We’ve all had it before; the awkward moment when you’re ordering an East Asian take-away and someone shouts out the words “FLIED LICE!” thinking that they’re the first ones to come up with this joke in, oh, say, two decades. You’ll get those who’ll laugh, those who’ll cringe, those who won’t get it… and then you’ll get me…
As a personal rule, I follow the descriptive rather than prescriptive school of linguistic thought. In other words, I’ll attempt to describe what’s going on in language, rather than saying what is right and wrong (even when I hear people destroying syntactic structures and all rules of grammar, as much as it pains me…) but I digress.
Being a student of the Japanese language, it is easier for me than most others to understand why sometimes the English ‘l’ and ‘r’ get flipped around by Japanese speakers so frequently. Do any kind of Google search and you’ll find that there are hundreds of written examples where ‘Rob’s Deli’ will have turned into something like ‘Lob’s Deri’ or the like.
A lot of people that I have spoken to (linguists and otherwise) think that this is just due to a lack of understanding, and I quote, “stupidity” on the part of the foreign speaker. This is not the case. Permit me to demonstrate, de-mystify and delve into the reasonings…
Within the Japanese phonetic system, consonants can be paired up with vowel sounds*. For instance, we can take the letter ‘k’ and attach it to our five vowels in English to make ka, ki, ku, ke and ko. Or, in hiragana (a writing system of Japanese): か、き、く、け、こ。The same rules apply to other consonants too. Take a gander at the table for more:
However, working our way down the character table, and taking into account what this post is about, we see that there are indeed characters which take the ‘r’ consonant and there is no ‘l.’ For some, this would seem as though it should be easy for Japanese people to understand the differences between ‘l’ and ‘r’: they have one sound, and they don’t use the other, which in turn can be learned from mimicking a native English speaker.
Ohhhh, if only languages were THAT easy.
The way in which most textbooks write these 5 characters (ら、り、る、れ、ろ）would use ‘r’ as an approximation of the noise. This is a little vague; consider how different an ‘r’ sounds in English, French and Spanish, for instance. The actual noise that is created is something that we don’t have a particular letter for in the English language. In lingustic terms, it is referred to as a liquid consonant, specifically a flap hovering between [ɺ] and [ɾ]. In non-geek-speak, the closest example of this sound in English I can think of would be the production of the ‘tt’ when an American says the word butter. Unsure of this sound? I’ll call upon my close, personal friend, Paula Deen, who is neither close nor personal to me (the first 7 seconds are the important bit, the rest is just for the lulz):
If we were to put this noise into the perspective of these characters, we would come up with something like this next video. Just out of interest, look at the first repetition of the characters and then just listen to the second and third repetition:
Did you find your mind unable to place exactly whether it was an ‘l’ or ‘r’ sound that was being made the second and third time around? Did you sometimes switch your answer as to which sound it was closer to? Does this mean that WE are the stupid ones?! (Of course not.)
The noise that is being made actually falls in-between the English ‘l’ and ‘r’ noise in the articulation of the mouth. In other words, make an ‘l’ noise and feel where your tongue begins. Then, make an ‘r’ noise and do the same. If you’re feeling particularly extravagant, do it a few more times! The beginning position of the tongue in the characters ら、り、る、れ、ろ fall in-between the two on that little ridged bit on the roof of your mouth called the alveolar ridge.
Remember I mentioned that this sound ‘hovers between’ [ɺ] and [ɾ]? This means that the sound isn’t always exactly the same. Sometimes it’s closer to an English ‘l’ and other times closer to an English ‘r.’ But, it doesn’t matter. Just like if we were to here two different productions of an ‘r’ noise in two different dialects of English, the sound may differ but we still understand them (most of the time!) to be ‘r.’ Bearing this in mind, take a look at one of my favourite real-life examples of where these ‘l’ and ‘r’ differentiation shenanigans really come into play.
When playing a game or watching a game show in Japanese, you will come across a set of instructions and guidelines on how to play the game or the boundaries within which actions are acceptable. In English, we call them Rules. In Japanese, this word has been borrowed and transformed into Japanese characters: ルール, written in English as ruuru. The vowel sound remains the same but both the ‘l’ and ‘r’ have been merged into one sound. If we were to go on this theory that these two separate sounds can be squished together in Japanese, we can reverse the process back into English, leaving us with at least 4 possible outcomes in terms of pronunciation: Lure, lule, rule and rure (I’m ignoring the vowels of English here so these may not rhyme for all readers… that’s an entirely different rant!)
Let’s also take this ルール and put it alongside another word: my name in Japanese. Luke becomes ルーク (ruuku). The first character matches those of the ones in rule, even to the extent of the first vowel being extended. The catch? Even though both of these words start off with ル, one is read in English with an ‘l’ sound and the other with an ‘r.’ And no, there is no rule to this (see what I did there?!)
I hope that this post brings some clarification as to why ‘l’s and ‘r’s seem like such a big thing cross-linguistically. As aforementioned, there are lots more differences that can be found between Japanese and English, such as why there are a lot of ‘u’s everywhere. The key thing to remember is that this confusion is not down to stupidity, but rather a legitimate and honest miscommunication between languages. If you think otherwise, just bear this in mind: you know those huge waves that occur sometimes after earthquakes? The one with that word that the English borrowed from the Japanese? Yeah… that word you’re pronouncing in Japanese would be wrong, make no sense and probably make them laugh.
We’re just as stupid =P
*For those who have a higher-than-basic knowledge of Japanese, I am indeed aware that sounds such as /ye/ and /wi/ are phonemes that are not possible within Japanese phonotactics and that /n/ can exist without a vowel. Much like GCSE chemistry, this has been simplified for the reader =]