Japanese L and R sounds: Eating Remons and Linging Bells

Misora Hibari
Misora Hibari — if you don’t know her, you should!

It is well known that Japanese speakers can have trouble distinguishing L from R in European languages. Even when they can pronounce both sounds perfectly, they are prone to eat remons and ling bells. I remember the wonderful Misora Hibari singing a Gershwin song (I think it was Gershwin) in perfect English except for the word “rove” — which did not mean wandering, but rhymed with “glove” and meant ai (or koi if you want to carp).

This is perfectly natural as Japanese makes no distinction between the two sounds, and part of the way we learn language is that at a very early stage we learn to distinguish signal from noise in language and discard whatever is not signal. This is a necessary part of learning to hear and speak efficiently.

In Japanese one thing that gets discarded is the L/R distinction. In Japanese that distinction is just noise. Studies have shown that at 12 months Japanese children can still hear the distinction and by 18 months they can’t.

Don’t laugh. You have thrown away a lot of sound distinctions too. An Arab would be amazed that you can’t tell the K-sound in cap from the K-sound in keep, which are two distinct sounds in Arabic* (though they have a hard time telling pat from bat). Fortunately Japanese doesn’t have many subtle linguistic distinctions that we have discarded, though many Western speakers have a lot of trouble pronouncing the Japanese R.

Part of the steep learning curve in hearing a new language is getting the brain to retrieve some distinctions from the “noise” discard area and restore them to the “signal” category. This applies (probably more importantly) to things like stress and rhythm as well as pronunciation.

The L/R non-distinction can lead to curious transliteration problems. The famous early space shooter game Gradius is one interesting example. Why “Gradius”? The name means sword in Latin, or rather the Latin word for sword is gladius. You know it, actually. One reason that Latin-based languages are relatively easy for English speakers is that just about every Latin word exists somewhere in English. You may never have called a sword a gladius, but you know the sword-flower gladiolus (plural gladioli) and you have certainly heard of gladiators.

But it isn’t only Japanese people who make these L/R slips. in Pretty Cure Splash Star a very important villain is called キントレスキ. This is routinely transliterated as Kintolesky or Kintoleski by Western sources. It sounds kind of Russian and is probably supposed to, but…

"Kintolesky"? What's that got to do with muscles?
“Kintolesky”? What’s that got to do with muscles?

The name does actually have a meaning. In Japanese 筋トレ kintore means body-building. It is short for 筋トレーニング kintore-ningu, literally muscle-training. And Kintoreski is obsessed with exercise and body-building, so the name is very appropriate.

To make its meaning clearer キントレスキ could be written 筋トレ好き Kintoresuki “likes body-building”, “body-building fan”. The name is also intended to sound Russian, hence the look of the mustache and hair. There is also another pun here:  金 kin means gold and Kintoreski’s body is gold-colored.

However, the tore part of the name is clearly a regular Japanese shortening of English “training”, so tlansriterating it as Kintolesky — which makes it tole→tlaining — lleary doesn’t make sense.


* The k-sounds in cap and keep are different in English as well, of course, but only accidentally, depending on the juxtaposition of different vowels. English speakers can’t hear the difference or make the sounds independently. Interestingly (and related to this) the Japanese hear the English KA sound so differently from the Japanese KA sound that they write it キャ instead of カ。

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu acquired her first name as a nickname in school “because she seemed so Western-like”. Something that may puzzle actual Western people since kyary is not an English or other-Western name. I think the point was that the キャ kya sound (as in Kyatherine) which Japanese people hear when English speakers say “ka” is considered archetypally Western. It is not a sound that exists in Japanese. か is a different sound, though most Western speakers can’t hear the difference.. She liked the name but added Pamyu Pamyu to make it more kawaii. Which just shows how (thankfully) Western she isn’t.

2 thoughts on “Japanese L and R sounds: Eating Remons and Linging Bells

  1. I am an elementary-level student of Japanese. I can appreciate that the “ka” of “Katherine” would be rendered by Japanese speakers as キャ. But are you also saying that the “ka”
    of “car” would also be rendered キゃ, despite the closer vowel sound — i.e., is it the vowel or the more
    aspirated “k” that differentiates English “ka” from か?

    Thanks for your wonderful website! It is very interesting.

    1. Thank you for coming to Kawaii Japanese. Your kind comment is truly appreciated.

      As you say, the k-sound in “car” is different from that in Catherine, and it is not spelled as キャ in Japanese. For example, the game Mario Kart is マリオカート in the original Japanese — a simple カ rather than キャ.

      On another note — the main villains in Splash Star are all based on the Japanese five elements, so Kintoresky presumably began as a pun on 金 kin (gold, metal), just as ミズシタターレ Mizu Shitatāre (Ms. Shitatāre) is based on the pun of Ms. and 水 mizu (water) being pronounced the same in Japanese.

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