To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Nihon-go Quiz

Hi, all,

      I mentioned in the last letter that I've been given two bars of (labeled in English, with explanatory stuff and ingredients in Japanese) Snoopy and His Friend Refresh Herb Soap and two of Snoopy and His Friend Relax Herb Soap ("Snoopy is the world famous beagle and the revered pet of Charlie Brown). I noticed later that some of the writing on it is katakana, the syllabic alphabet usually used for foreign words. I've learned that I can often sound out the katakana and, working from what I know about the Japanese accent, figure out the English (or, rarely, French or German) word it came from. For example, "part-time job" is "arubaito" (sometimes "arubeito"), which with some creativity resolves into the German word "arbeit," work (which I and most Americans know only through the proverb "arbeit macht frei" [apologies for the spelling], or "work makes you free," the motto over the main gate of Auschwitz). My name, to go further, devolves into "Peetah Ribahdo" in katakana, which of course has to make allowances for sounds that Japanese lacks. Anyway, the katakana on the Relax Herb Soap reads "rabendah" and "kamomairu," or, after some thought, lavender and camomile, and on the Refresh "remongurasu" and "rozumari," or "lemon grass" and "rosemary."

      So, for those of a you with time to fill, here's a game: after reading the rules, try to decipher the katakana words below into English words you know. The rules: Vowels sound more like they do in most other European languages than in English, e.g., "e" sounds like "eh" in English, "i" like "ee," and "u" like "oo" rather than "you." You can't stick two consonants together in Japanese (except for "n," which is considered an entire syllable and thus can precede another consonant), so Japanese has to stick a vowel (usually a "u," except an "o" after "t" and "d" and an "i" after "k," "sh," and "ch") between two consonants and after a final consonant: "steak" becomes "suteki" (the "ts" in "tsu" is considered a single sound, so it isn't an exception). Syllables (except for "n") consist of just a vowel or a consonant followed by a vowel, e.g., ka, ki, ku, ke, ko and are pronounced separately: e.g., katakana "pure" would be pronounced "pooh-ray" ("play"). Note: an English "ar" or "er" is usually rendered "ah," dropping the "r," and "r" before another consonant is also dropped: thus "Pitah" for "Peter" and "cahdo" for "card." Wildcards: there is, in obedience to the stereotype, no "L" sound, so change your "L"s to "R"s; oddly, there is no "si" sound, so expect "shi" where you would have "si" ("sit" being a common word in our textbooks, these provide a lot of unintended humor); likewise, there is no "ti," it being replaced by "chi"; for the same reason, "tu" sometimes mutates into "tsu." The English "i" ("eye") is gotten at by combining "a" and "i." There's no "v," and "f" usually turns into "h" (as in "kohi" for "coffee"). Some of the other sounds in English almost don't exist, but crop up successfully through various dodges, so we don't need to worry about them here.

      To summarize:
English Japanese English Japanese
ah a ka, ca ca
ee ("feet") i ki ("key") ki
oo ("food") u koo ku
eh ("gay") e kay ke
o ("note") o coe ko
i ("like") ai v b
and likewise through the other consonants, excepting:
si ("sit, seat")  n/a ("shi," as in "shit, sheet")
ti ("tik, teak") n/a ("chi," as in "chick, cheek")

      Everybody ready? First, a few easy ones. Don't try to memorize all the info above; just look at the chart and say it in your head over and over until it sounds familiar.

1. sando
2. raisu
3. sutopu
4. saizu
5. rabu
      OK! Let's see how we're doing! 1. sand (short for "sandwich"); 2. rice; 3. stop; 4. size; 5. love (as in "rabu hoteru"). How'd you do? Let's try some non-English words!
6. pan
7. kapuchino
8. supageti (sometimes, "ti" does turn out to be pronounceable)
9. tiramisu
10. pizza
      Good luck! 6. pain (Fr. for "bread"; the rest are Italian); 7. capuccino; 8. spaghetti; 9. tiramisu (if you don't know what it is you don't get out enough--go to an Italian restaurant and scream if they don't sell it); 10. pizza. You can see this all would be a lot easier if they borrowed more words from the Italians and fewer from us. OK! More easy ones to get the non-Italian speakers back in the fold.

11. chocoreto
12. banana
13. buruberi
14. shidi (to be fair, this is usually spelled in the roman rather than katakana alphabet)
15. meron
16. kamomairu
17. ratte
18. purintah
19. openingu seremoni (yes, they really say this).
20. doraibu
      Still with me? You're learning a lot here! 11 and 12 are obvious. 13. blueberry; 14. CD; 15. melon; 16. chamomile (not so easy; just checking to see if you remembered the first paragraph); 17. latte; 18. printer; 19. opening ceremony; 20. drive. Now, for some harder ones. I think you're ready!

21. miruku
22. confureku
23. desahto
24. resutoran
25. randuri
26. ranchi
27. kare
28. rabusutah
29. kurabu
30. supure
      Last round of answers! You made it! 21. milk; 22. cornflakes; 23. dessert; 24. restaurant (yes, the "t" or "to" is missing--after a while, one gets tired, so longer terms are abbreviated randomly; thus "personal computer" becomes "pasokon"); 25. laundry; 26. lunch; 27. curry (curry rice is the mac and cheese of Japan); 28. lobster; 29. club (Gottcha! They use a Japanese word for "crab"); 30. spray. For the last bunch, you're on your own. No answers. Have fun!

intahnetto            sukana            furopi disuku
bidio                  tepu                  sero tepu (extra credit)
kaseto                  kamera            furutsu
fuirumu (extra credit)      kuriningu      furaipan
rentaru            keburu-kah            
sukii (double vowel means hold it longer)
rika warudo      aisu kurimu            renzu            shatzu
cora                  skatzu                  endo

      Congrats! I play this game for real-life prizes (like being able to complete my shopping or order in a restaurant) every day. Hope it was fun! I've saved the best bit about Japanese for last: grammatically, in Japan a rabbit is considered a type of bird. Tell me English can beat that!


p.s.: "Nihon-go" (subject heading) is Japanese for "Japanese" (the language; the people are "Nihon-jin," as in the title of a current hit song, "Nihon-jin are weak-boweled people").


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