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Why do English speakers use the Japanese word “Tsunami”, when there is a perfectly usable word “tidal wave”? Not just English speakers, even Germans, Italians, and French use “Tsunami”. Does Tsunami happen most commonly in Japan? Personally, I don’t remember any Tsunami incidents when I was living in Japan.

Also, why do some people pronounce it “Sunami” when it starts with a “T”?

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I had just recenlty made a very similar comment to my friend about this very thing. It seems as though, by using a foreign word, it makes Westerners feel as though it's not so much a force of nature as much as a "force of nature of the Eastern kind". I don't consider myself all that racially sensitive - I'm not the most politically correct Asian woman around, believe me. I have laughed at my share of Asian jokes. But there is something about the use of this Japanese word that doesn't sit right with me. It's as if something this devastating simply cannot be left alone without a scapegoat. Americans especially need a black to every white. Every movie has to have an antagonist. Oh well. I think I AM being overly sensitive for no reason. What happened is certainly a huge travesty, something which boggles my mind. I simply cannot comprehend the amount of devastation that this force of nature has brought about. Put in perspective, the use of this word bothering me is of no consequence. I should count myself to be exceptionally lucky to have not been effected by this global tragedy.

wendy_kroy January 9, 2005 @ 11:48PM

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I think you are being over sensitive. :p

Though most people use the words interchangeably they really describe two different phenomena. A tsunami is a large wave of up to about 10-15 meters that is caused by a change in the level of the sea floor due to an earthquake. A tidal wave is a rise in the water level due to a combination of tide and winds or extreamly large storms with a maximum of around 3-4 meters.

It is fitting that tsunami comes from Japanese because being an earthquake prone island nation, Japan has had much historical experience with them.

Most Americans don't pronounce it properly because they can't. English has no words with an initial consonant cluster of "ts". Pronouncing "cat soup" is no problem, but I've had a very hard time getting my father to pronounce tsunami correctly.

IngisKahn1 January 10, 2005 @ 12:42AM

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Wendy, "tsunami" is the technical term for it. Why on earth must you be so oversensitive?

Dyske, I was informed (can't find the link anymore) that the word was coined by seismologists (earthquake scientists) quite recently. They needed a specific word to describe what happened in the special case of a tidal wave caused by an earthquake at sea. Although the word is derived from Japanese root elements, I was under the impression that it was not a "natural" Japanese word. Does this confirm what you know?

speedwell2 January 10, 2005 @ 8:16AM

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Although I may be wrong about the recent coinage; see this Language Log entry:

speedwell2 January 10, 2005 @ 8:20AM

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I read in a few places online that it means in japanese - tsu (harbor) nami (wave)

Apparently, right before a tsunami strikes, water is sucked out of the harbors and comes rushing back in with amazing force.

It can result from an earthquake or landslide or something like that, but not the tides. I saw a television show about tsunamis a few years ago and I remember seeing a landslide on the show.

ladylucy1 January 10, 2005 @ 11:55AM

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Oh yes, volcanic eruptions can be another cause of them.

Check out Wiktionary...

This is very interesting and informative too.

It has some historical information.

ladylucy1 January 10, 2005 @ 12:02PM

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Pronunciation seems to be an issue.

Asian Chew Mommy?

chad January 10, 2005 @ 5:42PM

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Maybe it's like hurricane. In the atlantic ocean it's considered a hurricane, in the pacific it's a typhoon.

Maybe Tsunami is for one general area, while tidal wave is for another.

Guy2 January 10, 2005 @ 10:28PM

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OK, On the subject of pronunciation: If you google "tsunami pronunciation" or "tsunami pronounced," it will come up with pronunciations that both include and exclude the "t" (just as pronunciation of the "t" in "often" is optionial). I think it is acceptable either way, but the "t" seems to be included more often than not.

ladylucy1 January 11, 2005 @ 7:25AM

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All of the 10+ dictionaries I consulted clearly specify that the T should be pronounced. The Merriam-Webster 10th Online, however, seems to indicate that the T is sometimes optional (not, I gather, that it should be optional).

Dictionaries are good for this sort of thing. Google is good for other things. It's good to know the difference.

speedwell2 January 11, 2005 @ 8:03AM

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Always a pleasure, Speedwell.

