English Look,” Proper?

illustration of two people with one asking where mcdonald's is

One of the vital frequent causes I hear some learners (even when their Japanese is fairly superior) keep away from katakanizing English phrases is, “Why cannot I simply pronounce English phrases accurately?”

The reply is fairly easy. Many Japanese audio system would not have the ability to perceive it except they know the unique English pronunciation of the phrase. Is not “with the ability to talk with Japanese folks” the entire level of learning Japanese (a minimum of, for a lot of of you), anyway?

Code-switching to your native tongue compromises intelligibility.

Whereas code-switching to your native tongue might provide you with some authenticity because the speaker of the unique language, it compromises intelligibility. You can strive asking “McDonald’s-tte doko desu ka?” (The place is McDonald’s?) with perfectly-pronounced McDonald’s on the road in Japan. You can additionally strive asking the place “Seven-Eleven” is with out katakanizing it to sebun irebun (セブンイレブン). In both case, you’ll almost certainly get that horrified, oh-no-this-person-is-talking-to-me-in-English look.

Be aware that for katakanized phrases which can be significantly lengthy and generally is a little bit trippy, you’ll be able to normally shorten them — actually, many Japanese folks do! Take the earlier instance of マクドナルド; this may be shortened to マック or マクド. Equally, セブンイレブン turns into セブン. So don’t be concerned if you do not have full confidence of pronunciation simply at first.

Japanese Audio system Use English Loanwords, Like A Lot

Japanese folks use 3,000 – 5,000 loanwords in each day conversations, and 94% of them are of English origin.

Names of restaurant and retailer chains aren’t the one English phrases borrowed into the Japanese language. English-derived loanwords have been deeply woven into Japanese, each written and spoken. A examine from the Nineteen Nineties confirmed that over 35% of all vocabulary printed in 70 Japanese magazines had been overseas loanwords, most of them being of English origin. A 2010 ebook about wasei eigo (Japan-made English) additionally indicated that Japanese folks use 3,000 – 5,000 loanwords in each day conversations, and 94% of them are of English origin. In fact, these research are from years in the past, so we most likely use much more katakana phrases in Japanese at the moment. The purpose is, it is so onerous to hold on conversations in Japanese with out Western loanwords that Japan even has a consuming recreation the place you need to take a shot each time you utilize one!

The portion of English loanwords in Japanese is rising with the inflow of latest applied sciences and ideas are evident in software program manuals like: アイコンをダブルクリックしてアプリケーションをインストールします icon-o doubleclick-shite application-o install-shimasu “Doubleclick the icon to put in the applying.” With this, it is changing into all of the extra useful to understand how katakanization works. Whereas having to Japanize your native tongue generally is a problem, it could show you how to grow to be extra approachable for individuals who grew up talking Japanese.

Unpronounceable English Sounds

You may additionally wish to ask why Japanese audio system katakanize English phrases within the first place. It is just because many sound patterns in English aren’t permitted within the Japanese phonology, identical to the French guttural /r/ is not in English. One of many (many) the explanation why English pronunciation is a pure nightmare for Japanese highschool youngsters is that Japanese doesn’t enable any syllables ending with a consonant excluding /n/ (ン). English has hundreds of phrases ending with consonants like cat, look and ship however they’re merely unpronounceable within the Japanese phonological universe.

There isn’t any alternative apart from to katakanize loanwords to make them pronounceable inside the Japanese phonology.

Advanced syllables like energy, sixth and garments are much more unpronounceable for Japanese audio system as a result of the Japanese phonology does not allow two or extra consonants to be squeezed collectively. The English /th/ sound is completely impermissible in Japanese — actually, in most human languages — and due to this fact must be changed with the closest Japanese sound /s/ as in surī (スリー) “three.” Merely put, there isn’t any alternative apart from to katakanize them to make them pronounceable inside the Japanese phonology.

So katakanization does not precisely occur due to the writing system. It is exactly due to the Japanese phonology that governs how phrases are pronounced within the language.

Primary Conversion Guidelines

illustration of three katakanization rules

So how precisely does katakanization work? Though we’ve got some exceptions, there are three fundamental conversion guidelines that native Japanese audio system subconsciously apply.

Be aware: IPA symbols we use on this article are based mostly on American English pronunciations.

Rule #1: Add Vowels

When a consonant is just not instantly adopted by a vowel, you add a vowel.

It is because every sound normally entails a vowel in Japanese. The ン (/n/, or /m/) sound is an exception, however moreover that, a unit of Japanese sounds is both a single vowel like ア /a/ – イ /i/ – ウ /u/ – エ /e/ – オ /o/, or a set of consonant and a vowel like カ /ka/ – キ /ki/ – ク /ku/ – ケ /ke/ – コ /ko/. If you understand how katakana works, this most likely is sensible to you.

