Japanese words that even the most proficient learners of the language find the hardest to pronounce can be, ironically, the ones borrowed from their own native tongue.
My wife, who’s originally from the United States and now is a fluent speaker of Japanese after living in Japan for 15 years, still struggles to pronounce one of her home country’s most well-known brands — “McDonald’s,” which in Japanese is マクドナルド (makudonarudo).
Knowing how katakanization works is an important practical skill for native English speakers who study Japanese.
Words of English origin, when they get converted to katakana, often throw off native speakers of English. This is because it’s hard to unlearn their native tongue’s phonology — the sound system with a set of rules that they subconsciously follow since their early childhood — and then modify the original sound to match the Japanese phonology. I call this process katakanization because foreign words adapted into Japanese are typically spelled with katakana characters and are commonly called katakana-go (katakana words).
In my opinion as a native speaker of Japanese and a language lover, knowing how katakanization works is an important practical skill for native English speakers who study Japanese. Not only can the ability to pronounce these words help you to be more easily understood by Japanese speakers, it also has the added benefit of expanding your vocabulary, and almost instantaneously, without as much effort as you might think. And as you might already know, we use a lot of katakanized loanwords of English origin. Like, a lot.
So I am writing this article with the hope of helping native-English-speaking Japanese learners who struggle with one of the biggest quirks of the Japanese language — katakana words. Later in this article, you will learn three basic rules for how to katakanize English words. I am hoping they will help you to be able to katakanize words on your own so that you can pronounce words of English origin in a way that Japanese speakers can easily understand.
Prerequisites: To get the most out of this article, you should already know katakana (especially how to pronounce them). If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Katakana Guide.
Before getting into the basic katakanization rules, first, let me explain a little more about why I think you should learn them.
Nobody Wants That “Oh-No-This-Person-Is-Talking-to-Me-in-English Look,” Right?
One of the most common reasons I hear some learners (even when their Japanese is pretty advanced) avoid katakanizing English words is, “Why can’t I just pronounce English words correctly?”
The answer is pretty simple. Many Japanese speakers wouldn’t be able to understand it unless they know the original English pronunciation of the word. Isn’t “being able to communicate with Japanese people” the whole point of studying Japanese (at least, for many of you), anyway?
Code-switching to your native tongue compromises intelligibility.
While code-switching to your native tongue may give you some authenticity as the speaker of the original language, it compromises intelligibility. You could try asking “McDonald’s-tte doko desu ka?” (Where is McDonald’s?) with perfectly-pronounced McDonald’s on the street in Japan. You could also try asking where “Seven-Eleven” is without katakanizing it to sebun irebun (セブンイレブン). In either case, you would most likely get that horrified, oh-no-this-person-is-talking-to-me-in-English look.
Note that for katakanized words that are particularly long and can be a little bit trippy, you can usually shorten them — in fact, many Japanese people do! Take the previous example of マクドナルド; this can be shortened to マック or マクド. Similarly, セブンイレブン becomes セブン. So don’t worry if you don’t have full confidence of pronunciation just at the start.
Japanese Speakers Use English Loanwords, Like A Lot
Japanese people use 3,000 – 5,000 loanwords in daily conversations, and 94% of them are of English origin.
Names of restaurant and store chains are not the only English words borrowed into the Japanese language. English-derived loanwords have been deeply woven into Japanese, both written and spoken. A study from the 1990s showed that over 35% of all vocabulary printed in 70 Japanese magazines were foreign loanwords, most of them being of English origin. A 2010 book about wasei eigo (Japan-made English) also indicated that Japanese people use 3,000 – 5,000 loanwords in daily conversations, and 94% of them are of English origin. Of course, these studies are from years ago, so we probably use even more katakana words in Japanese today. The point is, it’s so hard to carry on conversations in Japanese without Western loanwords that Japan even has a drinking game where you have to take a shot every time you use one!
The portion of English loanwords in Japanese is increasing with the influx of new technologies and concepts are evident in software 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 install the application.” With this, it’s becoming all the more beneficial to know how katakanization works. While having to Japanize your native tongue can be a challenge, it may help you become more approachable for people who grew up speaking Japanese.
