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All you need is (a) rub

You know the average westerner's stereotypical view of how Japanese people pronounce English? Swap r's and l's and you have instant comedy Japanglish? Well, they're more correct than most people's automatic political correctness barrier would allow for. There's a good reason for this, but I'm going to have difficulty explaining it to you without a whiteboard and a set of coloured marker pens.

Basically, the Japanese consonant found in the syllables ら, り, る, れ, ろ (and typically romanized as either ra, ri, ru, re, ro OR la, li, lu, le, lo) is pitched somewhere between the English "r" and "l" sounds. Hit the inside of your upper row of teeth once with the tip of your tongue once as you say each syllable... hang on, I've got a whiteboard here somewhere... um... this red splodge is your tongue, right, and... um... I swear it works much better in person. Hence Japanese learners of English often have difficulty discerning between (and producing) the two sounds, as neither actually exists in Japanese - the closest thing they have is this half-way-in-between consonant.

Anyway, the reason for all this lingusitic lambada is as follows: an e-mail from an old friend set me thinking: what are the top five words which can be humourously manipulated simply by performing the old r / l swap? Here's what I came up with after a couple of minutes' chin-stroking:

  1. implore --> improle (convert someone from upper-class to working-class by force of argument alone)
  2. self-abandon --> serf-abandon (the illegal dumping of surplus rural workers)
  3. lunar --> runal (of or pertaining to runes)
  4. impair --> impail (to limit a person's ability to perform an act by driving a spear through them)
  5. frighten --> flighten (to make someone lose weight by terrifying them into involuntarily defecating)

And, just in case anyone decides to take offence, I wish to make it absolutely clear that this is most definitely not a manifestation of any kind of racism, latent or otherwise. Read around a bit more and you'll realise, I hope, how much I love Japan, the Japanese, Japanese English and English Japanese. I personally am guilty of far more heinous crimes against the Japanese language than any number of confused Japanese tourists asking for directions in Ros Angeles or Rondon could ever hope to perpetrate against the English language. So righten up.

Have something to add to the list?

Posted by chris at April 28, 2001 01:30 AM | Permalink


Yeah...I'd like to add one. I heard it from one of my teachers:
election --> erection
I'll let you figure out the rest...

Posted by: Korina at October 27, 2005 11:59 AM

A colleague of mine once had a student tell her, "In Japan, you must be 20 years old to have an erection." Took her a while to work that one out.

Posted by: chris at October 27, 2005 12:16 PM

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