Many times I have been baffled by odd pronunciations of Japanese words in English. Odd Japanese pronunciations of foreign words – commonly a source of derision from the Western world – generally result from certain sounds simply not existing in Japanese. Most English mispronunciations of Japanese words on the other hand seem to have no reasonable source.

Take for instance the brewed rice beverage sake (酒). Until recent trends of popularity, virtually everyone would pronounce it something like ‘socky’, which is in fact listed in the dictionary as the correct English pronunciation. Every American pre-schooler has the linguistic ability to properly make the sound of the letter K, so there’s no reason we can’t use the correct Japanese pronunciation. (We can try to blame the Dutch, since it seems we merely adopted their 400 plus year old mispronunciation.)

Other cases are words like ‘kimono’ (着物) or ‘samurai’ (侍), where the issue is laziness. Our chosen pronunciation of the vowels is more like we were reading an English word, which is admittedly easier for the mind. Perhaps if we still studied Latin (or maybe Spanish) in school, this would not be the case.

Today one popped up. Reading my title, what did you suppose would be my topic? The word hari-kiri was used to describe a 3rd grader’s feelings about her upcoming chance to spend the weekend with me and speak English.

Unfortunately most English representations of the traditional face-restoring suicide practice, seppuku (切腹), generally sound something like the famous sports announcer’s name Harry Carey. In actuality it is hara-kiri (腹切). Fortunately, nobody is expressing shame at having to speak English with me…

Hari-kiri (張り切り) has many uses including ‘work hard’, ‘be eager’, ‘be in high spirits’. Let’s just say, someone is eager to speak with me; a thought that makes me feel good.

Why do you suppose we choose not to pronounce Japanese words correctly?


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4 Responses to “Hari-Kiri”

  1. Navarr Says:

    Its not really that we choose not to pronounce them correctly, but probably the americans who passed down these incorrect terms saw them in writing first (except for Sake, which you’d think we’d pronounce as (for pete’s) sake).

    Its interesting to note, however, that you didn’t even use the most commonly mispronounced Japanese words as one of your examples: Karaoke (Kerry-okey).

  2. びっくり Says:

    Navarr – indeed Karaoke is a fun one. I often hear it pronounced like Croaky, which is quite prophetic – having seen my share of not good singers belt out tunes ’til the machine shuts down for the night. 🙂

  3. Stefanie Says:

    I can only speak for myself, but I know I don’t willfully mispronounce Japanese words. Not knowing a thing about Japanese pronunciation, I can only guess by how the word is spelled. But if I hear the word pronounced by someone who knows the correct way to say it then I will change the way I say the word. Thanks for the additional definitions of hari-kiri!

  4. びっくり Says:

    Indeed, many mispronunciations are not willful. They are systematic, and in the case of some, like sake, were decided hundreds of years ago. Thanks to your comment, I realize I was probably ranting. 🙂

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