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How To Convert English Phrases to Japanese

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

My spouse, who’s initially from america and now’s a fluent speaker of Japanese after residing in Japan for 15 years, nonetheless struggles to pronounce one in every of her house 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 ability for native English audio system who research Japanese.

Phrases of English origin, once they get transformed to katakana, typically throw off native audio system of English. It is because it is exhausting 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 sometimes spelled with katakana characters and are generally known as katakana-go (katakana phrases).

In my view as a local speaker of Japanese and a language lover, figuring out how katakanization works is a crucial sensible ability for native English audio system who research Japanese. Not solely can the power to pronounce these phrases assist you to be extra simply understood by Japanese audio system, it additionally has the additional benefit of increasing your vocabulary, and nearly instantaneously, with out as a lot effort as you would possibly assume. And as you would possibly already know, we use a variety of katakanized loanwords of English origin. Like, rather a lot.

So I’m writing this text with the hope of serving to native-English-speaking Japanese learners who battle with one of many largest quirks of the Japanese language — katakana phrases. Later on this article, you’ll study three fundamental guidelines for the right way to katakanaize English phrases. I’m hoping they are going to assist you to have the ability to katakanize phrases by yourself to be able to pronounce phrases of English origin in a manner that Japanese audio system can simply perceive.

Stipulations: To get probably the most out of this text, you must already know katakana (particularly the right way to pronounce them). If it’s worthwhile to brush up, take a look at our Final Katakana Information.

Why Katakanize?

Earlier than entering into the essential katakanization guidelines, first, let me clarify slightly extra about why I believe you must study them.

No one 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

Some of the frequent 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 appropriately?”

The reply is fairly easy. Many Japanese audio system would not be capable 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 (at the very least, for a lot of of you), anyway?

Code-switching to your native tongue compromises intelligibility.

Whereas code-switching to your native tongue might offer you some authenticity because the speaker of the unique language, it compromises intelligibility. You would attempt 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 attempt asking the place “Seven-Eleven” is with out katakanizing it to sebun irebun (セブンイレブン). In both case, you’ll most probably get that horrified, oh-no-this-person-is-talking-to-me-in-English look.

Word that for katakanized phrases which are significantly lengthy and could be a little bit trippy, you’ll be able to normally shorten them — in reality, 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 will not be the one English phrases borrowed into the Japanese language. English-derived loanwords have been deeply woven into Japanese, each written and spoken. A research from the 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. In fact, these research are from years in the past, so we most likely use much more katakana phrases in Japanese at the moment. The purpose is, it is so exhausting to hold on conversations in Japanese with out Western loanwords that Japan even has a ingesting sport the place you must take a shot each time you utilize one!

The portion of English loanwords in Japanese is growing 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 appliance.” With this, it is changing into all of the extra useful to know the way katakanization works. Whereas having to Japanize your native tongue could be a problem, it could assist you grow to be extra approachable for individuals who grew up talking Japanese.

Unpronounceable English Sounds

You might also need to ask why Japanese audio system katakanize English phrases within the first place. It is just because many sound patterns in English will not be 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 youngsters is that Japanese doesn’t permit any syllables ending with a consonant apart from /n/ (ン). English has hundreds of phrases ending with consonants like cat, look and ship however they’re merely unpronounceable within the Japanese phonological universe.

There is no such thing as a selection aside 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 — in reality, in most human languages — and due to this fact 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 aside 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 some exceptions, there are three fundamental conversion guidelines that native Japanese audio system subconsciously apply.

Word: 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 normally includes 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 sensible 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 instance. First, r is adopted by a vowel i, so that you simply go away it alone. However the remainder, s and ok will not be 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” feels 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 bought sa-i-zu — サイズ. That is the way you write and say “dimension” in Japanese.

Rule #2: Exchange Sounds

Exchange illegitimate sounds with comparable respectable Japanese sounds.

