Check me out at Japan Pulse again, this time writing about baumkuchen. I told my roommate I was writing about バウム, and she was like, バウムクーヘン? That was a なるほど moment for me because I had been saying it バウムクーチェン in my mind. I should really know better, especially since I learned the correct pronunciation of rauchbier from Japanese (ラオホ). It’s clearly just as difficult for Japanese to get at guttural German sounds as it is for Americans, maybe even more so. Reminds me of some passages from Chapter 8 of Don DeLillo’s White Noise:
I’d made several attempts to learn German, serious probes into origins, structures, roots. I sensed the deathly power of the language. I wanted to speak it well, use it as a charm, a protective device. The more I shrank from learning actual words, rules and pronunciation, the more important it seemed that I go forward. What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation. But the basic sounds defeated me, the harsh spurting northernness of the words and syllables, the command delivery. Something happened between the back of my tongue and the roof of my mouth that made a mockery of my attempts to sound German words.
He hires a German tutor named Howard Dunlop:
He said he was a former chiropractor but didn’t offer a reason why he was no longer active and didn’t say when he’d learned German, or why, and something in his manner kept me from asking.
We sat in his dark crowded room at the boarding house. An ironing board stood unfolded at the window. There were chipped enamel pots, tray of utensils set on a dresser. The furniture was vague, foundling. At the borders of the room were the elemental things. An exposed radiator, an army-blanketed cot. Dunlop sat at the edge of a straight chair, intoning generalities of grammar. When he switched from English to German, it was as though a cord had been twisted in his larynx. An abrupt emotion entered his voice, a scrape and gargle that sounded like the stirring of some beast’s ambition. He gaped at me and gestured, he croaked, he verged on strangulation. Sounds came spewing from the base of his tongue, harsh noises damp with passion. He was only demonstrating certain basic pronunciation patterns but the transformation in his face and voice made me think he was making a passing between levels of beings.
Maybe that explains why it’s so much fun to pronounce rauch accurately. Could also explain why rauchbier is so tasty. No real reason to post those passages other than that I like them and think about them when I try to pronounce difficult German words. I like how Japanese takes pronunciation of words straight from the mother tongue. I think many Americans, and perhaps I at one time, assumed that all loan words came from English – a crime which Japanese themselves are guilty of on occasion. Remind me to tell you a funny story about the word rendezvous sometime.
In other news, I have a review of Tea Market G Clef online at CNNGo Tokyo. I randomly came across the store while I was shopping in Kichijoji back in 2006. Kawasaki-san, the owner, is a really nice guy who speaks English in a quiet voice and is quick to offer his latest teas for sampling. I highly recommend the Waffle Sandwich set at the nearby Tea Salon. It’s the perfect portion size and an amazing combination of flavors – go for the bacon mushroom.
Is the ch in Rauch and Kuchen really so hard to pronounce for English/Japanese people? I understand it’s not a sound native to either language, but especially as American, you probably have some speaking experience with Spanish words – like jalapeno.
I find/found it very hard to remember to put my tongue to the front of my mouth whenever a th sound came up in a word. I did get the sound right even without placing my tongue in weird positions, but my teachers all insisted (and I am thankful for their effort now).
And do share the rendezvous story at one point!
As a fellow Japanese-speakin’ anglophone, this blog is always a lot of fun to read. Thanks for your posts!
Hmm. I guess you could say Japanese takes pronunciation “straight” from other languages besides English, but when you look at what trying to fit them into Japanese 仮名 does, it’s rather hard for speakers of those language to even understand that the Japanese word is from their language…for example “rauch” in German sounds nothing like ラオホ…the “r” is completely different as it is pronounced farther back in the throat in German, segueing into a pronunciation of “au” which is closer to the English “ow” (as in ouch) than the Japanese オ….to top it all off the “ch” has nothing to do with ホ – it’s more like a hissing noise coming out the back of the throat, as this guy explains very well on this Yahoo! Answers page (second comment):
I would actually argue that having to stick to the Japanese phonetic system, made up primarily of consonant/vowel combinations, severely hampers the ability to import foreign words into Japanese using their original pronunciation – as you’ve undoubtedly noticed when trying to understand wacky, semi-intelligible 外来語 of English origin! I live on Okinawa, where it’s a free-for-all trying to twist Japanese kana to adequately express the sounds that exist in various dialects of the Okinawan language. Unfortunately, as Japanese is the official language of instruction in Okinawa these days, the only phonetic tool people feel confident trying to notate pronunciation with is the Japanese alphabet, resulting in extreme deformation of a lot of the characteristic sounds of Okinawan. I’ve heard a number of Okinawans express the thought that romaji would probably be a more accurate way to notate their language.
Not that it really matters in the long run though right – most languages are a result of annexing a bunch of words from other languages and pronouncing them badly. Look at English for example, the bastard child of French and a bunch of Germanic languages…without a steady influx of badly pronounced foreign words most languages start to atrophy and die rather than evolve.
robert – I don’t think they are too hard for Americans. I just don’t have that much exposure, so maybe it just seems hard. I think they are pretty hard for Japanese though, especially if ホ is the closest they can come to the ch in Rauch, as Her Majesty mentioned. I’ll definitely have to share the rendezvous story.
Her Majesty – “I would actually argue that having to stick to the Japanese phonetic system, made up primarily of consonant/vowel combinations, severely hampers the ability to import foreign words into Japanese using their original pronunciation” I didn’t say that they pronounced the words accurately, heh, just that they go straight to the source, just as English does with many words, such as rendezvous. And I think that more Japanese would be able to get closer to the real pronunciation of baumkuchen than Americans, would (I assume) like me would go for the ch-ch-ch-cheesey pronunciation of ch rather than the hard h.