I know what google is good for; it has a search engine that can find various reputable government, scientific, and educational websites, online DICTIONARIES, other useful and fun websites, and a LOT of questionable and crappy websites. You just need to know how to pick out the junk and find the good stuff. My point was to use the searches to find websites that HAVE pronunciations, figure out which are reputable, and view the pronunciations that they list.

Maybe a little back and forth conversation, questioning what I meant, instead of a backhanded insult might have been a more civilized way to handle your frustration with my inability to be as perfect as you. TOLERANCE!!! I was in a hurry.

Peace, for crying out loud!

ladylucy1 January 11, 2005 @ 1:04PM

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I asked the same question. A very pedantic person explained to me that there is indeed a technical difference between a tsunami and a tidal wave in that TIDE plays no role in tsunamis. Tsunamis are huge waves. Tidal waves are a subset of them -- huge waves caused by tidal anomalies. I have no idea if that is true or not, but he seemed quite certain.

Janet1 January 11, 2005 @ 1:57PM

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Ladylucy, the comment in question was intended as general helpful advice to the readership, not as a personal offense tactic directed at you.

speedwell2 January 11, 2005 @ 5:47PM

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Nice try, Speedwell.

ladylucy1 January 11, 2005 @ 6:20PM

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In Japanese "T" is definitely pronounced. "TSU" and "SU" are two clearly different syllables in Japanese. I should know because my last name is: Suematsu.

Dyske January 11, 2005 @ 10:47PM

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Another example of English butchering tsu: Yankees left fielder Matsui Hideki. Nearly every time I've heard his name announced it's pronounced Mat (rhymes with bat) sui.

IngisKahn1 January 12, 2005 @ 2:28AM

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I never bought the argument that English people drop the T because they can't pronounce it. The fact that the ts in "cat soup" is in the middle and therefore somehow different is ridiculous. Because I have experience Japanese I always wince when I hear "sunami" because, just like dyske said, it has a completely different meaning! I would tend to think "wave of vinegar".

It might be interesting to note that typhoon is also a Japanese word, though a badly pronounced one. (Originally taihuu or taifuu.)

GP1 January 13, 2005 @ 5:40PM

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Tsunami isn't the only "foreign" word us westerners have assimilated into our lexicon. There are tidbits of different languages everywhere. Latte, escargot, chili con carne… Maybe because it sounds better than creamy coffee drink, snails cooked with butter, or chili with meat… Tsunami (I pronounce the clustered ‘ts’) sounds better than “huge wall of water caused by an earthquake”. Some of us might say ciao and we all know what a Ménage au trios is…

Adam2 January 21, 2005 @ 12:28AM

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Luckylady said: "I read in a few places online that it means in japanese - tsu (harbor) nami (wave)."

The first character 津 (the "tsu") means something like "overflowing" or "innundating."

Geoff1 January 21, 2005 @ 7:03PM

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My phonetic understanding of 'tsunami' is that the T is a 'wet' T, not a hard T, like in tack.
I've come across wet 't's in romantic languages, but not many in American English.
Maybe thyme is a good example? The correct pronunciation does not sound the same as 'time.' because it's softer, blended with the 'y.'
So, the T is pronounced, but not Tee-sunami or tuh-sunami. You'd come much closer to the pronunciation with a 'th' sound than the 't' sound, although neither is correct.
As to why the large majority of Americans mis-pronounce it? Because they don't know any better. ;)
A, from America

Picky January 29, 2005 @ 6:39PM

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Either they don't know any better or the word just doesn't fit neatly into the "pronunciation scheme" of the languages. By which I mean the set of phonemes used in the language. Last night I watched part of a television program on "mega-tsunamis", which reminded me of this question.

Even though "ts" is not used at the beginning of words in English, it does turn up in other positions and it can be pronounced by English speakers without any difficulty. While the scientists and narrators of the television program could easily have pronounced the "ts" in "mega-tsunami" correctly, I think conceptually they would have had to envision the word as "megat-sunami". The syllables of the compound word would have to be broken the wrong way to remove the foreign phoneme. I think there's a bit of a mental block people have doing that kind of thing, even though in this case it would lead to a more correct pronunciation of the word.

Or then again, maybe they just didn't think about it.

Joachim1 January 31, 2005 @ 12:48PM

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Tsunamis are not tidal waves. They are a series of waves of extremely long wavelength and period. They are not associated with the tides.

