Japanese language: why does "n" sometimes get anglicized into "m"?

There are a number of Japanese words which, when rendered in Latin script (“romaji”), have an “n” sound that gets translated/rendered as an “m”. A few examples:

Tempura; the first kanji character, 天, is “ten” (although now that I read the etymology of this word, maybe not the best example)

Shimbashi, as in Shimbashi Station in Tokyo; the first kanji character, 新, is “shin”

Shimbun, or newspaper; as above, the first kanji character (新) is “shin”

I’m guessing there are more like this. English-speakers have no trouble pronouncing “n”, so why that sound getting lost in translation?

That phoneme (written as “n” in a scheme kike Romaji) sometimes sounds more like “m”, e.g. in a word like shimbun. Wikipedia lists at least 6 or 7 different pronunciations. In any case, it is the difference between a phonetic transcription and the systematic use of “n” in all cases. To draw a parallel, you should not be surprised that Beijing starts with “b”

Another example is kanpai (cheers). When you romanise the word you can write it with n or m (e.g. shinbun or shimbun).

It’s simply because “n” sounds like “m” before a p or b. It’s not particularly a feature of Japanese. In English we have words like “impair”, “compere”, “combine” where a prefix with “n” gets elided into “m”. Try saying “conbine” and you’ll see it’s hard to distinguish from “combine”.

wiki explains it well.

So basically when ん (n) is before an “m”, a “p” or a “b” then it changed to an “m” sound.

Not just in Japanese, or its transliteration. In English, comptroller is pronounced controller. The German city Nürnberg gets transliterated Nuremberg.


Interesting. I work in accounting and I’ve heard it both ways. I thought a comptroller was equivalent to a CFO before that term was in common usage.

Seems I’m someone right as comptroller is used in government, which is why I heard it when I was young as my Dad worked in Federal Civil Service and I never heard him use the term controller.


It is?! :astonished:

Yes, pronounced controller.

There are at least two schemes for phonetically rendering Japanese into English. It depends on what consonants comes together. So you have Shinkansen (the train ) and Shinjuku (an area in Tokyo), but Shimbashi and the newspaper is the Asahi Shimbun.

There are also at least two schemes for handling doubled vowels such as the long ‘o’ in Osaka.

Anyone here remember Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi?
Or was it Gaddafi? Kadafi? Qaddafi? Gadhafi?

I think the answer is this: English speakers can usually distinguish the sounds “m” and “n” pretty easily, but it’s not so easy for speakers of other languages where those sounds aren’t so common or so distinct, or they have only a single sound somewhere between the two that doesn’t appear in English at all.

But our printed alphabet forces us to make choices how to anglicize a certain sound. And even without putting these things in writing, it can be a daunting task simply to teach someone how to pronounce a sound that they didn’t grow up hearing. Example: the first consonant in “Chanukah” is pretty easy for those who can pronounce “yucchhh”, but some people find that sound difficult to make and it comes out as “yukk”; those people usually give up on the guttaral “ch” sound, and refer to that holiday as “Hanukah”.

So too with so many other anglicizations. For more information, consider the change from “Bombay” to “Mumbai”, or “Peking” to “Beijing”.

Furthermore, any word that started with the in- prefix gets it changed to m if it’s in front of a labial consonant (one that uses the lips). It’s not inpolite–it’s impolite.

May not be just English that does this transformation; I was thinking today of how Champs-Élysées is pronounced by the French.

However, it’s still puzzling to me because I think of there being a very different mouth position for sounding an m and sounding an n. One’s labial; the other’s lingual.

This explanation isn’t the best as it doesn’t explain the reason for the change; that the difference is because the sound in Japanese of the syllable ending “n” (ん) actually changes into an “m” sound before “m”, “b” and “p” where it doesn’t before other consonants. Thus “Shimbashi” and “shimbun” but “Shinjuku”. This has been noted above by myself and others.

There are Romanization systems that use “n” for all cases of the syllable ending “n”. In those systems, the above words would be written “Shinbashi” and “shinbun” but pronounced “Shimbashi” and “shimbun”.

No. This isn’t correct.

Just realized, Tempura donburi (donburi or don meaning bowl) is spelled Tendon, not Temdon.