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How To Convert English Phrases to Japanese

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

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

Figuring out how katakanization works is a crucial sensible talent for native English audio system who examine Japanese.

Phrases of English origin, once they get transformed to katakana, usually throw off native audio system of English. It is because it is arduous to unlearn their native tongue’s phonology — the sound system with a algorithm that they subconsciously comply with 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 usually spelled with katakana characters and are generally known as katakana-go (katakana phrases).

For my part as a local speaker of Japanese and a language lover, understanding how katakanization works is a crucial sensible talent for native English audio system who examine Japanese. Not solely can the flexibility to pronounce these phrases make it easier to to be extra simply understood by Japanese audio system, it additionally has the additional benefit of increasing your vocabulary, and virtually instantaneously, with out as a lot effort as you may suppose. And as you may already know, we use a number of katakanized loanwords of English origin. Like, loads.

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 be taught three primary guidelines for the way to katakanize English phrases. I’m hoping they are going to make it easier to to have the ability to katakanize phrases by yourself in an effort to pronounce phrases of English origin in a manner that Japanese audio system can simply perceive.

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

Why Katakanize?

Earlier than entering into the fundamental katakanization guidelines, first, let me clarify just a little extra about why I feel it is best to be taught them.

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

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

Probably the most widespread 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 until they know the unique English pronunciation of the phrase. Is not “having the ability to talk with Japanese individuals” the entire level of finding out Japanese (not less than, for a lot of of you), anyway?

Code-switching to your native tongue compromises intelligibility.

Whereas code-switching to your native tongue could provide you with some authenticity because the speaker of the unique language, it compromises intelligibility. You would strive asking “McDonald’s-tte doko desu ka?” (The place is McDonald’s?) with perfectly-pronounced McDonald’s on the road in Japan. You would 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’d probably get that horrified, oh-no-this-person-is-talking-to-me-in-English look.

Observe that for katakanized phrases which are significantly lengthy and could be a little bit trippy, you’ll be able to often shorten them — the truth is, many Japanese individuals 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 the beginning.

Japanese Audio system Use English Loanwords, Like A Lot

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

Names of restaurant and retailer chains are usually not 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 have been overseas loanwords, most of them being of English origin. A 2010 guide about wasei eigo (Japan-made English) additionally indicated that Japanese individuals use 3,000 – 5,000 loanwords in day by day conversations, and 94% of them are of English origin. After all, these research are from years in the past, so we most likely use much more katakana phrases in Japanese right this moment. The purpose is, it is so arduous to hold on conversations in Japanese with out Western loanwords that Japan even has a ingesting sport the place it’s a must 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 could be a problem, it might make it easier to change into 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 are usually not permitted within the Japanese phonology, identical to the French guttural /r/ is not in English. One of many (many) the reason why English pronunciation is a pure nightmare for Japanese highschool children is that Japanese doesn’t enable any syllables ending with a consonant excluding /n/ (ン). English has 1000’s of phrases ending with consonants like cat, look and ship however they’re merely unpronounceable within the Japanese phonological universe.

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

Complicated syllables like energy, sixth and garments are much more unpronounceable for Japanese audio system as a result of the Japanese phonology would not allow two or extra consonants to be squeezed collectively. The English /th/ sound is completely impermissible in Japanese — the truth is, in most human languages — and subsequently must be changed with the closest Japanese sound /s/ as in surī (スリー) “three.” Merely put, there is no such thing as a selection apart from to katakanize them to make them pronounceable inside the Japanese phonology.

So katakanization would 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 primary conversion guidelines that native Japanese audio system subconsciously apply.

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

Rule #1: Add Vowels

When a consonant will not be instantly adopted by a vowel, you add a vowel.

It is because every sound often entails a vowel in Japanese. The ン (/n/, or /m/) sound is an exception, however apart from 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 know the way katakana works, this most likely is smart 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 “threat” for example. First, r is adopted by a vowel i, so that you simply depart it alone. However the remainder, s and ok are usually not adopted by a vowel. For s, you add u. For ok, add u. And you will get ri-su-ku — リスク.

Check out one other instance — the phrase “dimension.” Whenever you attempt to parse it, you see two pairs of a consonant and a vowel — si and ze. So it might be… シゼ…? No, not that. Watch out to not get confused with the spelling and the sound. The phrase “dimension” seems 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 helpful for katakanization. Now, going again to the “dimension (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 “dimension” in Japanese.

Rule #2: Substitute Sounds

Substitute illegitimate sounds with related reliable 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 would not actually exist in Japanese, and the closest sound is the s sound. Because of this “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 would not have, you may be changing sounds with the Japanese equivalents. Now let’s take a deeper look.


As you might 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 on daily basis /ˈɛvɹiˌdeɪ/ ブリデイ
ɔ on /ɔn/

All examples above begin with vowels for the sake of instance, however after all, this alternative 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 terms of 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 similar to in British English, automotive is カー (), 4 is フォー () and earth is アース (āsu).


Now, onto consonants! Identical to among 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 below 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 listing, are you able to guess what the phrase “stomach” would appear to be in katakana?

Stomach can 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 probably ベリー complicated), proper?

There are additionally a number of consonant + vowel pairs that we pronounce in a different way in English but get represented with the identical katakana character in Japanese. These variations could be extra refined than those proven above, however for instance, si and shi each change into シ. So “sea” and “she” each change into シー in katakana. Equally, the voiced variations of those sounds, “zi” and “ji” each change into 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 signify 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 signify these fast pauses. You will be duplicating the “cease” consonants, that are /p/, /b/, /ch/, /j/, /t/, /d/, /ok/ and /g/ — sounds you make by blocking the air stream.

Now, let’s apply 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 typically 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 remember 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 discovered the three primary 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 must make small changes right here and there.

Mixture Katakana

In the event you’re hoping to take your katakanization to the subsequent degree, it might be a good suggestion to evaluation mixture katakana. Mixture katakana are katakana characters product of a mix with a small character like フォ, ティ, or ジュ.

For instance, you may count on “cat” to change into katto (カット), but it surely really needs to 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 could be comparatively widespread katakana mixtures, however there are some curveballs you may not be so acquainted with — 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 signify sounds that we did not have in Japanese — the sounds are even nearer to the unique English pronunciations.

As we speak, loanwords generally tend to use mixture katakana to raised signify 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 generally tend to use mixture katakana to raised signify 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 today, アイディア is way extra widespread. And, this results in the subsequent word: be careful for older loanwords!

Watch Out for Older Loanwords

A few of you will have already seen widespread English loanwords do not actually comply with 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 previous borrowings that got here to Japan earlier than the conversion guidelines turned constant.

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

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

Katakanize Like a Professional

Katakanization could be a problem for native-English-speaking learners, even those that are already fluent in Japanese. Nevertheless, remember studying the way to katakanize won’t solely make it easier to higher acclimate to Japanese phonology and enhance your total pronunciation, but in addition make your spoken Japanese extra understandable and approachable. And should you take a look at it from a unique perspective — being an English speaker will also be a bonus in Japanese studying if you know the way katakanization works. Whenever you begin having the ability to convert English phrases to katakana easily, and acknowledge extra katakana phrases that Japanese audio system use, you’d be stunned what number of phrases you realize already!

I hope the three primary guidelines and further ideas make it easier to construct a very good basis for katakana conversion. It’s a extremely sensible talent and probably a sport changer to carry your Japanese to the subsequent degree. So, hold katakanizing and continue learning — Guddo rakku!



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