Maux January 31, 2005 @ 3:50PM

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Languages borrow foreign words all the time-- It's a kind of linguistic fashion. Some words go out of fashion, and others stick. It's pretty much the story of how the English language evolved.

Some words, like 'coffee', sound pretty much the same in several languages: Chinese people say "Ka Fei", French say 'Cafe',etc. etc.---even Japanese people use a foreign word for Java, don't they?

Dyske, Japan is the land of foreign borrowed words! From convenience stores (konbini), to computers, (konpyuutaa), the Japanese language is PACKED with foreign loan words for which perfectly good Japanese words exist. Foreign words are taken in, changed a bit to roll off the Japanese tongue, and voila! If people like it, a word-fashion is born. Sometimes the word is used to convey a slightly (or totally) different meaning.

Are you really so surprised that English speakers would want to borrow a Japanese word? Personally, I think it's kinda cool-- but some might argue otherwise. Another memorable Japanese word that English speakers have corrupted is Kay-Ri-o-kee (Karaoke)--have you heard people say that one?

Using a foreign word offers a certain "Je ne sais quoi" (boooooooooo) that is all the more appealing when when others actually understand what you're talking about. If you went around quoting Caesar in Latin, someone would probably punch you.

You wanna hear something funny? Japanese (borrow?) use the Chinese characters for 'hand' and 'paper' together to mean 'a letter' (tegami), as in "I'm going to write my friend a letter". However, those two characters together mean 'toilet paper' (shou zhi) in Chinese.

Don't be too hard on Westerners for poor Japanese pronunciation. The human tongue is a creature of habit, and while the 'ts' sound is one that English speakers can easily reproduce, flattening it out into an 's' is easier--- the same reason people say 'liddle' not 'little', and 'ouda' not 'out of'......


Ray2 February 3, 2005 @ 12:33AM

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Quoting Caesar in Latin isn't that rare. One example is "ueni, uidi, uici".

Persephone_Imytholin February 4, 2005 @ 12:09AM

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Et tu, Persephone? I stand corrected.

Ray2 February 4, 2005 @ 12:35AM

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A tsunami is a seismic sea wave, not a tidal wave. I wince every time I hear someone refer to the recent disaster and mention tidal waves. Please remember that tides are caused by the gravitational effect that the Moon (and to a lesser extent) the Sun have on the Earth. TIdal waves occur daily and have nothing whatsoever to do with earthquakes. A tsunami, however, is the result of the displacement of water following a seismic event.

Susan_-_geology_grad February 7, 2005 @ 2:57PM

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We don't pronounce "tsar" with distinct sounds for the t and fact we tend to pronounce it more like its counterpart spelling "czar" in which the /z/ is the sound we pronounce...when words are borrowed they take on the characteristics of the language they are borrowed into. I think it's as simple as that.

CQ February 8, 2005 @ 2:40PM

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we pronounce the word "tsunami" that way coz it's the way the japanese pronounced it. and why shld we pronounce it any different?

btw, ray, "karaoke" is pronouced KA-RA-O-KEH by the japanese and not the way u said it is meant to pronounced. the way u suggested is a corrupted form of pronouncing the word by westerners. :)

naeboo February 9, 2005 @ 10:26AM

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Does it matter?

tea_bitch February 10, 2005 @ 9:14AM

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By the way, the "T" IS PRONOUNCED in Japanese, so the reason is not that the T isn't pronounced in its native form.

anonymous4 February 12, 2005 @ 8:38PM

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I was indeed trying to imitate the way most English speakers say Karaoke--sorry if that wasn't clear.

btw, I heard that karaoke is a bit of a loan word-- 'kara' being Japanese for 'empty', and 'oke' being a truncated version of the English word 'orchestra' (oh-ke-su-to-ra).

forgetting, for a moment, that 'orchestra' itself probably comes from another language, we now have an english word that was taken into Japanese, and then borrowed back into English. The whole argument over the 'correct pronunciation' can start to get pretty weak.

I'm curious--does anyone here speak a language that tends NOT to borrow foreign words, and instead imagines new 'native' words for new things? Or is the world simply moving too fast for this to be practical?

