"I'll carry your books, I'll carry a torch, I'll carry a tune..."
March 4, 2019 10:44 AM   Subscribe

When I took a Japanese history course these many ages ago, one of the things I learned is that Japanese pronunciation is blessedly simple compared to English. So...what's up with "karaoke?" Shouldn't it be "kah-rah-oh-kay?" How did it become "carry-oh-key," which doesn't even seem like the first choice for English speakers trying to decipher the word? What's the linguistic/phonetic basis here? I can't think of any similar loan words from Japanese.
posted by praemunire to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Laziness would be my bet. English speakers like things that just roll off the tongue, and sound "familiar-ish". it wouldn't take long for the inebriated (as most karoake in the US takes place in bars i believe) to morph the more foreign sounding japanese 4 syllables into the sing-songy americanized 3 and a half syllable version.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:56 AM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


(My question is not so much "how did it come to pass that English people mispronounced a foreign word" as much as "how did it come to pass that we mispronounced it in this specific way, which doesn't seem to map onto English pronunciations of the vowels?")
posted by praemunire at 10:59 AM on March 4, 2019


I think the "care" sound is more natural than "kah" to American tongues/ears. Think of the name Kara. Most Americans would pronounce it "care-ah" and not the more Italian "kah-rah," since we don't have a lot of common American English words with that Italian-ish "ah". Same with "karaoke."
posted by wintersonata9 at 11:00 AM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


"Laziness" is a lazy answer. The "-oke" in "karaoke" was originally a Japanese borrowing of the first part of "orchestra". So were Japanese speakers "lazy" when they "left out" the letter R?

Different languages have different phototactics: how are adjacent vowels combined? (Japanese can go straight from a to o, but English requires a glide be inserted instead- hence the "y", so to speak, in "carrYokey".) What's the overall shape of a word's stress patterns? (the Germanic inheritance of English likes penultimate-syllable stress, hence karaOke) What consonant clusters or syllable onsets/codas are permitted or forbidden? (orche- vs. -oke; also cf. English "baseball" to Japanese "baseboru".)

These tendencies in each language shape how words from languages with different tendencies get adapted. The standard pronunciation of the English word "karaoke" is not a mispronunication. Neither is the standard pronunciation of the Japanese word "baseboru."
posted by Earthtopus at 11:14 AM on March 4, 2019 [26 favorites]


It maps pretty well to the pronunciations of those vowels by some English speakers, in some regional dialects/eras of history.

When I first moved to the West Coast, I bought a Carolla and found a mechanic to do occasional maintenance on it. He was an older guy, as far as I can tell a Southern California native. And he pronounced the make of my car something like "tie-oda". I'd never heard this before, or at least not in a way where I could point to one regional variety where this specifically was going on.

Think, too, of how the Spanish coyote becomes "kye-odie". Guacamole should be pronounced with an "-ay" sound, but it becomes "gwackamoley" in many to most American dialects.

There are also lots of now-archaic examples of similar odd vowel choices, for example Santy-Claus. Old movies are full of other iterations of this, to the point that in my mind it's a specific 1930s-1940s thing, but in reality it's probably just that those media artifacts fossilized something that is probably a lot more wide-ranging than that.

Bringing it back to karaoke, all of the sounds involved in that word are pretty specifically not intuitive to American English speakers of the mid 20th century. Carrie-oakey is weird, but no matter what string of syllables we came up with, it was almost certainly going to be weird. People of that time, at least in the US, were neither cosmopolitan enough nor attuned enough to the right sorts of politics to do the work to preserve the Japanese pronunciation.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 11:20 AM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Oh, also, linguist and podcaster John McWhorter has a great take on this sort of thing, specifically about the way that people in the early/mid 20th century pronounced new loanwords from other cultures. I think Karaoke comes in a bit later (60's? 70s?), but it tends to follow the same rules that he discusses for words like guacamole and Honolulu.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 11:29 AM on March 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Since I can check, the first attestation for "karaoke" in the OED (not necessarily equivalent to "year word was coined") is from 1977.

