Hepburn Must Stop

People who know me generally are aware of the fact that I am interested in language. The topic has always fascinated me, even since I got my dad to explain parts of speech to me when I was three or four years old. (Actually, come to think of it, I already was familiar with three writing systems at that point, as well.) So it should come as no surprise that I've been looking at assorted language-related stuff in my spare time ever since I left college.

Most recently, I've been looking at Japanese. Yeah, I know, it's a weird one to pick (especially since it seems almost all of the English-speaking people with any interest in it are obsessed with anime and manga, which don't interest me at all), but hey, I've seldom been accused of being excessively typical.

Anyway, in the course of reading (mostly on the internet) about Japanese, one of the things I've run into is the Hepburn Romanization. This is a system whereby Japanese text is transliterated into Latin characters. Transliteration is seldom without problems, and studying a foreign language from a text that transliterates everything is generally inadvisable (unless all you want to learn is how to say "Does anyone speak English? Does this airplane go back to the United States? How much is a ticket?"), but it seems to me that Hepburn is particularly obnoxious, especially for English speakers.

In the first place, learning to correctly pronounce the Romanized Japanese is at least as hard as learning Hiragana, maybe worse, because of the need to unlearn long-ingrained habits associated with English use of the same characters (e.g., it's difficult to learn to pronounce "ou" as a held long o rather than as it would be pronounced in English). This is compounded by the fact that Hepburn uses Latin vowel pronunciations, so e is a and i is e and u is oo and so forth, like in Spanish. The Latin vowel mappings by themselves, if they were the only major issue, would be no big deal at all, but in Spanish you don't have combinations that would be dipthongs in English showing up every other syllable to screw with your mind.

Hepburn doesn't even have the good graces to be easy to type on a US-English keyboard, because it uses a diacritical mark (which for added bonus points is not even a mark that's particularly common in European character sets) on vowels when they are held for an extra mora. Since this is untypeable on most keyboards, most of the time in practice you usually either simply don't see any indication that the vowel is held (which is extremely bad, because it makes non-identical words identical, and the absolutely *last* thing Japanese needs is twice as many homonyms) or else a second vowel character is used, which aggravates the aforementioned vowel pronunciation issue for English speakers. Using a punctuation mark to indicate a held vowel should have been an extremely obvious approach, since after all that is what katakana does, but no.

The letter y is even worse than the vowels, because you have to unlearn the notion that it could ever under any circumstances be a vowel, even when it directly follows a stop consonant. Did you know that "Tokyo" is two syllables? Also "Kyoto". This shows up in approximately seven out of every ten Japanese words and is *hard* for an English speaker to get used to reading correctly. When you see the corresponding hiragana, you don't have this problem, because each symbol stands for exactly one syllable (or "mora" or whatever they call them), so it's very obvious where the syllable divisions go. This is fairly important in Japanese, and the Romanization obscures it.

Just in case the y issue didn't do enough to obscure the syllable boundaries (which, it bears repeating, are important in Japanese), Romanization also obscures the syllable divisions in other areas, though I think a certain amount of that would be fundamentally unavoidable in any system that transliterates a syllabary into a true alphabet. (Alphabets are inherently suited for writing languages with a more freeform syllable structure allowing for closed syllables and arbitrary blends; the only closed syllables you have in Japanese are with the sokuon, and the only blends you have are the aforementioned yoon.) The only thing worse than transliterating a syllabary into a true alphabet is trying to go the other direction and write a language like English in something like katakana, which is just wholly altogether unworkable (not that that stops the Japanese from doing it, of course).

The most egregious offense I want to talk about, though, is the letter r. Hepburn uses the r to represent an alveolar flap, a sound we don't have in English at all. Now, the idea of using a letter that wouldn't otherwise be used to represent a sound that wouldn't otherwise be represented makes a certain amount of sense, but r is a particularly unfortunate choice here, at least for English speakers, because of the various bizarre properties of the r sound that English speakers take for granted and do without thinking. (For native speakers of Romance languages, I suppose Hepburn is maybe not so bad, but in practice how many people are there who speak Spanish and Japanese but not English?) There are other letters that could have been used, not least l, which is somewhat closer to the sound anyhow, but no, Hepburn uses the r. Problem is, if you pronounce it as r, or anything even vaguely like r, you're in for all manner of trouble, because r has all sorts of phonemic consequences. It colors every letter it sits next to, either before or after, especially vowels. It's also completely impossible to form certain very-common Japanese blends (most notably ryo and ryu, which it should be noted are one syllable each, see the previous paragraph about y) if you pronounce this r as the English r.

Aside from the blends, and the weird and unfortunate mess it makes out of adjascent vowels, r isn't even a stop ("plosive") consonant. It's a liquid. Japanese doesn't have liquids, unless you count the syllabic nasal (which is altogether another topic, and believe it or not Hepburn Romanization manages to make that one harder to read easily as well).

So anyway, all of that is to say, every time I run into Japanese language-learning materials that make extensive use of Romanization (which is *annoyingly* common), I cringe and go looking for something else. I suppose the writers of these materials believe that transliterating everything will make it "easier" for English speakers by removing the need to learn kana, but honestly, anybody who is even *slightly* serious about learning a language can certainly handle picking up at least hiragana, and everything thereafter will be *much* easier than with the Romanization.

It's not like hiragana is anywhere close to being even the tip of the iceberg for what characters you've got to learn if you actually ever want to be able to read any actual Japanese. I mean, you can't even look up words you don't know in a dictionary without learning two or three hundred radicals (and their lexical order) just to get started, so 46 hiragana characters is really no big deal.

2 comments:

Mark said...

I totally read this whole post waiting to see what it had to do with Audrey Hepburn (google it.)

Anyway... it is interesting that you're interested in Japanese without being the typical Anime/Manga Fanboy.

Jonadab said...

I looked her up, and I just have one question: why on earth would you think that anything I was writing would have to do with a Belgian actress, and one from my parents' generation no less? The town in Saskatchewan or even the railroad rates law would be a more likely topic.