Ray2 February 13, 2005 @ 1:10PM

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It's just fine to import words into the English language, as long as they are modified to be compatible with our basic spelling and pronunciation conventions. Even though "tidal wave" connotes, in the mind of the average English speaking person, nothing more than a huge wave (without regard to the technicality of how it may have been produced), nevertheless I can see the value of being able to differentiate between waves produced by tidal forces and those produced by seismic activity.

Yesterday I heard more than one reporter on PBS/NPR - which seems to have a preponderance of commentators with British and other foreign accents - pronouncing tsunami without the leading "t". And that is the way it should be. The consonantal blend "ts", appearing at the beginning of a word, is not native to the English tongue. The spelling of this word should be "sunami".

Another example is "Sri Lanka". When that country's name was changed from the perfectly fine "Ceylon", English ought not to have been affected. "sr" at the beginning of a word does not belong in our language any more than does "ts", and from what I understand, the two words are closely related variants meaning nearly the same thing anyway.

Do we call the country whose capital is Berlin, "Deutschland"? Of course not. We call it Germany.
And conversely, Do the Germans refer to us as The United States. Of course not. They say "Die Vereinigte Staaten". And somehow we manage not to take offense at that.

And when the Japanese, upon importing the English word "computer", chose to say "konpyuutaa" do we get all bent out of shape? Of course not. So why the hell is it we think that we have to accomodate to alien pronunciations?

richard-brodie March 29, 2005 @ 10:48PM

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This question was asked in KBC in India a game show ..from where this word has been taken..Thanks for telling me the answer..Sonia

Sonia1 June 7, 2005 @ 11:54AM

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sarfaraz_kazi786 June 8, 2005 @ 6:06AM

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well if you're talking about english speakers butchering japanese names... remember that it goes both ways. my name is steve and in japan i have to settle for suteibu (pronounced steeb) and my last name, corbett is written as korubetto. so don't forget that the language and phonetic barriers are responsible for that... it's not american ignorance. calling it that is taking the easy way out.

Steve1 June 19, 2005 @ 1:22AM

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tidal waves and tsunamis are different. a tidal wave is caused by the tide, wind and stuff, its just really big. a tsunami is caused by movements in the earths crust under the ocean and is much more destructive.

me1 September 26, 2005 @ 8:53AM

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Actually, susan, me, a tidal wave IS a tsunami, at least one of the definitions. It may be a misnomer, but that is the definition. Yes, a tidal wave may have nothing to do with tides.

porsche October 26, 2005 @ 7:53PM

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Who gives a damn?

Ghetto November 13, 2005 @ 12:54AM

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The term tidal wave can refer to:

* A tsunami. Tidal wave is a common name for the occurrence, however this traditional usage is considered incorrect by oceanographers and other scientists since no tides are involved. Although the term "tidal wave" was formerly more popular with the general public, news media reporting of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake used the term "tsunami" almost exclusively, as a result of which "tsunami" is now much better known than it was before.

From_Wikipedia. November 13, 2005 @ 4:02PM

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The reason it is spelled "Tsunami" is because you are actualy prenouncing the letter "T" yet it is still silent becausw you don't recongnize it. like the word "Tsuki"
think about it-
"TS" + "Nami"
Love, Samantha Yamaguci
13/f/Kyoto, Japan

pretty_me107 January 1, 2006 @ 1:16PM

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"tidal wave" is a misnomer - tsunamis have nothing to do with tides.

Also, English phonotactics doesn't allow a "ts" sound at the beginning of a syllable, whereas Japanese does. When the word was adopted into English, the initial "t" was dropped to fit English phonology. This is the same reason we don't pronounce the "p" in psychology: English syllables can't start with "ps".

bubbha February 18, 2006 @ 8:15AM

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I understand your point of view. However, that is just a part of language. English (American English or UK English) do not have the sound 'ts' as in 'tsu' as the Japanese do. This makes it difficult to pronounce.

English, along with all languages include words that are not of their origin. English (US) used words from many othre languags as common as their own (such as French words).

English (US) speakers may have this same complaint about Japanese use of English (US) words. Many Japanese pronounce English words they commonly use incorrectly as well. I've seen commerical products for exampe use "clover" instead of "lover", I hear songs use English words in all sorts of incorrect ways. I am not one to personally complain that this is a a great injustice. I love the Japanese language and culture and that of several languages/countries. I listen to music in 7 different languages, and there is not a day I don't enjoy Japanese entertainment their native language.