Now, what vowel ought to I be including, proper? That’s:

  • /o/ after /t/ or /d/
  • /i/ after /ch/ or /j/
  • Nothing after /n/ and /r/
  • /u/ elsewhere.

Let’s use the phrase “danger” for instance. First, r is adopted by a vowel i, so that you simply go away it alone. However the remainder, s and okay aren’t adopted by a vowel. For s, you add u. For okay, add u. And you will get ri-su-ku — リスク.

Check out one other instance — the phrase “measurement.” Whenever you attempt to parse it, you see two pairs of a consonant and a vowel — si and ze. So it could be… シゼ…? No, not that. Watch out to not get confused with the spelling and the sound. The phrase “measurement” feels like “saiz,” proper? In case you’ll be able to’t consider the phonetic spelling off the highest of your head, there are converters like this which may come useful for katakanization. Now, going again to the “measurement (saiz)”, z is the one sound that is not adopted by a vowel. So that you add a u there, and now you have acquired sa-i-zu — サイズ. That is the way you write and say “measurement” in Japanese.

Rule #2: Change Sounds

Change illegitimate sounds with comparable authentic Japanese sounds.

You may already know this, however the Japanese language has fewer sounds than the sounds English has. Like I discussed earlier, the th /θ/ sound does not actually exist in Japanese, and the closest sound is the s sound. For this reason “three” turns into surii (スリー) and “thanks” turns into sankyū (サンキュー) in Japanese. Identical to that, for sounds that the Japanese language does not have, you will be changing sounds with the Japanese equivalents. Now let’s take a deeper look.


As chances are you’ll know, Japanese has solely 5 vowel sounds ア, イ, ウ, エ, and オ. That is clearly extra restricted in comparison with English — for instance, English has three “a” sounds (/æ/, /ʌ/, /ə/), however ア replaces all of them.

IPA Examples
US English Japanese
æ apple /ˈæpəl/ ップル
ʌ umbrella /ʌmˈbɹɛlə/ ンブレラ
ə account /əˈkaʊnt/ カウント
ɪ east /iːst/ ースト
ʊ oops /ʊps/ ップス
ɛ day by day /ˈɛvɹiˌdeɪ/ ブリデイ
ɔ on /ɔn/

All examples above begin with vowels for the sake of instance, however in fact, this substitute rule applies to a mix of vowels and consonants.

hat /ˈt/ ット
hut /t/

Phrases “hat” and “hut” — they’ve the totally different “a” sounds, however in Japanese, they each get transformed to ハット as a result of the /æ/ and /ʌ/ sounds each exchange to ア. This implies “cowboy hat” (カウボーイハット) and “Pizza Hut” (ピザハット) — they each use ハット regardless of the distinction within the English sounds.

Additionally, in relation to vowels, take note of the size of the vowel in query. Lengthy, prolonged vowel sounds are represented as “ー,” the hyphen-looking image in Japanese. For instance, “pull” is プル (puru), however “pool” is プール (pūru). An /r/ after a vowel as in automotive, 4 and earth turns into the extension of the vowel as effectively. So, very like in British English, automotive is カー (), 4 is フォー () and earth is アース (āsu).


Now, onto consonants! Identical to a few of the vowels, there are a number of English consonant sounds that do not actually exist in Japanese, and thus get changed with the closest sound as a substitute. Listed here are some examples.

IPA Examples
US English Japanese
s mouse /ˈmaʊs/ マウ
θ mouth /ˈmaʊθ/
b berry /ˈbɛri/ リー
v very /ˈvɛri/
l lease /ˈliːs/ ース
r wreath /ˈriːθ/
legion /ˈliʤən/ リージョ
ʒ lesion /ˈliʒən/
ð then /ðɛn/
z zen /zɛn/

Now, taking a look at this record, are you able to guess what the phrase “stomach” would appear to be in katakana?

Stomach could be ベリー, identical to “berry” and “very.” That is as a result of there isn’t any distinction in sound between “b” and “v” nor “r” and “l” in Japanese. ベリー fascinating (…and doubtlessly ベリー complicated), proper?

There are additionally just a few consonant + vowel pairs that we pronounce otherwise in English but get represented with the identical katakana character in Japanese. These variations may be extra delicate than those proven above, however for instance, si and shi each grow to be シ. So “sea” and “she” each grow to be シー in katakana. Equally, the voiced variations of those sounds, “zi” and “ji” each grow to be ジ.

