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Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion Revisited (Hiroshima)

In an earlier post (“Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion in English,” March 19, 2011) the peculiarities of the Japanese suprasegmental system of pitch affecting vowels was outlined, and the distortions English speakers tend to introduce in rendering Japanese vocables was sketched. With the city of Hiroshima in the news these days in connection with President Barack Obama’s visit there, it might be useful to subject this toponym to some prosodic scrutiny.

The word is a compound consisting of the elements hiro(i) ‘wide’ and shima ‘island’. The toponym has low pitch on the initial syllable and high pitch on the remaining syllables, with the high pitch on the final syllable automatically being transferred to the vowel of any particle that follows it, hence, for instance, the phrase Hiroshima ga ‘Hiroshima is’ bearing high pitch on the particle ga.

Since it is stress, not pitch, that is distinctive in English, native speakers of English typically put the accent on one of either the second or the penultimate syllable, i. e., Hiróshima or Hiroshíma.

Judging by what one hears on the BBC World Service, British speakers favor the first variant, American the second. Thus, Britishers interpret the word as a typical English quadrisyllable (like hegémony or chirópody), whereas Americans interpret it as a compound, putting secondary stress on the first element and primary stress on the second.

 MICHAEL SHAPIRO

2 Responses to “Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion Revisited (Hiroshima)”

  • Gary says:

    It seems to me that the British pronunciation comes closer to the Japanese, especially if one keeps the next two syllables high ptiched. Is that correct?

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