I simply see this as a basic problem when introducing another language into your own. It is not unheard of to intergate words into your own pronouncation. All languages do it, and in this case, so do the Japanese.

The_same February 23, 2006 @ 4:14PM

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Although I can understand your point of view to some extent, I tend to disagree that this is a real problem.

This is a basic language issue, not with English, but all languages. When one language borrows a word from another language, it is common to modify the pronoucation. Further, all languages are countinual evolving.

This same complaint may be made against the Japanese use English and other languages. I am not one to actually make this complaint, as I am against this type of thinking and understand the issue at hand. Further, I love the Japanese language and culture - I also work in Japan 4 months a year. I listen to music from 7 different countries. I enjoy Japanese entertainment everyday. However, to make my argument, I have seen Japanese use "clover" instead of "lover", they've also modified the pronouncation of words they've borrowed or mispronounce them.

This is an global issue, it would be great if we all spoke every language in the world like native speakers, it would make my travels much easier.

Tsukamoto February 23, 2006 @ 4:42PM

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I wish to take issue about the use of COMMUTE and COMMUTER to describe travel on a regular basis. In this context, COMMUTER actually refers to the state of being a season ticket holder, not a traveller, the person concerned having commuted their daily return tickets for a season. I see no reason why somebody could not be a commuter purely by virtue of using a car park or going to a cricket match, as long as they had a season ticket.

MPR March 8, 2006 @ 11:34AM

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For the record, "typhoon" did not enter the English language from Japanese. Most etymologists agree that its current meaning comes from Cantonese ("toi fung"). The word itself probably originally entered English via an Indian language (most likely Hindi), which used the word "tufan", borrowed from Arabic, meaning a strong, violent storm. The Arabic word was borrowed from the ancient Greek word "typhon", meaning "whirlwind", after the Titan who controlled the winds. To quote the American Heritage Dictionary, "Taaîfung, meaning literally “great wind,” was coincidentally similar to the Arabic borrowing and is first recorded in English guise as tuffoon in 1699."

Incidentally, Chinese and Japanese share the same characters for the word "tai feng/tai fung/tai fuu" (Mandarin/Cantonese/Japanese), strongly suggesting that "tai fuu" is actually a Japanese borrowing of a Chinese word (admittedly, many centuries ago), its pronunciation modified
to fit their phonetic system.

This is yet another (rather tortuous) example of how loan words are accommodated into other language sby changes in the pronunciation. Loan words which retain their "original" pronunciation are by far the exception rather than the rule. To press the point further, even words that have entered English relatively recently from Japanese - for example, "sake", "kamikaze", "Kyoto", "Tokyo", "manga", "karaoke", "bonsai" - are all pronounced differently in their original tongue.

Percivale March 20, 2006 @ 4:41PM

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There are numerous reasons why words are mispronounced when the Japanese borrow them from English.
The Japanese language pronounces their 5 vowels only one way. When you see an A it is always pronounced AH. The same applies to all other vowels EH, EE, OH, OO, and very short.
All of the consonants (except final n) must be followed by a vowel. Therefore when they see a word, for instance, "mac", they will pronounce it mah-koo (very short and clipped.)
In addition, their language does not have an L, so they do the best they can to get close to the sound, and it comes out sort of like an R.
There is also no TH, so they substitute closely with an S.
Their R is pronounced somewhat like the L in English.
They do not have diphthongs, so they always break vowels apart into two syllables.
These are the major problems the Japanese have in pronouncing English words. There are also other minor reasons for mispronunciation.
So when they attempt to pronounce MacDonald (only 3 syllables in English) it comes out as 6 syllables in Japanese because they add the needed vowels at the ends of each consonant.
While the Japanese language may seem short of sounds, the English language is oversupplied with variants in vowels, not to mention the multitude of diphthongs and ways to pronounce many words that look alike. Words that have "ough" in them can be pronounced so many ways, what would a Japanese do?
We can easily pronounce "tsu" correctly if we desire. Try "He gets Super Bowl on TV." Most Americans will run the words together instead of stopping after "gets" and pronouncing Super separately. That melded sound is the same as tsumani. Try "He gets tsunami."
So what excuse do we Americans have for mispronouncing Japanese words? Ours is an abundant language, able to reproduce nearly every sound in Japanese, however it will take some practice to attempt their Rs. I believe it is simply arrogance and incomplete education. The American soldier promulgated many of the mispronunciations we hear today such as geisha, usually pronounced poorly as gee-sha, and karaoke as car-ry-oh-ky, and bonsai as bahn-zai. Ughh!
However, we don't do much better with Spanish. All those cities starting with San are really pronounced as sahn in Spanish. We truly murder Los Angeles and many other cities names. I was born in San Jose where it was always pronounced "sanazay", but there's no turning back now. We have truly "Americanized" so many cities' names, even their natives would not recognize them.
So be it

