Toyota and Toyoda

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The testimony of Toyota president and CEO Akio Toyoda regarding problems with his company's cars has raised the question of the relationship between his name and that of the company. They are related: he is the grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda. Why then is the family name Toyoda but the company name Toyota? The BBC has done pretty good job on this question, but some further explanation may be useful.

First, a little background. The family name Toyoda is written 豊田 in Chinese characters, とよだ in hiragana, and トヨダ in katakana. The Chinese characters mean "fertile rice paddy". The company name Toyota is written とよた in hiragana and トヨタ in katakana.

Several explanations have been offered for the decision to change the name of the company from Toyoda to Toyota. One is that the change results in an auspicious number of strokes. The difference between the two names when written in kana is the elimination of the two little strokes that form the diacritic that makes /da/ from /ta/. The kana name contains eight strokes, and eight is an auspicious number. (In case you're thinking that トヨタ contains ten strokes, the strokes in question are not lines as you might naively draw them but single brush strokes as they are made in the tradition of Chinese calligraphy. The ㇕ component of /yo/ and the ㇇ component of /ta/ are both written with a single stroke.)

The problems with this explanation are that people don't usually care about the stroke count of words written in kana rather than in Chinese characters, and that the number eight, while auspicious to Chinese people, is not particularly auspicious to Japanese people. Eight does have a traditional cultural association for Japanese people, but it is with large numbers rather than auspiciousness. An example is the name of the Double-Flowered Cherry, 八重桜 yaezakura, a variety with numerous petals, literally "eight-leafed cherry". Of course, it is possible that Risaburo Toyoda was a Sinophile and was more influenced by Chinese numerology than a typical Japanese person might have been.

Another explanation is that Toyota served to dissociate the motor vehicle company from farming, which advanced the company's goal of presenting itself as innovative and high-tech. A third is that voiced sounds like [d] are considered to be "murky" while voiceless sounds like [t] are considered "clear". Finally, it may be that the aesthetics of the logo played a role.

In 1936 the company held a public competition to search for a new logo. The winning entry wrote the name in katakana within a circle, shown schematically below.

toyoda logo toyota logo

To some eyes the version with /d/ (on the left) looks a bit too busy and asymmetric, the version with /t/ (on the right), simpler and more symmetric.

Ironically, in English Toyota and Toyoda tend to be pronounced much the same due to the flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in casual speech.

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48 Comments »

  1. Martin Ball said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    "Ironically, in English Toyota and Toyoda tend to be pronounced much the same due to the flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in casual speech"
    No flappo-centric comments, please! I have no problem producing [t] in Toyota :-) and most Brits too…

  2. dw said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    Ironically, in English Toyota and Toyoda tend to be pronounced much the same due to the flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in casual speech.

    In North American English, please: in most other varieties they remain quite distinct in all styles of speech!

  3. JJM said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    US English-speaking population: 300 million+

    UK English-speaking population 60 million

  4. Bill Poser said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    Okay, in North American English. Of course, that comprises the great majority of native speakers of English…

  5. Martin Ball said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    "US English-speaking population: 300 million+
    UK English-speaking population 60 million"

    Wow – I wouldn't have expected to see such unpleasant linguistic jingoism here in response to an inaccurate generalization! =-(
    Anyway – here in the South (yes, US South in case you thought I was referring to the south of some useless non-US country) I often hear non-flapped [t]s. But, sorry, I should have remembered, JJM won't be interested in that because there aren't enough people to warrant caring about their dialect….. :-)

  6. dw said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    @JJM:

    If this has become some kind of demographic pissing contest, one could add in around 100 million Indian English speakers who most definitely do make the distinction. And the number of Indian English speakers will likely grow faster than the number of North American English speakers.

  7. Altissima said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

    In English, Toyota, when written vertically in capital letters, is pleasingly symmetrical around the vertical axis. Not so Toyoda.
    T
    O
    Y
    O
    T
    A

  8. Altissima said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

    In Englis "Toyota", when written vertically in capital letters, is pleasingly symmetrical around the vertical axis. Not so "Toyoda".
    T
    O
    Y
    O
    T
    A

  9. Ben said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    Southerners don't flap? Since when?

  10. Dan said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

    This might be interesting, although being Wikipedia, it has at least one mistake:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendaku
    N.B. the 'Further Considerations' section about Japanese names.

