white ≠ ワイト

My first winter vacation living in Fukushima, I spent a week in Tokyo staying with my friend Thomas. He had come to Tokyo with his girlfriend shortly after graduating, and not long before I visited they split up, forcing him to move out into a guest house in Kanda. He was incredibly generous with his space (of which he had very little), and I spent the week shopping, drinking, and dancing.

When we were out one night, I helped a guy order a White Russian. When I walked up to the bar, I was standing behind the guy, and I noticed that he was having trouble communicating with the Japanese bartender. He kept on repeating “White Russian” over and over in a vaguely Japanese accent – ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン.

Having been in his position before, I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. I leaned over, offered to help, and had the bartender reaching for the Stoli and Kahlua with a single extra syllable – ホ. The guy clearly expected the Japanese pronunciation of “white” to be ワイト, when it is actually ホワイト.

There are a couple Yahoo Chiebukuro pages that try to answer the question, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer other than ホワイト more accurately captures the pronunciation, which suggests that it may be an English pronunciation error on my part – maybe I’m not pronouncing “white” snootily enough? What’s certain is that the ホ-spelling is so natural and widespread – used in everything from white collar and white chocolate to Pokemon White – that the locals don’t think twice about it. Which means you shouldn’t either. Get used to it and you’ll save yourself time next time you’re at the bar.

Sandra Japandra‘s recent encounter with vermouth and its unexpected (from an English point of view) pronunciation ベルモット reminded me of this ホワイト incident. These are two good examples of another way that foreign loan words can be tricky: even when the Japanese word does equate to the object in the foreign language and not some other thing entirely, the pronunciation is not always exactly the same as in the English (unless it is…in which case I’m just a linguistically evolved youth and have shed this silly ホ in English). You can try to use the trick that some of my middle school Spanish classmates used when they “need-o to use-o el bano” and Japanify all the words you don’t know, but this is not recommended. Pay attention to yer katakanas and read all those syllables.

6 thoughts on “white ≠ ワイト

  1. Also confusing is that the drink turns up as a カルアミルク on every cocktail menu I’ve seen.

  2. Well, quite o lot of British people I know (who were there before Americans) produce a sligthly aspirated “h” before a “w” in words like “white” (hwhite), “who”, “where” (and a couple of other wh-question words) or “while”.
    But before I realised it, I was surprised with the Japanese prounanciation as well.

  3. Al – I’m pretty sure the Kahlua Milks here don’t have vodka, right?

    Mizuu – True. It might be more of a British-ism or even an East Coast thing. I’m from the South, so it mite as well be wite to me.

  4. Ever wondered why there are so many English words starting with “wh”?

    As Mizuu pointed, some people still pronounce that as /hw/. Such a pronounciation used to be the norm. In fact, these words were even written as “hw” in Old English—“what”, “who”, “where” were “hwæt”, “hwa”, “hwær”. At some point they started writing it backwards, for unknown reasons (possibly by visual influence of other sequences like “th”, “ch”, “gh”, “ph”). And, later, the initial /h/ sound in the spoken language was dropped for most speakers. The curious can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonological_history_of_wh#Wine.E2.80.93whine_merger

    Presumably “white” was still /hwaɪt/ when the Japanese imported it, which converts quite nicely into ホワイト。

  5. Thanks for the shout-out, Daniel, and thanks for not mentioning that I spilled sake all over your laptop. XD

  6. Leonardo’s comment reminds me of the time I was trying to attract the attention of a bunch of 10th-century Japanese guys to my song about spear-danes and no-one even noticed. I was all like “What! We have heard… hey.. guys, what! What!” Wine-whine merger strikes again! Then a monster burst into the room and tore my arm off.