Is Japanese the only language this perverse?
February 2, 2015 3:16 AM   Subscribe

In Japanese there is only a tenuous relationship between the way something is written, and the way it's pronounced. This is particularly true of names. I'm wondering if Japanese is the only language like this. For example, the simple name 一 can be read something like 7 ways, each of which sounds nothing like the others (Ichi, Kazu, Hajime, etc.).

The name 文明 could be pronounced Fumiaki or Bunmei. As a translator, I've had to explain to English clients that the fact that I had no idea how names were read did not mean I was incompetent.

So, is Japanese the only language this perverse?
posted by zachawry to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Chinese can be similar, some characters have two or three pronunciations, but generally you can figure out which one is correct by the context. There is a list that one of the staff wrote up where she was given the Chinese name and asked to write the pinyin (romanization) and she wrote liwen/diwen as she wasn't sure which was correct, because names give less context to the pronunciation.
posted by sarae at 4:04 AM on February 2, 2015

Response by poster: Really? I had thought that in Chinese there was a one-to-one correlation between characters and readings (in any given dialect).
posted by zachawry at 4:08 AM on February 2, 2015

English has a number of examples. How do you pronounce Belvoir, Cholmondeley, Menzies, Waldegrave? Amongst others, the correct pronunciation is not as they look.
posted by biffa at 4:12 AM on February 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

The examples you give all involve Chinese characters (kanji / hanzi / hanja). Kanji is a borrowed writing system, and a peculiar one in that while the meaning of the characters was retained even when used outside of China, the pronunciation didn't travel with it, and local readings developed. Some hanja are also read multiple ways in Korean, but it's context-dependent with some alteration in meaning for the different readings.

So it's not Japanese writing as a whole, but how Chinese characters got adopted into the language. For writing things as they are pronounced there are hiragana and katakana. And they get used in furigana to indicate how something written in kanji should be read.
posted by needled at 4:26 AM on February 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Latin has multiple ways of pronunciation, which can cause the whole language to sound radically different. It is possible to know by the way somebody speaks Latin whether they are English, French, German, or pedant.
posted by Thing at 4:31 AM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do dead languages count? From the wikipedia page on Pahlavi script:
In both Inscriptional and Book Pahlavi, many common words, including even pronouns, particles, numerals, and auxiliaries, were replaced by their Imperial Aramaic equivalents, which were used as logograms. For example, the word for "dog" was written as ⟨KLBʼ⟩ (Aramaic kalbā) but pronounced sag; and the word for "bread" would be written as Aramaic ⟨LḤMʼ⟩ (laḥmā) but understood as the sign for Iranian nān. These words were known as huzvarishn.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:06 AM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would suspect Chữ nôm (classical written Vietnamese) would have some of the same issues. Any language that uses Chinese characters is going to be "perverse."
posted by Nevin at 5:11 AM on February 2, 2015

Actually, in Japanese we can separate the readings of kanji in two ways: 音読み、which is the Chinese way, and 訓読み which is the Japanese way. They are distinctly different (訓読み will require 送り仮名)and the variations within the chinese 音読み is quite similar to each other.

How to read names are quite a different story though. In Japan, we have certain limitations when naming a child, for example the kanjis must be within the 常用漢字 and 人名漢字, but in terms of how to read the kanjis, we have complete carte blanche. The kanji and the pronunciation don't have to correspond to each other whatsoever. This means that you can name a child 光 and read it "ライト (light)". The name doesn't even have to correspond to the meaning of the kanji, and could just be pronounced James, if you wanted to. Especially now days, people are much more concerned with the symbolic meaning of the kanjis, but want to sound unique and different. As a translator, you may want to explain to your clients this fact, and how it is basically impossible to guess how to pronounce a modern Japanese name without them telling you. Of course, traditional names are quite a safe bet. You can google 人名 or 命名 and you will get more information about this.
posted by snufkin5 at 5:34 AM on February 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