  11. Brian said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Flappers haven't been in fashion since the end of Prohibition, I thought.

  12. T-Rex said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    If the "argument", "Well there are more of us who say it like that," works, then so does, "Well we said it like this first." Which is all kinds of badness.

  13. Peter said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

    Australians also don't flap (generally)

  14. Matt said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    When the President of the Palindrome Society retired, he was honored with the gift of car. What kind, you ask? A . . . . well, never mind.

  15. James said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    @Matt,

    racecar.

  16. fs said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    @Dan: {{sofixit}}!

  17. Gene Buckley said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    An important fact is discussed in the linked BBC article, and is implied by the link to rendaku on Wikipedia by Dan, but it might be useful to make it explicit on this page. The written form 豊田 can be read Toyo-da, with voicing of the initial consonant in the second morpheme, or as Toyo-ta, without this voicing. (Other family names have similar alternate forms, such as 山崎 as Yama-saki and Yama-zaki.) In fact, the pronunciation Toyota is more common as a family name, according to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean surnames and how to read them (W. Hadamitzky, 1998). It's hard to imagine that the greater currency of this alternate pronunciation of 豊田 played no role in the choice of the company name.
    The katakana spelling adopted for the company name removes the ambiguity in the pronunciation of the second Chinese character. Bonus fact: the car company Isuzu is written in hiragana as いすゞ, including a special sign ゞ that repeats the value of the preceding syllabic character (す su), but with voicing of the initial consonant (for ず zu). Read about the dakuten voicing diacritic, seen also in katakana ダ da, at Wikipedia.

  18. Mark P said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    Although one might convince oneself that the Toyoda and Toyota pronunciations are different, I suspect that anyone I know hearing "Toyoda" without knowing how it's spelled (probably from having seen it in media references to the person who testified before Congress) would actually hear "Toyota" because that's what they are familiar with. And I doubt that the same person would pronounce them differently unless he was trying to. At least that's what I think would happen down here in the southeastern part of the US.

  19. Amy Stoller said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    I do hear non-voiced, or non-flapped, t in some US Southern speakers (and a few others, from scattered parts of the US) where I would expect to hear voiced, or flapped, t in most US speakers. Like many here, when I saw the end of the post the first thing I thought was, "In English"? In whose English? And I'm US-born and bred.

  20. dw said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    @Mark P:

    They might also confuse Toyota with "Toy Yoda", with disastrous results.

  21. Jeremy said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:30 am

    I'll have to ask some of my friends and coworkers what they've heard. I think somebody pointed out before that the 'd' in Toyoda is only voiced because of the preceding kanji. Normally, 田 is 'ta', as in the common names 田中 or 中田. It seems plausible that the pronunciation would be changed to appeal more to foreign (roman alphabet-using) markets.

    Someone mentioned Isuzu, there's also Mazda. Going by the kanji, it should be 'Matsuda', but I read somewhere (insert grain of salt from hearsay) that Mr. Matsuda thought it would be too difficult for Americans to pronounce, and Mazda was easier on the American ears.

  22. Nathan said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    So Mazda has nothing to do with the popularity of Zoroastrianism in the West? I'm disillusioned.

  23. Chargone said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:41 am

    yeah, at least in my speech, (NZ english, but slightly odd NZ english) the t/d in Toyota becomes something that could be t, d, or possibly even a glottal stop :D (heck, one could even argue that it comes out as toy-yo-ya or toy-yo-ra… but one might be pushing it a little there)

    just, you know, if anyone cares.

    I'm betting logo aesthetics had more to do with it than anything. or possibly making a distinction so the company owner could talk about his company or his family as separate things without confusing people.

  24. empty said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    I say toy-OH-ta (okay, more like toy-OH-da), but I am guessing that in Japanese it's more like to-yo-ta.

  25. Rhino1515 said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    "Going by the kanji, it should be 'Matsuda'…"

    If I'm not mistaken, an unstressed 'u' in Japanese is very nearly silent. Therefore, "Mats(u)da" becomes "Matsda" becomes "Mazda".

