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Sunday, July 7, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Are you calling me a diphthong?


I have a friend who became an English teacher mainly because of his fondness for phonetics.

"To be more precise," he says. "I just like to say the word 'diphthong.' I try to plug it into every conversation."

A diphthong, for those uninformed, is not a sexy undergarment for dips. Rather, it is a sound blend made when one vowel sort of combines with another.

Picture me on ice skates, for example. I don't know how to stop so I often "diphthong" into the wall. At such times, I usually announce the upcoming event like this:

"Aiiee!"

This particular diphthong ends rather abruptly (shortly followed by language more colorful) but is then accompanied by pain (with the vowel sound combining an "ay" with an "ee") and shame (same exact combo), both of which last a little longer.

"All of the so-called 'long' vowels in American English are diphthongal," says my friend. And then he repeats the word "diphthongal" a half dozen times in unabashed linguistic joy.

Next he snickers and rubs his hands together like a mad scientist. For he feels he has recently discovered a language insight of white-dwarf intensity, a kernel of trivial knowledge for which other linguists might kill -- and the rest of us would only care to read about in humor columns.

"You know how in Africa there is one spot where all the elephants go to die? Well, in English there is one sound combination that the Japanese absolutely cannot say! It's where their English goes to die!"

And then he cackles and mumbles "diphthong" over and over.

"You mean like 'L' and 'R'?" "No! That's torture, but not death!" "The 'Th' sound? 'Bs' and 'Vs'?"

"I'll give you a hint." His eyes pool wide with fervor. "It has to do with . . . diphthongs!"

Well, surprise, surprise. Yet while my friend leans closer and closer to imbalance, I find myself tramping farther and farther from his answer. So he tells me.

"Japanese," he says, each syllable enunciated hard and clear, "cannot properly say words with the long 'e' diphthong, like in 'sheet ' or 'free' "

I blink. "Sure they can."

"Wait! I'm not done! They cannot say such words when the diphthong is preceded by an initial 'Y' consonant -- a y-glide. As in 'year' or 'yield' or 'yeast.' "

Then, once again, he gaggles with delight. "But I hear Japanese say 'year' all the time."

"No, you hear them say it in rhythm with other words in a sentence. As in, 'I'm 20 years old.' That they can say. But . . . in isolation . . . never!"

To test him, I call in my Japanese wife. "Say 'year,' " I tell her. Her eyes swish from side to side, and she says, "Ear." "No, not 'ear,' 'year.' " "Ear," she says again.

"Ha, ha! This is beautiful!" My friend drops to his knees and raises his hands to my wife. "Now say 'yeast!' "

"East," she says. "Perfect! Now 'yield!' " "Eeled.' "

He pounds the carpet in ecstasy. My wife asks, "What's wrong with him? Has he gone nuts?"

"No," I tell her, "just diphthongal." "Oh. Well . . . Tell him to snap out of it before supper." Then she walks out.

My friend eases back into his chair. He is almost hyperventilating. "Try it on any Japanese you know. It's the ultimate party gag. They just can't say it!"

"Yeah, but with practice . . ."

"That's the point!" He grabs my arm. "I've hit upon this hidden pocket of phonetic doom, and the Japanese are such perfectionists they'll all want to correct it. I'll tour the lecture circuit! Write books! 'Diphthongs for Dummies'! 'The Chrysanthemum and the Diphthong'! I'll be rich beyond my dreams! My ship has just come in, I tell you, all piloted by a simple y-glide!"

Gosh. I suddenly think that maybe he and I should become closer friends.

"So . . . about how many words does this affect?"

He ticks them off on his fingers. "Well, there's 'year' and 'yeast' and 'yield' and . . ."

I wait. "And . . . and . . . 'yeast.' " "You said that one."

"Right, right." He freezes in thought, holding his fingers, then whirls about and grabs a dictionary from a shelf. He slaps through the pages.

"Aha! There is also 'yean!' As in, 'Our family goat just yeaned a calf!' See! There are tons of useful words!"

And I now think that as friends go, maybe he's expendable.

"You're going to write books about how to pronounce four words?!"

He hangs his head and I say: "This is not death to Japanese English! Why it's hardly even a speed bump!"

"Hey!" His face has turned serious. He points at me and lowers his voice. "Don't mock diphthongs."

"I'm not. I'm just saying you might have overestimated the impact of your discovery."

Yet that's what scholars do, he assures me. They bang the drum over minuscule developments until somebody gives them funding. It's like a beggar tapping his cup with a stick. People toss him coins to get him to go away.

"But I'm not going away. I'm gonna track this y-glide diphthong combo to the ends of the earth. Until I'm recognized for what I am!"

"An idiot?" I almost say.

Instead I fix him with the fire of conviction and share my innermost thoughts. Which are . . .

"I must admit . . . you're the perfect man for the job."



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