Coronavirus à la japonaise

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Everybody is talking about the latest pandemic.  How do you say it in Japanese?

"‘Koronavairusu’ or ‘Koronauirusu?’ Japan Learns English:  Excessive focus on 'proper' pronunciation skews English learning", Asia Sentinel, by Xiaochen Su (March 15, 2020)


With much of Japan gripped with the fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus, which has stricken at least 639 and killed 16, the crisis has triggered an odd only-in-Japan controversy, pertaining to the word “virus.”

To a non-Japanese unfamiliar with the language, the difference between two transliterations of a foreign loanword may seem trivial. But the concern for how “virus” is pronounced is the latest example in a long list of foreign loan-words that are being deliberately Anglicized. Beer has gone from biru to bia, pizza from piza to pittsa, violin from baiorin to vaiorin…within the limits of Japanese syllabary, foreign words have become ever closer to the original English pronunciation.

While for decades the standard pronunciation of the term virus has been uirusu, owing to the loan-word originally coming from German, those in the Englishteachingcommunity have seized upon the chance to remind people that it ought to be pronounced vairusu instead.

Let's see how this works with the Japanese transliteration of "violin":

baiorin バイオリン  vs. vuaiorin ヴァイオリン

June Teufel Dreyer comments:

Apart from fear of embarrassment, I think another factor is fear of being regarded as not-quite-Japanese after they return from studies abroad.  The returnees have picked up various reprehensible habits like speaking forthrightly, eating while walking along a street, and Amaterasu only knows what else.

Don Keyser remarks:

I tend to agree.  As we all *know* the Japanese brain is different, and comes equipped with a valve that turns on and off when in proximity to foreigners — with a foreigner present, the valve comes on permitting a steady flow of Japlish rich in katakana words taken (loosely) from English.

It gets to that famous monograph perhaps fifty years ago now.  I encountered it when studying Japanese (gasp) 42 years ago.

A Japanese dentist — yes, dentist, not a qualified professional — was consumed with the question of why "no foreigner can speak Japanese and no Japanese can speak a foreign language."  So he wired himself up with makeshift electrodes — yes!! — and administered various self-designed language tests to himself.

He concluded, based on such research, that … Japanese is "uniquely" a vowel-rich language, and since vowels are processed in the opposite cerebral hemisphere from consonants, it follows that the "Japanese brain" is configured differently than any foreign brain.  Hence the inability for Japanese to speak foreign languages and foreigners to speak Japanese.  (The dentist conceded that some Polynesian languages are also "vowel-rich," but he brushed those languages and peoples aside as primitive and uncivilized, unworthy of his research.)

It gets worse.  Vowels, the dentist noted, are processed in the same part of the cerebrum that handles certain voluntary acts such as … smoking.  Since Japanese all smoke a great deal, he said, it stood to reason that the Japanese brain was further impaired in its ability to process foreign (consonant-rich) languages.

And so, inevitably, amidst the general bemusement and mirth, a Japanese put to the dentist: "But, you know, many Gaimusho [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] diplomats are quite fluent, indeed native, in English, French, German, Russian and other foreign languages."  The dentist pondered this a few seconds and retorted "Yes, just so.  Their brains have altered, and they are no longer recognizably Japanese."

We students thought all this was great good fun and thought well of our Japanese instructors for sharing such a diversion with us.  Then we discovered that … they all seemed to believe the dentist was onto something.  After all, THEY were less than proficient in English, and their students (after 3-4 months) were plainly NEVER going to become fluent in Japanese.

My personal impression is that one of the reasons for this sort of thing happening in Japan is the pervasive drive for perfectionism.  If possible, the Japanese strive to master skills, arts, and everything else pertaining to culture completely, including as well as or even better than in the societies where such things originated, e.g., cooking, sports, bookbinding, music, film, tea drinking, crafts, and, yes, language.  Listen to the Russian of this Japanese journalist:


Selected readings


  1. KevinM said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 10:31 am

    "Yes, just so. Their brains have altered, and they are no longer recognizably Japanese."
    There is perhaps no purer example of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

  2. AntC said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 10:44 am

    Good grief is that journalist never going to shut up and let Putin speak? He's a pain in the a, in any language. Is that also a uniquely Japanese characteristic?

