Strange But True: Pronunciation Similarities in Spanish and Japanese


If you know anything about the history of Spain and Japan, you know that there are few similarities between their cultures and languages. Culturally, and linguistically, Spain has a major influence from ancient Rome as well as the long Moorish rule of the country.

By contrast Japan had its most powerful influences from Asia, mostly Korea and China. The different forms of Japanese writing have their roots in Chinese writing, although Mandarin Chinese and Japanese are linguistically completely different.

The Mandarin Chinese language is a good example of a language that is in a separate category than both Japanese and Spanish. Chinese uses a complex set of tones to communicate meaning. A good example is the word, “ma.” That word can mean anything from “mom” to “horse” to even a kind of “pronounced question mark” at the end of a sentence to indicate that you’re asking a question. There are 5 different ways (tones) that you can use to pronounce “ma,” and each tone would change the meaning of the word completely.

In contrast, Japanese and Spanish do not use such complex tones to change the meaning of words. Japanese and Spanish are, in that way, in a separate category than Mandarin Chinese and other tonal languages like Vietnamese and Thai.

We can also separate Japanese and Spanish from languages like English. When a person learns English as a second language, they often struggle with English pronunciation rules. English is not one of the languages where one can easily understand the pronunciation of a word just as it is written, and there are complicated rules to when things are pronounced in different ways.

By contrast, Spanish and Japanese have consistent pronunciation rules that make it possible to see the written word and know how to pronounce it. In Spanish, once you know the sounds of the Spanish alphabet and some straightforward pronunciation rules, you’re pretty much set to see and be able to pronounce Spanish words.

In Japanese, the language’s sounds are represented by a small number of Japanese characters called, Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) each of which represent a syllable in the language. If you master the sounds related to those small number of syllables, you can piece together the pronunciation of any Japanese word.

So at a high level, Japanese and Spanish share the characteristic that their written forms can be used to easily convey the pronunciation of words clearly and consistently. But even as we dig deeper into the pronunciation, we see more similarities between the two languages emerge.

The vowels in Spanish and Japanese are pronounced roughly the same. The “a” is pronounced as the “a” in father. In Spanish an example is “gracias” (thank you) and in Japanese an example is “asa” (morning). The “i” is pronounced as the “ee” in the English word “meet”. In Spanish an example is the word, “mi” (my) and the Japanese “ichi” (one). In both languages, the “u” is pronounced as the “oo” in “loot.” Examples are “umi” (sea) and “gustar” (to like) in Japanese and Spanish respectively. The “e” is pronounced as the “e” in “bed”. In Japanese it’s the initial sound of “ebi” (shrimp) and the initial sound of “el” (the) in Spanish. Finally, “o” is pronounced as the “o” in “hope”. In Spanish an example is “ocho” (eight) and in Japanese “otoko” (man).

The consonants in Spanish and Japanese are also roughly the same with some well-known exceptions like the Spanish and Japanese pronunciations of the “r”.

A Spanish word consists of a string of consonants and vowels which we can break up into syllables. The Spanish alphabet is used to piece together a word like “gustar,” which breaks up into basically two syllables, “gu-star”.

As mentioned before, Japanese pronunciation will break things up into the sounds of the Kana character syllables. Each Kana character will represent one sound in the word and can be written as such. Using one of the examples above, we could break up the Japanese pronunciation into individual Kana character sounds like this, “o-to-ko”.

So in both Spanish and Japanese, we have most consonants and vowels having basically the same pronunciation, a set of consistent pronunciation rules, and the fact that both languages are not tonal in nature. With these shared elements, we have the ingredients we need to have pronunciation intersections between the two languages.

There is at least one example where a word is pronounced roughly the same in both Spanish and Japanese. In Japanese it is a form of the verb, “kaerimasu” (to return, go home). In Spanish it’s a form of the verb, “callar” (to stop talking or to be quiet). In both languages the initial sounds of “ca” and “ka” are the same. The verbs simply have to change forms in order for them to sound the same.

In Japanese, a verb of the type “kaerimasu” changes into one the Japanese forms called the “-te form” like this, “kaette” (ka-eh-te). This verb form is used in sentences like “Chan-san wa Chuugoku ni kaette imasu” (Mr. Chan has returned to China).

In Spanish, a verb of the type “callar,” in an imperative conjugation (giving a command), results in the word, “callate” (Shut up). This can be used in a sentence like, “Callate la boca ” (Shut your mouth.)

Both of the words “kaette” and “callate” are in fact pronounced in a very similar way, owing to the effect that the “ae” combination has on “kaette” and the way some Spanish dialects pronounce the “ll”.

With stricter analysis, the similarities do start to break down, but the aim is not to prove that Spanish and Japanese share the exact same pronunciation, but only that there is a surprising amount of similarity based on the linguistic distance between the two languages.

There may even be other, better examples of this. If the reader knows of other such examples where Japanese and Spanish words share the same or very similar pronunciations of words, feel free to contact me at my website list at the end of this article.

In conclusion, it is indeed strange but true that the languages of Japanese and Spanish can find similarities in spite of their linguistic roots on opposite sides of the planet.

It is strange but true that the languages of Japanese and Spanish can find pronunciation similarities in spite of a completely different linguistic history. Find out why this is the case and see an example.

Source by Barry J Smythe

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