chiyaku September 15, 2006 @ 3:29PM

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To Picky (comment from Jan 29, '05)
I digress with this post, from the discussion on tsunamis, because you said something that is very true and always interesting to me. Now PLEASE, no one else take this up as an affront. Just try to read this and take it as is. Consider too that all nations and races have their "common traits".
Americans, with exceptions along the way, have a tendency to want to make sense of everything and fitting it into a 1, 2 pattern or else they change it to what makes sense to them. Many words in the English language have been assigned a different spelling just because someone didn't get the original spelling.
Etymology is the beauty of English. In much the same way this country is built on its history of immigrants and all of what they brought with them, all English isn't latin. It borrows and benefits from other languages. It's the context that primarily gives meaning to the word and therefore justifies what it is. If that makes sense to us, then we really don't need to do surgery on a language that is more beautiful for its ins and outs and its range of inclusion.
Recently, in a back-handed manner, the President declared English the official language of the US of A. This because someone clearly pointed out that you cannot decree that all immigrants learn and speak a language when your country doesn't list it in officialdom. Well, some of us are still laughing because - double whammy! - you don't speak English either. You speak and write something, which if we were to pick it apart for all the ways in which it has been set apart - just to be different - from English, it would be fair to coin another name for it that specifically denotes its Americanism.
Again, no offence meant here. This is just an objective, unbiased comment based on close observation over more than 20 years.

beluga004 December 1, 2006 @ 10:00AM

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I donot use Tsugar in my koughpy

Bob3 January 22, 2007 @ 4:15PM

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who ever made this up is a hoe

Bob3 February 7, 2008 @ 9:59AM

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the word tsunami is commonly used to describe large tidal waves in the same way huge is used instead of big to describe something particularly big. They mean the same technically but are viewed as part of some kind of size hierarchy with big being smaller than huge and huge being smaller than gigantic. Seemingly to do with the imagery the words conjour up. Tsunami sounding more dramatic and dangerous than tidal wave.

I think the t is generally not pronounced due to the pause it creates. English is a very flowing language and pronouncing the t in tsunami doesn't fit with the rest of the language as a whole, it sounds rough and disjointed compared to the smooth flow of the rest of the sentance.

Jamie1 November 15, 2008 @ 3:58AM

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I don't know if this has been said because I'll be damned if I'm going to read through everything, but I'm pretty sure the word "tsunami" is regional. That is, it's not of a regional dialect, but it refers to the natural disaster in question only when said disaster occurs somewhere in SE Asia. In America, the same occurrence would be called a "tidal wave." It might be something else elsewhere. Compare with: prairie-pampas-savanna-steppes (all mean the same thing but each is on a different continent). Also, typhoons and hurricanes are the same thing, but hurricanes are born in equitorial Africa and do their thing in Florida. Typhoons are born in like, um, somewhere in the pacific and do their thing in Japan, Australia, etc.


Sunami November 17, 2008 @ 7:24AM

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Chiyaka entirely true. Your entire post is full of truth. Thank you, you have just made my day. I was taught when I was younger by my school that in the "t" in tsunami is silent because it is silent in Japanese, which is definitely not true. My mom was taught the same thing, but I don't know who taught her that. English (US) speakers [i]can[i] say "tsu". In fact they can say many things in other languages, some are harder to pronounce than others. If one can't pronounce "tsu" practice is really all that is needed. I watch a lot of Japanese shows (non-Anime included) and listen to a lot of Japanese music and hearing the words over and over again is what helped me. Now I can pronounce and spell in the Japanese language better than I can in English. Which isn't exactly a good thing, I might add. I even have their "r"s down. So let me say it is possible for English people to pronounce "tsu".

Inuyasha2408 May 19, 2012 @ 8:44PM

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