March 30, 2023

カタカナ語 Interesting Pronunciations

A look at a few unusual (to the beginner) pronunciations of katakana-ized English.

There are many words in Japanese borrowed from English. These are always written in katakana. Today, we will look at a few Katakana English words where, in the process of entering the Japanese language, the pronunciation got, well, katakana-ized .

Eiji and Emi were having a romantic lunch at マクドナルド when suddenly a ユーフォー appeared at the マウス of a トンネル. Eiji quickly donned his スーパー garments and saved the アース.

マクドナルド McDonald's

If Mr. McDonald were alive today, he'd probably sell his farm.

As a beginner, I was fascinated by the pronunciation of this iconic fast-food joint. "How on Earth do they say it like that?" I wondered. My curiosity piqued, I turned to my Japanese comrade for answers, who simply replied, "Well, it's pronounced just as it's spelled, silly!" And, by golly, she was correct - if you squint really hard while not wearing glasses or... if you happen to be thinking in katakana!

A closer look at this perplexing pronunciation serves as a delightful gateway to the intriguing world of Japanese phonetics:

You see, the C and L in the English "McDonald's" are cunning little consonants that sneak by without any vowel accompaniment. But in Japanese, those rascals can't go solo, save for the elusive N (ん). Thus, the enigmatic moniker morphs into マクドナルド maKUdonaRUdo. Fascinating, isn't it?

On a related note, I used to torture, I mean, teach my kids how to pronounce this word by writing the English "McDonald's" on the board and saying, "Okay class, how do you pronounce this word in English?"

Some brave students would try to pronounce it by moving the stress from syllable to syllable. maKUdonarudo or makudoNArudo... But in the end, they too, could not understand how those crazy Americans could pronounce マクドナルド as McDonald's.

トンネル Tunnel 

This one's fun. There was a popular comedian duo in Japan in the 1980s and 90s called, とんねるず (written in hiragana) which sounds a lot like "Toe Nails." For a long time, I actually thought that was what they were named after. I mean, after all, they were comedians!

アース Earth

The Japanese have a hard time with the TH sound. The S sound can usually take the place of the TH sound without much problem. However, in the case of "Earth", BIG problem! This Katakana English sounds a lot like a rather crude way to refer to someone's back-end.

I remember having students read from dialogs in the book. I always sweated a bit when it came to "Our Earth is big and blue." "Very good Eiji, next sentence please."

Other TH words are "Thank You" (becomes "Sank You") and "Think" (becomes "Sink").

One English teacher often taught the importance of the TH sound with the following story. 

A Japanese man was in the bathroom a long time, so a concerned friend knocked on the door to see if he was all right. Hearing the reply, the friend broke down the door only to find the man sitting peacefully on the toilet in the position of Rodin's The Thinker. The man in the bathroom attempted to say, "I'm thinking."

ユーフォー UFO

This is pronounced as a word and not as letters. (You foe)

Pink Lady, a disco singing 70's duo, had a very famous song called UFO. To be the life of the party, learn the dance that goes with the song.


マウス Mouth / Mouse

Here is where we separate the men from the mice.

At least we do in English.

Yes, in Katakana "Mouth" and "Mouse" are the same.

I team-taught with a Japanese teacher on body parts once. We had a good rhythm going, I pronounced the words, and the teacher would give the students some memory aid in Japanese. When we got to "mouth" she said, "You know, just like Mickey MOUSE!" My hopes for the nation-wide speech contest were dashed to mouse-bite-sized pieces.


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