  26. Martin said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:00 am

    Does the spelling of Mazda have something to do with the German pronunciation of "z" as /ts/ and the Japanese deletion (or realization as a voiceless vowel) of postconsonantal /ɯ/ ("u")? I remember it being a revelation visiting my cousins in Austria and hearing them pronounce /matsda/ more or less exactly as it would be in Japanese.

  27. stormboy said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    @Peter:: "Australians also don't flap (generally)"
    Many do, and this is something that some young Brits pick up (temporarily) during their gap year down under.

  28. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    To some eyes the version with /d/ (on the left) looks a bit too busy and asymmetric, the version with /t/ (on the right), simpler and more symmetric.

    I don't know very much about Japanese aesthetics, but I'd be inclined to guess that simplicity would have been more of a desideratum than symmetry.

  29. language hat said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    If I'm not mistaken, an unstressed 'u' in Japanese is very nearly silent. Therefore, "Mats(u)da" becomes "Matsda" becomes "Mazda".

    "Mats(u)da" sort of becomes "Matsda," but I don't know what you mean by "becomes 'Mazda'." Not in Japanese, it doesn't. The two are utterly distinct.

  30. language hat said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    So Mazda has nothing to do with the popularity of Zoroastrianism in the West? I'm disillusioned.

    From Wikipedia: "The company website states that name 'stems from Ahura Mazda, the highest Zoroastrian God of reason who granted wisdom and united man, nature and the other gods.' It also notes that the name sounds like that of the founder of the company, Jujiro Matsuda."

  31. John said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Since we've moved onto other car companies' names…Italians pronounce it suBAru, in keeping with the standard placement of accent on the penult in Italian. Very weird for me to hear.

    What is it in Japan?

    Here's a blurb from their corporate website:

    "Adopted in March 1958, Subaru refers to a group of stars also known by its original Japanese name, mutsura-boshi, or series of six stars. This group of stars-known in Western countries as the Pleiades-belongs to the Taurus constellation and is the basis of the Subaru trademark. Subaru automobiles were the first to bear a name derived from the Japanese language."

  32. Dan said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    @Jeremy.

    "Normally, 田 is 'ta', as in the common names 田中 or 中田…"

    中田 is also (more commonly in my experience), pronounced /nakada/, and has variants like /utSda/.

  33. language hat said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    What is it in Japan?

    Similar to the Italian, if I recall correctly, except that the unstressed u's virtually disappear, so that it sounds like "S'bar."

  34. Army1987 said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    *Very* few of the "around 100 million Indian English" are native speakers, so they don't count any more than I, who have problems in reliably produce the distinction between /d/ and /ð/ unless I'm very careful, do.

  35. Mark said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    Pissing condesd are nod protucdive.

  36. Schiddi Additood said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    It's pretty disgusting that a professional linguist can use statements such as "[it] comprises the great majority of native speakers of English" to justify his crass mistake in assuming that American English is the only variety that counts. The number of speakers of a particular dialect is immaterial (and certainly would be to you too, Mr Poser, if you didn't happen to be a North American yourself).

    It's far worse that you still haven't bothered to amend the text to reflect your error.

  37. Bathrobe said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    In Japan, it's suBAru, taking into account, of course, that the 'u' sound in Japanese is different from Italian (not rounded, quite centred and indistinct), and the 'r' is a kind of flapped sound (not rolled at all).

    In Australia at one time I remember a commentator saying that Subaru had the way paved for it by the Suparoo, an Australian car of the time (I think it was Ford). Well, Subaru is still around….

  38. Bathrobe said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    Perhaps I should also point out that Japanese has pitch accent, not stress accent, and the accent in Subaru (Pleiades) is su˹baru˺ if my old Kenkyusha pocket J-E dictionary is to be believed (initial syllable low pitch, 'baru' high pitch, followed by low pitch for any enclitics).

  39. Bathrobe said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    And now I notice that Languagehat has already answered the question…

  40. Matt said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    The thing about the stroke theory is that Toyota themselves repeat it… But what seems most likely to me is the standard logo design story (picture of actual winning logo allegedly included).

    That is, the reasons for choosing the final logo, without dakuten, were multiple: it looked cool (probably most important, to be honest), it WASN'T the company founder's name (thus moving the company beyond an old-fashioned "J. Pratt & Sons" type association), and, of course, it has eight strokes. Since 8 does have at least some positive associations in Japanese culture (those folks with names ending in "Hachi", "Pachi" etc. weren't ALL eighth sons), it makes a good extra reason (justification) even if it's hard to believe it was the motivating factor.

