19 August 2015

The folly of trying to pronounce a place "like the natives do"

Well intentioned people often insist on trying to pronounce placenames in the "authentic" native form, even when there's a well-known variation in their own language.

At times, that change is remarkably successful, such as the change of "Peking" to "Beijing". There is an argument that this is futile, however, as the Chinese phonemes are rarely that close to English ones, and the tones of the Chinese are completely absent.

About a fortnight ago, the TV was marking the 70th anniversary of the brutal slaughter of the people of Hiroshima.

Now, most of us say "hiROshima", but a few people say "HEEroSHEEma". I thought about it a bit, and I figured that the first one is probably right, as the second one sounds like two words. I then looked up on the internet, and felt a bit sheepish when I read that the name means "wide island" in Japanese. Two words? Oh. But then I brought up Forvo and nope -- it's pronounced as one word.

So why do we end up with two forms in English?

It's all about perception. There are multiple things that you might detect. First up, there's word stress. In Japanese, Hiroshima is stressed on the second syllable, which is how I pronounce it in English. However, a knock-on effect of English stress is that adjacent syllables are weakened, so the Is are both I-schwa in English. However, in Japanese, vowels are generally clear, and vowel reduction is a matter of length, not vowel quality.

When the English speaker's ear hears Hiroshima, it either notes the correct stress, and fails to perceive the "EE" sounds, or it hears the EE sounds and fails to perceive the correct stress.

Which of these is further from the original? From an English speaker's perspective, it's impossible to say -- you need to make reference to the original language. I do not know for sure, but as Japanese has far fewer vowels than English, I would imagine hiROshima is readily recognised for the intended meaning, and that HEEroSHEEma would be pretty hard to process.

So it's a bit of a fool's errand trying to be "authentic", in my book.