"Japan Times 8 Nov. 2/3 Businessmen taking their cue from the Japanese predilection to break into song after having a few drinks have built up a booming trade in ‘karaoke’ musical backup tape sets."
posted by Earthtopus at 11:34 AM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


FWIW, this is not the only Japanese borrowing that shuffles the vowel sounds around. Kamikaze is usually pronounced in English as "Kah-mah-kah-zee", as opposed to "Kah-mee-kah-zeh", for example, and karate is "karah-tee" instead of "kah-rah-teh". English just doesn't seem to like ending words with the "eh" sound as much.
posted by tau_ceti at 11:43 AM on March 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Same way the small city south of Seattle be came "Deh Moy'nes" . Or the Northwestern most county in California be came "Del Nort", not "Del Nort-ay"
posted by humboldt32 at 11:44 AM on March 4, 2019


Care-uh-owe-key is a pretty natural reading of the word if you don't know how Japanese is pronounced. The uh-owe combination then glides pretty easily into care-ee-owe-key or care-owe-key.
posted by Etrigan at 11:45 AM on March 4, 2019


These tendencies in each language shape how words from languages with different tendencies get adapted.

Which is how "Edgar Allen Poe" became Edogawa Rampo.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:19 PM on March 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


FWIW, this is not the only Japanese borrowing that shuffles the vowel sounds around.

And then there's "hara kiri" vs. "harry karry".
posted by tobascodagama at 12:23 PM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


See also "sah-kee" for sake.

Different Englishes adapt foreign words differently sometimes. I (speaker of American English) was pretty shocked to hear British people ordering "raymen" (ramen).
posted by trig at 12:56 PM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think it's all adaptation to English phonotactics. The biggest puzzle is how the second a becomes /i/ 'ee', since we would pronounce Kara alone as /kerə/ 'care-uh'. But I can't think of any English word where ə immediately precedes an /o/. So we substitute a vowel which can precede /o/, namely /i/ as in Io, video, archeology.

"Harakiri" is a little harder to explain, but the "harry-carry" pronunciation has the nifty rhyme, which probably made it unstoppable.

It's not just Japanese we do this to— one of my favorite examples is lingerie: many English speakers seem to think the French say "lan-zhe-ray"; it's actually /lɛ̃ʒ.ʁi/ "lanzh-ree".
posted by zompist at 1:18 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


See also like half the common Spanish place-names in the Southwest.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:50 PM on March 4, 2019


There is actually a great name in Linguistics for this process, the adaptation of words from foreign languages to the phono-tactics of the borrowing language: the Law Of Hobson-Jobson.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:30 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


But I can't think of any English word where ə immediately precedes an /o/. So we substitute a vowel which can precede /o/

Agreed -- and as evidence that avoidance of /ao/ or similar clusters is a part of English phonotactics, not just something weird we do to loanwords per se, I offer extraordinary, whose first "a" is usually dropped altogether. Can't blame that on attitudes toward foreign languages; it's purely an English phonological process at work.

(English also doesn't like /aɛ/, from what I can tell; the /a/ in Israel frequently becomes /i/, paralleling the transformation in karaoke. And for a cornucopia of different strategies to avoid /ao/ and /aɛ/, see also pharaoh, maestro, Laos/Laotian, Rafael, etc.)
posted by aws17576 at 11:40 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


English speakers love to put emphasis on one syllable of a long word even though Japanese uses equal emphasis on all syllables.
Hence we say YAMaha, MitsuBISHi, KawaSAki, etc which is not how the Japanese say those names at all.

Onve you pick the first syllable of Karaoke you are close to "Carry" on the start which is familiar, and then Okie which sounds familiar too (Okie from Muskogee) and you end up with Carry-Okie.
posted by w0mbat at 10:38 AM on March 5, 2019


In Minnesota, it is pronounced kuh-ROE-kee, fwiw.
posted by freezer cake at 2:09 PM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


In Minnesota, it is pronounced kuh-ROE-kee, fwiw.

Then it's not just the MST3K guys!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:48 PM on March 28, 2019


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