Unpronounceable English Sounds
You may also want to ask why Japanese speakers katakanize English words in the first place. It’s simply because many sound patterns in English are not permitted in the Japanese phonology, just like the French guttural
/r/ isn’t in English. One of the (many) reasons why English pronunciation is a pure nightmare for Japanese high school kids is that Japanese does not allow any syllables ending with a consonant with the exception of
/n/ (ン). English has thousands of words ending with consonants like cat, look and ship but they are simply unpronounceable in the Japanese phonological universe.
There is no choice other than to katakanize loanwords to make them pronounceable within the Japanese phonology.
Complex syllables like strength, sixth and clothes are even more unpronounceable for Japanese speakers because the Japanese phonology doesn’t permit two or more consonants to be squeezed together. The English
/th/ sound is totally impermissible in Japanese — in fact, in most human languages — and therefore needs to be replaced with the closest Japanese sound
/s/ as in surī (スリー) “three.” Simply put, there is no choice other than to katakanize them to make them pronounceable within the Japanese phonology.
So katakanization doesn’t exactly happen because of the writing system. It’s precisely because of the Japanese phonology that governs how words are pronounced in the language.
Basic Conversion Rules
So how exactly does katakanization work? Although we have some exceptions, there are three basic conversion rules that native Japanese speakers subconsciously apply.
Note: IPA symbols we use in this article are based on American English pronunciations.
Rule #1: Add Vowels
When a consonant is not immediately followed by a vowel, you add a vowel.
This is because each sound usually involves a vowel in Japanese. The ン (
/m/) sound is an exception, but besides that, a unit of Japanese sounds is either 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 how katakana works, this probably makes sense to you.
Now, what vowel should I be adding, right? That is:
- Nothing after
Let’s use the word “risk” as an example. First, r is followed by a vowel i, so you just leave it alone. But the rest, s and k are not followed by a vowel. For s, you add u. For k, add u. And you’ll get ri-su-ku — リスク.
Take a look at another example — the word “size.” When you try to parse it, you see two pairs of a consonant and a vowel — si and ze. So it would be… シゼ…? No, not that. Be careful not to get confused with the spelling and the sound. The word “size” sounds like “saiz,” right? In case you can’t think of the phonetic spelling off the top of your head, there are converters like this that might come handy for katakanization. Now, going back to the “size (saiz)”, z is the only sound that’s not followed by a vowel. So you add a u there, and now you’ve got sa-i-zu — サイズ. That’s how you write and say “size” in Japanese.
Rule #2: Replace Sounds
Replace illegitimate sounds with similar legitimate Japanese sounds.
You might already know this, but the Japanese language has fewer sounds than the sounds English has. Like I mentioned earlier, the th
/θ/ sound doesn’t really exist in Japanese, and the closest sound is the s sound. This is why “three” becomes surii (スリー) and “thank you” becomes sankyū (サンキュー) in Japanese. Just like that, for sounds that the Japanese language doesn’t have, you’ll be replacing sounds with the Japanese equivalents. Now let’s take a deeper look.
As you may know, Japanese has only five vowel sounds ア, イ, ウ, エ, and オ. That’s obviously more limited compared to English — for example, English has three “a” sounds (
/ə/), but ア replaces them all.
|every day /ˈɛvɹiˌdeɪ/
All examples above start with vowels for the sake of example, but of course, this replacement rule applies to a combination of vowels and consonants.
Words “hat” and “hut” — they have the different “a” sounds, but in Japanese, they both get converted to ハット because the
/ʌ/ sounds both replace to ア. This means “cowboy hat” (カウボーイハット) and “Pizza Hut” (ピザハット) — they both use ハット despite the difference in the English sounds.
Also, when it comes to vowels, pay attention to the length of the vowel in question. Long, extended vowel sounds are represented as “ー,” the hyphen-looking symbol in Japanese. For example, “pull” is プル (puru), but “pool” is プール (pūru). An
/r/ after a vowel as in car, four and earth becomes the extension of the vowel as well. So, much like in British English, car is カー (kā), four is フォー (fō) and earth is アース (āsu).
Now, onto consonants! Just like some of the vowels, there are several English consonant sounds that don’t really exist in Japanese, and thus get replaced with the closest sound instead. Here are some examples.
Now, looking at this list, can you guess what the word “belly” would look like in katakana?