  41. James said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Here's a rough translation of the Japanese explanation of the Toyota/Toyoda difference, from the Japanese "Toyota" wikipedia page:

    "When the company was founded, it was pronounced "Toyoda" after the name of the founder. The company logo and emblem was thus "TOYODA" in English, and used the Chinese characters 豊田 in Japanese. However, as the quality of the cars improved, and they started exporting to the US, they decided to hold a contest to choose a new company logo that would be recognizable in English. At that time, many people suggested the alternative reading of "Toyota" rather than "Toyoda" in their entries, and in fact "TOYOTA" was chosen. At the same time, they also replaced the Chinese character logo 豊田 with the Katakana logo トヨタ, which became the company flag."

    I think it's likely that since the original logo was in kanji, people simply didn't know it was pronounced "Toyoda", since "Toyota" is the much more common pronunciation. So as Gene stated above, it's probable that for simple recognition purposes, the name was changed.

    wikipedia link and extract (http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%88%E3%83%A8%E3%82%BF%E8%87%AA%E5%8B%95%E8%BB%8A#.E6.A6.82.E8.A6.81)

    創始者の名前が由来なので創業当時は「トヨダ」であった。ロゴや刻印も英語では「TOYODA」でエンブレムは漢字の「豊田」を使用していた。しかし、品質が向上して、アメリカに輸出をするようになることから、漢字のエンブレムではない英語で共通したものを作るために新トヨダマークの懸賞を行った。その時に「トヨダ」ではなく「トヨタ」の読みで作られたアイデアが多く、実際に「TOYOTA」が採用される。これを機に、日本語も漢字の「豊田」からカタカナ「トヨタ」のエンブレムは社旗となった。

  42. Anon I Mus said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    I must agree with Schiddi Additood. One cannot simply discount the 60 million + speakers who realize /t/ as voiceless in all environments (by the way, the US and UK do not account for all worldwide native English speakers, like some of you seem to be asserting). It is also startling that the post right above this makes special mention of an endangered language, yet this one is content to disqualify the phonotactics of over 20% of native English speakers.

    In short, please edit the post to correctly ascribe the flap to North American English speakers only.

  43. Dean said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

    Should it also be amended to mention the number of native English speakers who do not realize a distinction between intervocalic /t/ and /d/ due to realizing both as /ʔ/ ?

  44. Graeme said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    Bathrobe, that Aussie car nob probably had his tongue firmly in cheek.

    The Ford Falcon had many popular models; a rev-heads car. On some in the 70s there was a jokey decal 'Superoo'. Very kangarooey. Subaru, with accent heavy on the final syllable, came into its own only a decade or more later.

  45. mollymooly said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 2:21 am

    I think the flap over flapping can be resolved by weighting the contribution of each anglophone country not by population but by Toyota sales statistics. Now run along and Google up the necessary data.

    Hyundai is Korean, not Japanese, but I nevertheless mention it since its pronunciation has varying anglicizations.

  46. Russell said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    @ Rhino1515, language hat:

    In general (i.e., both careful and rapid speech), /u/ and /i/ devoice between voiceless sounds and word-finally after a voiceless sound. As far as I know, "stress" has nothing to do with it. I listened to a few car commercials on youtube, and it seems as though the first /u/ in Subaru is nearly missing, but certainly not the second one (maybe has to do with the /s/?). The /u/ in Mazda (matsuda) did not devoice in the commercial I listened to.

  47. Ken Bloom said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    The actual 1936 Toyota logo is at http://www.logoblog.org/toyota-logo.php

  48. Ken Brown said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Dean said: "Should it also be amended to mention the number of native English speakers who do not realize a distinction between intervocalic /t/ and /d/ due to realizing both as /ʔ/ ?"

    This glo'll-stopper uses a voiced intervocalic /d/ – its /t/ that gets eaten. At least it is for us Southerners (English variety) So to us /t/ and /d/ are maybe more distinct than they would be in many other English accents.

    Notoriously, when (many) Americans say "water" we hear something like "wodder"; when we say it they hear something like "waw-uh"

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