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The Japanese Language and Its Syllabification

The structure of the Japanese language may seem strange to speakers of English and other Indo-European languages but in the collection of world languages the structures of Japanese are as common as those of the more familiar Indo-European languages. For example, the typical word order of a sentence in Japanese is [Subject-Object-Verb], in contrast to the [Subject-Verb-Object] of English. See the typology of language grammars and word order typology.

The Syllabification of Japanese Words

Japanese syllables usually consist of a vowel preceded by a consonant. These are called open syllables. In some cases for an initial syllable of a word the consonant may be missing as in okura, o-ku-ra. There may be a [y] sound following the consonant and preceding the vowel.

Some syllables are closed, either with nasalization or checking, as explained below.

The form of nasalization depends upon the consonant of the following syllable. Before {p, b, m} the nasalization is [m]. Before {t, d, n} it is [n]. Before {k, g, ng} the nasalization is [ng]. Before {y} it is a nasalized [i] and before {w} it is a nasalized [u].

Checking takes the form of creating an implosive version of the following explosive consonant. For example, English cattails or lead dog

Some times the vowel of a syllable is duplicated, as in shogun, pronounced as sho-o-gun.

The final syllable of a word will end in a vowel or a nasalized [m], [n] or [ng].

Syllable Accent of Japanese Words

Japanese does not have the stress accent which other languages such as English have. That is to say, none of the syllables of a Japanese word are pronounced louder or longer than the other syllables. What Japanese does have instead is a musical pitch accent. An accented syllable is pronounced with a higher pitch than the other syllables. Therefore after an accented syllable the pitch falls. This feature is phonemic, meaning that if the pitch accent is shifted to a different syllable in a word the meaning changes. The pitch accent gives a melodic quality to spoken Japanese.

The Modification of Foreign Loan Words to Accommodate
the Phonic and Syllabic Structure of Japanese

Since Japanese syllables have a single vowel preceded by no more than one consonant, consonant clusters of foreign words have to be broken up and vowels adjoined to made them into separate syllables. For example, the Portuguese word for playing card, carta, became the Japanese word karuta. The final [r] of the first syllable was split off and the vowel [u] added. Thus car-ta became ka-ru-ta.

If a foreign word ends in a consonant then a vowel is supplied to create a syllable. For example, the Dutch word gom, meaning gum or rubber, became in Japanese gomu, go-mu. Other examples, also from Dutch, are bier (beer) which became bii-ru, and mes (knife), which became me-su; i.e., biiru and mesu. The German word for labor, Arbeit, became the Japanese word for a job, a-ru-bai-to, arubaito.

In the process previously described there is an allowance made for nasalization and checking. For example the Portuguese word for bread pão, pronounced pan, was adopted into the Japanese language without adding a vowel to the final [n] sound because that [n] sound was acceptable as a nasalization for the syllable pa. Likewise the Portuguese word botão, pronounced botan and meaning button, became the Japanese word for button, botan.

Two examples of the process of checking, the duplication of the consonant of the following syllable, are the adoption of the English word bed as bed-do, beddo and mob as mob-bu,mobbu.

If a consonant in a foreign word is not in the set of Japanese consonants then a substitution of the nearest sound is made. For example, [l] is not a Japanese consonant so [r] is substituted for [l]. Thus the Dutch word glas (glass) became the Japanese word garusu. The gl cluster was split and [r] was substituted for [l] and the vowel [a] was added to the [r]. The vowel [u] was added to the final consonant [s]. Thus glas became ga-ra-su garasu. Another example is the way the German word for money, Geld became the Japanese word gerudo. The [ld] was split, the [l] changed to [r] and an [o] added to the final [d]. Thus Geld became ge-ru-do.

(Note that letter combinations such as [sh] and [th] are not consonant clusters. The are simply two-letter symbolization of phonemes.)

The French word avec, meaning with, became the Japanese word for a date, abekku. The initial [a] was acceptable as a syllable. The [v] was changed to [b]. The final [k] had a [u] added. Then by the process of checking the [k] of the final syllable was adjoined to the second syllable to give bek. Thus avec became a-bek-ku, abekku. The English work Viking became the Japanese word for smorgasborg as bai-kin-gu.

With the above information it is no mystery why the English word club became kurabu in Japanese.

In some cases consonants which are available in Japanese are changed in particular phonetic situations into other consonants. The sound [f] can be changed to [h]. For example, Dutch koffie (coffee) became ko-hi, kohi. The Portugues word padre (father) became in the Japanese word ba-te-ren, bateren (priest). The English word platform became through some irregular changes the Japanese word pu-rat-to-ho-mu.

There are some foreign words whose adopted form do not quite fit the patterns described above. The English term beef steak became in Japanese bifateki. The disappearance of the [s] is unexplained, but probably had something to do with the similarity of the [s] sound and the [f] sound. Another anomaly is the adoption of English hash as ha-ya-shi, hayashi.

(To be continued.)

For material on Japanese place names see Place Names.

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