You would possibly 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. That is why “three” turns into surii (スリー) and “thanks” turns into sankyū (サンキュー) in Japanese. Similar 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 it’s possible you’ll 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 day by day /ˈɛvɹiˌdeɪ/ ブリデイ
ɔ on /ɔn/

All examples above begin with vowels for the sake of instance, however in fact, this alternative rule applies to a mixture of vowels and consonants.

hat /ˈt/ ット
hut /t/

Phrases “hat” and “hut” — they’ve the completely 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, on the subject 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 automobile, 4 and earth turns into the extension of the vowel as nicely. So, very similar to in British English, automobile is カー (), 4 is フォー () and earth is アース (āsu).


Now, onto consonants! Similar to a few of 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 here 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 could 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 attention-grabbing (…and probably ベリー complicated), proper?

There are additionally just a few consonant + vowel pairs that we pronounce in a different way in English but get represented with the identical katakana character in Japanese. These variations is likely to be extra refined than those proven above, however for instance, si and shi each grow to be シ. So “sea” and “she” each grow to be シー in katakana. Equally, the voiced variations of those sounds, “zi” and “ji” each grow to be 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 symbolize this sort of sound, we use duplicated consonants like bitto, proper? In katakana, we use ッ (the small tsu) as in ビット to symbolize these fast pauses. You may be duplicating the “cease” consonants, that are /p/, /b/, /ch/, /j/, /t/, /d/, /ok/ and /g/ — sounds you make by blocking the air circulation.

Now, let’s follow 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 usually 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 do not forget this solely occurs to the consonant after a brief 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 fundamental guidelines of katakanization! Though these three guidelines account for many katakanization processes, they will not merely make you a grasp of katakanization. You may nonetheless encounter curve balls and a few difficult ones — for these, you continue to must make small changes right here and there.

Mixture Katakana

If you happen to’re hoping to take your katakanization to the following degree, it might be a good suggestion to assessment mixture katakana. Mixture katakana are katakana characters fabricated from a mixture with a small character like フォ, ティ, or ジュ.

For instance, you would possibly count on “cat” to grow to be katto (カット), but it surely truly must 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 is likely to be comparatively frequent katakana mixtures, however there are some curveballs you won’t be so aware of — 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 symbolize sounds that we did not have in Japanese — the sounds are even nearer to the unique English pronunciations.

Right now, loanwords tend to use mixture katakana to raised symbolize the unique sounds.

Nonetheless, mixture katakana may be much less acquainted and not-so-easy-to-pronounce for Japanese audio system, particularly older of us. Right now, loanwords tend to use mixture katakana to raised symbolize the unique sounds, however this wasn’t at all times the case. For instance, “thought” was generally written as アイデア in katakana, however today, アイディア is much extra frequent. And, this results in the following word: be careful for older loanwords!

Watch Out for Older Loanwords

A few of you will have already seen frequent English loanwords do not actually comply with the essential 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 way in which they’re for customary causes — you may want to recollect the right way to spell them in katakana.

As you would possibly’ve seen, part of this purpose 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 at the moment, they’d be katakanized in a different way — like レイディオ. Nonetheless, lots of them stay the identical regardless of the change as we’re already used to the way in which they’re! Which means, older loanwords are sometimes the way in which they’re for customary causes — you may want to recollect the right 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. Nonetheless, do not forget studying the right way to katakanize won’t solely assist you higher acclimate to Japanese phonology and enhance your general pronunciation, but in addition make your spoken Japanese extra understandable and approachable. And when you take a look at it from a distinct perspective — being an English speaker can 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’ll be shocked what number of phrases you already know already!

I hope the three fundamental guidelines and further suggestions assist you construct a very good basis for katakana conversion. It’s a extremely sensible ability and probably a sport changer to deliver your Japanese to the following degree. So, preserve katakanizing and continue to learn — Guddo rakku!

Rafael Gomes de Azevedo
Rafael Gomes de Azevedo
He started his career as a columnist, contributing to the staff of a local blog. His articles with amusing views on everyday situations in the news soon became one of the main features of the current editions of the blog. For the divergences of thought about which direction the blog would follow. He left and founded three other great journalistic blogs,, and With a certain passion for writing, holder of a versatile talent, in addition to coordinating, directing, he writes fantastic scripts quickly, he likes to say that he writes for a select group of enthusiasts in love with serious and true writing.


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