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Japanese Pronunciation Vs. Katakana

As a native English speaker hearing non-natives (especially Asians) trying to speak the English language I sometimes can’t help but chuckle, or cry, over the way they slaughter the words. As I presently reside in Japan and understand the Japanese writing system I have come to understand, in one word, why they tear apart the English language... Katakana!

Katakana is one of the four Japanese writing systems. The other systems being Kanji (the characters ((not cartoon)) you see on tattoos), Hiragana, and Romaji (the Roman alphabet). The early Japanese written language came from China. This system is called Kanji. Through the development of the Japanese language it became necessary to implement Hiragana which is used for words of Japanese origin and Katakana to help in the pronunciation of Kanji.

Still further into the evolution of the Japanese written language, Katakana started being used to help Japanese people pronounce borrowed words from other languages. At this time, the language which has the most borrowed words transcribed into Japanese is English. It is important to note that the Japanese language does not contain the sounds “L”, “R”, “V”, “Si” (as in “See”), “Hu” (as in “Hoop”), “Th” (as in “Thank”), and “Zi” (as in Zebra). There are a few other phonetic sounds that are not originally contained in the Japanese language, but through the further development of the Katakana writing system the Japanese people are able to pronounce the foreign sounds almost like a native speaker.

Another point worth noting is that the Japanese system phonetically combines two of our English sounds per character with the exception of the “N” sound. As an example of this let’s take my name “Scott” and assault it with the Katakana system. “Su Ko Tto” is the basic end result of my name in Japanese. You can see the extra “U” and “O” have been added because of the two sounds per character from the Katakana writing system. Actually if I am to say my name as it should be pronounced the Japanese perceive it as the word “Skirt”. Yes, many young children have had their fun with my name in this respect.

You may think that the Romaji system would save the Japanese from needlessly abusing the English language but it does not. Though Japanese children are taught the Roman alphabet at a fairly young age, their school teachers almost always teach them the alphabet’s pronunciation utilizing Katakana because 1: it is easier to teach the children that way and 2: the Japanese teachers are not able to make the correct distinction and pronunciation themselves.

As children grow up without knowing the correct phonetic pronunciation of the English words they gradually lose the ability to hear and differentiate between them. Soon enough words like “Rice” and “Lice”, “Sip” and “Ship”, “Than” and “Dan”, become the same to the Japanese ear. Though the famous tongue twister may be difficult for us, hearing a Japanese person saying “She shells she shells by the she shore” over and over again (and thinking they are saying it properly) is quite humorous.

What should we do about this? Put an end to English words being transcribed by the Katakana writing system. Have well qualified and preferably native English speakers teach Japanese children the actual sounds of the Roman alphabet. If we work together we may just be able to put a stop to the Japanese abuse of the English language. S.B.

Submitted by:

Scott Brady

Scott Brady works for a translation company in Fukuoka, Japan. He works under http://www.translators.jp/english/index.html and manages http://www.samurai-translators.com




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