  3. Noel Hunt said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 3:06 pm

    The spread, or the attempt to spread, English words has nothing to do with any pursuit of perfectionism. It primarily comes from journalists and politicians who like to litter their language with foreign words which are unintelligle to the average Japanese, to flaunt their mastery of another language; it also has the effect of watering down concepts that would have much more impact when said in Japanese as opposed to English. A good example of that is 'domestic violence', often abbreviated to 'DV' by those who use it. The word has a very neutral impact; compare 家庭内暴力 'kateinai bouryoku', viz., 'household internal violence'. This word is avoided because of the strong reactions it produces. Politicians obviously desire obfuscation which at the same time makes them appear 'learned'.

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 9:35 pm

    Why would an English-based pronunciation of "virus" be more correct than a German-based one?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 11:52 pm

    The issue was not about "The spread, or the attempt to spread, English words…". It was about striving for hypercorrection.

  6. Rodger C said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 1:07 am

    Similarly, surely biru is German in origin? That's hypercorrection of some sort, I guess.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 1:20 am

    Similarly, surely biru is German in origin?

    From the German spelling probably. The German pronunciation would give… bia.

  8. TBR Anatoly said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 2:05 am

    As far as I am aware, there is a number of such inconsistencies with English borrowing in Japanese, and all because the process of borrowing is of a very grass-roots kind. There is almost no standardization, and no provisions in any grammar manuals – the word are borrowed and Japanized as each individual speaker sees fit. And, after some time, a consensus, a middle-ground, is settled upon. So, I'd say, there is no use trying to determine the logical way of borrowing – you would need standards and revisions for that first.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 9:42 am

    What is the logic behind the lack of spacing in the phrase "Englishteachingcommunity" ? There are three separate (and different) embedded URLs, but only those who habitually watch their status bar will be likely to perceive this.

  10. Noel Hunt said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    I don't understand how the attempt to change the 'uirusu' pronunciation to 'vairusu' is an example of hypercorrection, since there is nothing to correct. If you look at the 'Englishteachingcommunity' youtube-video you will notice that the lament expressed by the presenter is that however much Japanese say 'uirusu, uirusu', English-speakers don't understand. It would appear that they (those kinds of teachers) simply want to appease non-Japanese speaking English-speakers, with scant regard for Japanese who've been using this borrowed-from-German word for decades. I did recently hear in Japan the Prime Minister using the 'vairusu' pronunciation in a Diet exchange, but he is a politician.

  11. Nash said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 4:23 pm

    ビール bīru is from Dutch bier and ウイルス uirusu is an attempt at an approximation to classical Latin pronunciation, most likely via German as many medical terms are. ピザ piza is clearly a spelling pronunciation rather than the result of an adaptation or sound change.

    It baffles me to see so many foreigners just assume every loanword in Japanese is from English without ever thinking of looking in a dictionary. (To be fair, Japanese speakers are guilty of this too, I once saw a college student confidently use "pan" to mean "bread" in an English-speaking context – パン pan, of course, comes from Portuguese pão.)

    Also interesting is foreigners expect ヴァイルス vairusu to be the most faithful rendition while most Japanese speakers would probably say it's ヴァイラス vairasu. Learners of Japanese struggle with the more or less idiosyncratic adaptation of English vowels, where spelling pronunciations abound. The schwa is typically adapted to the value of the spelled letter, except "u" in closed syllables, which often has "a", drawing an analogy to the STRUT vowel (e.g. campus → キャンパス kyanpasu).

  12. Philip Spaelti said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 5:05 am

    I would assume that biru is from Dutch rather than German. But I'm not sure that helps explain the pronunciation either.

  13. Rodger C said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 1:10 am

    On consideration, I agree with Philip. And while we're at it, "uirusu" looks as if it were borrowed straight from Classical Latin without intermediaries, which would probably be unique in Japanese, and which I'm pretty sure is an illusion, there being only so many ways to represent /v/ in Japanese.

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