This goes on in English a lot too and not just with proper nouns.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

The full poem is really quite long and hard to read out loud correctly on your first try!
posted by Braeburn at 5:47 AM on February 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Cuneiform, when used to write certain languages, has polyvalency for some signs. They can mean a given sound, an idea, a specific word in Sumerian, or even something else. Sadly I do not know the details of how it works, but it definitely leads to the same situation as you find in Japanese.
posted by Thing at 6:03 AM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

In Japanese there is only a tenuous relationship between the way something is written, and the way it's pronounced

I have an answer for you but first I would like to address this claim, which I believe rather overstates the case. (having just sat for Level 2 of the Kanji Kentei (漢字検定二級) about 48 hours ago, I feel uniquely qualified (at least on this site) to answer). I think that reading conventions for jukugo are pretty straightforward unless it is a word with off-list readings like 山車 or 権化. To use a reading question from Saturday's test, it's the rare person who is going to misread 陰鬱 or 陥没. Names are a different story, although 文明, more especially read ぶんめい, would be very unusual because that is already a common noun meaning "civilization" (the Bunmei era is not named for a person's given name). Still, with names it is much more the case that "there are many ways to write 'Toshiro'" rather than "there are many ways to read 敏郎, one of which happens to be 'Toshiro'". Also, Japanese people know if their names have uncommon readings. Someone named 愛 will probably not warn you if her name is read あい, but you might be told in advance that it is read 愛.

To answer your question, Irish orthography can be daunting with its affinity for silent consonants, although these conventions are often easy to learn once you "know the rules". For example, "tuigim" (tigim) is "I understand", but "ní thuigim" (ni higim) is "I don't understand" and the "t" becomes silent but remains there to let you know what the original letter was. For "do you understand", it is "an dtuigeann" (an digin) where again the "t" becomes silent and the "d" is the initial consonant. There are also consonant clusters such as "bhfuil", which is pronounced "will". "Maith" is simply "ma".
posted by Tanizaki at 6:33 AM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

As you know, Zach (hi, Zach! Long time no), it's not so much names, it's male given names. Female given names are rarely ambiguous, and with some notable exceptions, surnames are also predictable.

So I think there's a cultural factor overlaying the linguistic issue of many-to-many correspondences between male given names and their orthographies, which may have something to do with the fact that men are so rarely addressed by their given name, and also with the playful nature of Japanese orthography, and perhaps even with using obscure kanji combinations as a way of showing off erudition.

Rigorous spelling was never a priority in English until the advent of Sam Johnson's dictionary, Shakespeare spelled his own last name seven (?) different ways. So the English emphasis on orthographic uniformity (we certainly can't call English writing "consistent") is itself a relatively recent thing, and even common names can still be spelled in different ways. John/Jon, Smith/Smythe. Japanese didn't get over 変体仮名 until around 1900, and they're still in limited use even now. So there may be a layer of societal fashion at work.
posted by adamrice at 7:25 AM on February 2, 2015

If you wanted to make an analogy in English for the people you translate for, a word like "read" might be a little more apt than Menzies (the pronunciation is counterintuitive but probably consistent) or the comparison between Susy and busy (two obviously different words).

The word "read" can be pronounced either "reed" or "red", and its pronunciation depends entirely on grammatical tense, which is derived from context. Sometimes, within a sentence, it's hard to know which version is meant, for example, "I read The New Yorker." Are you in the habit of reading The New Yorker, or are you saying that once upon a time, in the past tense, you read The New Yorker? So, with this particular word in English, even native speakers sometimes have to stop and think of which word is meant by the letters r-e-a-d. Obviously not as complicated as Japanese kanji (only two choices, and this is a rare exception in English), but it might give other people a vague sense of what's up when you can't easily determine what is meant by a particular written word in Japanese.
posted by Sara C. at 8:16 AM on February 2, 2015

These words are heteronyms, which are a subset of homographs. That Wikipedia page lists homographs in English and Chinese. This Stack Exchange thread gives a few examples from Hebrew and French.

