Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Pronunciation Counts

I like Alton Brown, and his show "Good Eats," but like most Anglo-Americans, he murders a lot of Japanese words, mispronouncing: 
  • Dashi (flavored broth) as DOH-shi. It's DAH-shi.
  • Konbu (kelp) as KAHN-boo. It's KOHN-bu.
  • Oishi (tasty) as o-WEE-shi. It's OY-shi.

To the practiced ear of someone like me, who's grown up with a familiarity of Japanese terms, it just sounds silly. Correct pronunciation of foreign words is important; American, Canadian, English or Australian accents must be left on the table.

Forget the pearl-shaped tones. Be harsh. I heard a comedian once say that when you speak Japanese, you have to sound constipated. Funny, and pretty close to the truth.

Putting the ac-CENT on the wrong sil-LA-ble makes the speaker sound goofy. Hispanics usually have no trouble with Japanese words and names because their language generally follows the same rules as Asian languages.

And, to further confuse the Caucasian tongue, in Japanese the letter "A" is always pronounced "ah." "E" is pronounced "eh," "l" is pronounced "Ee," and "U" is pronounced "oo." Only "O" is pronounced the same—"oh."

When I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'50s to attend Woodbury College, my professors (and practically every Caucasian I met, by the way) called me "Maya-MOTTO." So wrong. I always had to correct them: "It's 'MIA' as in 'Mia Farrow,' and 'moto' as in 'Mr. Moto.' MIA-moto.

"Think of the Japanese samurai, Miyamoto Musashi."


... (Silence)

All of this reminds me of the time I dropped into a knife shop in a New Orleans shopping mall and overheard the store clerk talking to a well-dressed young man about Japanese swords. He obviously was trying to impress a naive buyer and make a sale.

He kept pronouncing katana as ka-TAH-na. Over and over again, ad nauseum

I couldn't stand it anymore, interrupted and corrected him in front of the potential customer: "Excuse me, but it's not pronounced 'ka-TAH-na' ... it's pronounced "KAHT-a-NAH."

His forehead squinched and his shoulders sagged. The customer laughed, thanked me and walked out chuckling.

I felt a little bad about ruining his sale, but a yonsei (fourth generation, pronounced YON-sei) Japanese-American has got to do what he's got to do.

P.S., And it's "kara-OH-keh," not "Kerry-oky." That one's just plain STOO-pit.


Carolyn said...

OK, I practiced all of these, now my tongue is twisted beyond repair! :)

Craig Miyamoto said...

LOL, Carolyn. Practice, practice, practice makes per-FECT.