Rule #3: Duplicate Consonants

Duplicate the “cease” consonant on the finish of the phrase if it happens after a brief vowel.

Bit, dip, look… What makes these phrases sound so skippy? It’s the fast “pause” between sounds. In romaji to characterize this type of sound, we use duplicated consonants like bitto, proper? In katakana, we use ッ (the small tsu) as in ビット to characterize these fast pauses. You will be duplicating the “cease” consonants, that are /p/, /b/, /ch/, /j/, /t/, /d/, /okay/ and /g/ — sounds you make by blocking the air circulate.

Now, let’s observe katakanizing “dip” and “look” — “dip” turns into ディップ (dippu) and “look” turns into ルック(rukku). Are you getting the gist?

Keep in mind this rule usually applies to the final syllable solely. For instance, picnic turns into pikunikku (ピクニック) as a substitute of pikkunikku (ピックニック). Additionally do not forget this solely occurs to the consonant after a quick vowel versus lengthy vowels, like beat, deep, or Luke.

illustration of a person thinking about the correct katakinization for cake

Congrats, you have simply realized the three fundamental guidelines of katakanization! Though these three guidelines account for many katakanization processes, they will not merely make you a grasp of katakanization. You will nonetheless encounter curve balls and a few tough ones — for these, you continue to have to make small changes right here and there.

Mixture Katakana

For those who’re hoping to take your katakanization to the subsequent stage, it could be a good suggestion to evaluation mixture katakana. Mixture katakana are katakana characters fabricated from a mix with a small character like フォ, ティ, or ジュ.

For instance, you may count on “cat” to grow to be katto (カット), but it surely really must be kyatto (キャット) as a result of the vowel of cat makes the c sound extra just like the Japanese /kya/ sound than the /ka/ sound. Equally, “hole” turns into gyappu (ギャップ) as a substitute of gappu (ガップ). That is too simple? These may be comparatively frequent katakana combos, however there are some curveballs you won’t be so conversant in — like トゥ as in トゥモロー (tomorrow), or デュ as in デュエット (duet).

These mixture katakana are the unsung heroes of katakana. They permit us to characterize sounds that we did not have in Japanese — the sounds are even nearer to the unique English pronunciations.

As we speak, loanwords tend to use mixture katakana to raised characterize the unique sounds.

Nevertheless, mixture katakana could be much less acquainted and not-so-easy-to-pronounce for Japanese audio system, particularly older people. As we speak, loanwords tend to use mixture katakana to raised characterize the unique sounds, however this wasn’t at all times the case. For instance, “thought” was once generally written as アイデア in katakana, however lately, アイディア is much extra frequent. And, this results in the subsequent observe: be careful for older loanwords!

Watch Out for Older Loanwords

A few of you’ll have already observed frequent English loanwords do not actually observe the fundamental guidelines. Like, kēki (ケーキ) “cake” not being kēku (ケーク), rajio (ラジオ) “radio” not being reidio (レイディオ) and kariforunia (カリフォルニア) “California” nor being kyarifōnia (キャリフォーニア). That’s as a result of these phrases are comparatively outdated borrowings that got here to Japan earlier than the conversion guidelines turned constant.

Older loanwords are sometimes the way in which they’re for customary causes — you will want to recollect spell them in katakana.

As you may’ve observed, part of this purpose is the no-use of mixture katakana. Sounds that we historically did not have or unusual sounds in Japanese had been changed with ones simpler to pronounce and acknowledge for Japanese audio system. So in the event that they had been borrowed at the moment, they’d be katakanized otherwise — like レイディオ. Nevertheless, a lot of them stay the identical regardless of the change as we’re already used to the way in which they’re! Which means, older loanwords are sometimes the way in which they’re for customary causes — you will want to recollect spell them in katakana.

Katakanize Like a Professional

Katakanization generally is a problem for native-English-speaking learners, even those that are already fluent in Japanese. Nevertheless, do not forget studying katakanize is not going to solely show you how to higher acclimate to Japanese phonology and enhance your general pronunciation, but in addition make your spoken Japanese extra understandable and approachable. And in case you take a look at it from a distinct perspective — being an English speaker will also be a bonus in Japanese studying if you understand how katakanization works. Whenever you begin with the ability to convert English phrases to katakana easily, and acknowledge extra katakana phrases that Japanese audio system use, you’ll be stunned what number of phrases you recognize already!

I hope the three fundamental guidelines and further suggestions show you how to construct a great basis for katakana conversion. It’s a extremely sensible talent and doubtlessly a recreation changer to deliver your Japanese to the subsequent stage. So, hold katakanizing and continue to learn — Guddo rakku!



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