However, these examples aren't as "perverse" as the Japanese ones with two completely different readings. More often the differences are fairly subtle. Like the first example from Wikipedia, "abstract," which could be either abstract (adj.) or abstract (v.)
posted by mbrubeck at 8:48 AM on February 2, 2015

See the current FPP on the blue for more on English variants.
posted by biffa at 10:39 AM on February 2, 2015

Cillian Murphy might be an example of a name which your clients can't pronounce correctly. (This came up over the weekend at a bar, and no one was willing to put money on it...). For that matter, Jean from Nice is probably a different gender and pronunciation from Jean from Islay, not to mention Maurice (morEESS or MORRiss). The only solution is to ask Maurice, or check his Wikipedia page. No amount of cultural familiarity will get you through, even if you've got the complete list of how to pronounce all names memorized. It seems that Japanese has more ambiguous pronunciations, whereas English has the opposite, ambiguous spellings: Steven, Stephen, John, Jon, Clare, Claire.

Also, Celtic: the culture gets a /k/, the soccer team a /s/ and even though I'm close enough to the subject to know that, I would need to look up how to pronounce "Boston Celtics"! Or for that matter, I need to choose how to say "Celtic legends T-shirt", depending on whether I mean Kelpies or Lisbon Lions.

So yeah, English is that perverse at times!

How do they put out a call for Mr 文明 at the airport?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:05 PM on February 2, 2015

Wrinkled Stumpskin: "How do they put out a call for Mr 文明 at the airport"

Whenever you write your name (on a form, buying a ticket, etc.), you also write how it's read, so the airport would have both the kanji for your name and the reading for your name.

adamrice: "As you know, Zach (hi, Zach! Long time no), it's not so much names, it's male given names."

And don't forget place names. 国府津駅 = こうずえき。It's not as bad as 光=ライト, in that there is some degree of relationship between the reading and the kanji, but unless you already know the station name, it's pretty much a crapshoot.

For the people saying "English is like that, too", at least in English when you pronounce it wrong you're probably going to get most of the consonants right. You can look at a name like, say, "Pelpeur", and maybe you've never seen it before and have no idea how to pronounce it, but you can wing it and at least get close-ish. Maybe you'll voice a silent letter or pronounce a soft G like a hard G, but there will be some similarity. It's not like it's going to be pronounced "Karvish".
posted by Bugbread at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Tanizaki: Sorry, I don't think you are "uniquely qualified" on this board, no offense. I've translated professionally for decades and so has adamrice. Good luck on the Kentei, though.

It is certainly more true for names than for other nouns, but there are lots of non-name words that are "perverse" (Yamato for 大和, for example). Adamrice (hi!) brings up the point that it's more male than female names, which I've never noticed before. But it's clearly true. Interesting. I only brought up the Bunmei ("civillization"!) reading of 文明 because that's the name of a politician whose poster I pass on a daily basis, and I can't help wondering how pompous his parents must have been.

It's interesting that so many people seek to refute my claim that X is true by providing the historical reasons why X is true, a pattern of argument ubiquitous on the Internet once you notice it. But there are some other interesting answers I'll have to check out, like Cuneiform and Pahlavi.
posted by zachawry at 4:01 PM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not an expert in Chinese, just learning because I live here, but Chinese definitely has different pronunciations for the same character, based on context, and within the same dialect. For example, 地 can be pronounced as di (meaning place, ground) but can be pronounced as de to change a word into an adverb maybe? I can't quite remember the distinction.

I use the app Pleco constantly for translation and it gives all pronunciations for each character.

Oh, another is 了。 Generally (although it's complicated) it denotes the past tense or that something has changed, and is pronounced le. Sometimes it's also pronounced liao, but I'm not sure why.
posted by sarae at 2:15 AM on February 4, 2015

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