Belly would be ベリー, just like “berry” and “very.” That’s because there’s no difference in sound between “b” and “v” nor “r” and “l” in Japanese. ベリー interesting (…and potentially ベリー confusing), right?
There are also a few consonant + vowel pairs that we pronounce differently in English yet get represented with the same katakana character in Japanese. These differences might be more subtle than the ones shown above, but for example, si and shi both become シ. So “sea” and “she” both become シー in katakana. Similarly, the voiced versions of these sounds, “zi” and “ji” both become ジ.
Rule #3: Duplicate Consonants
Duplicate the “stop” consonant at the end of the word if it occurs after a short vowel.
Bit, dip, look… What makes these words sound so skippy? It is the quick “pause” between sounds. In romaji to represent this kind of sound, we use duplicated consonants like bitto, right? In katakana, we use ッ (the small tsu) as in ビット to represent these quick pauses. You’ll be duplicating the “stop” consonants, which are
/g/ — sounds you make by blocking the air flow.
Now, let’s practice katakanizing “dip” and “look” — “dip” becomes ディップ (dippu) and “look” becomes ルック(rukku). Are you getting the gist?
Bear in mind this rule generally applies to the last syllable only. For example, picnic becomes pikunikku (ピクニック) instead of pikkunikku (ピックニック). Also don’t forget this only happens to the consonant after a short vowel as opposed to long vowels, like beat, deep, or Luke.
Congrats, you’ve just learned the three basic rules of katakanization! Although these three rules account for most katakanization processes, they won’t simply make you a master of katakanization. You’ll still encounter curve balls and some tricky ones — for these, you still need to make small adjustments here and there.
If you’re hoping to take your katakanization to the next level, it would be a good idea to review combination katakana. Combination katakana are katakana characters made of a combination with a small character like フォ, ティ, or ジュ.
For example, you might expect “cat” to become katto (カット), but it actually has to be kyatto (キャット) because the vowel of cat makes the c sound more like the Japanese
/kya/ sound than the
/ka/ sound. Similarly, “gap” becomes gyappu (ギャップ) instead of gappu (ガップ). That’s too easy? These might be relatively common katakana combinations, but there are some curveballs you might not be so familiar with — like トゥ as in トゥモロー (tomorrow), or デュ as in デュエット (duet).
These combination katakana are the unsung heroes of katakana. They allow us to represent sounds that we didn’t have in Japanese — the sounds are even closer to the original English pronunciations.
Today, loanwords have a tendency to apply combination katakana to better represent the original sounds.
However, combination katakana can be less familiar and not-so-easy-to-pronounce for Japanese speakers, especially older folks. Today, loanwords have a tendency to apply combination katakana to better represent the original sounds, but this wasn’t always the case. For example, “idea” used to be commonly written as アイデア in katakana, but these days, アイディア is far more common. And, this leads to the next note: watch out for older loanwords!
Watch Out for Older Loanwords
Some of you may have already noticed common English loanwords don’t really follow the basic rules. 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 is because these words are relatively old borrowings that came to Japan before the conversion rules became consistent.
Older loanwords are often the way they are for customary reasons — you’ll need to remember how to spell them in katakana.
As you might’ve noticed, a part of this reason is the no-use of combination katakana. Sounds that we traditionally didn’t have or uncommon sounds in Japanese were replaced with ones easier to pronounce and recognize for Japanese speakers. So if they were borrowed today, they would be katakanized differently — like レイディオ. However, many of them remain the same despite the change as we are already used to the way they are! That means, older loanwords are often the way they are for customary reasons — you’ll need to remember how to spell them in katakana.
Katakanize Like a Pro
Katakanization can be a challenge for native-English-speaking learners, even those who are already fluent in Japanese. However, don’t forget learning how to katakanize will not only help you better acclimate to Japanese phonology and improve your overall pronunciation, but also make your spoken Japanese more comprehensible and approachable. And if you look at it from a different perspective — being an English speaker can also be an advantage in Japanese learning if you know how katakanization works. When you start being able to convert English words to katakana smoothly, and recognize more katakana words that Japanese speakers use, you would be surprised how many words you know already!
I hope the three basic rules and extra tips help you build a good foundation for katakana conversion. It is a highly practical skill and potentially a game changer to bring your Japanese to the next level. So, keep katakanizing and keep learning — Guddo rakku!