Spelling in other alphabets

At a Japanese restaraunt, I was informed that “sukiyaki” is pronounced “skee-yaki” because the “u” is silent. So I wonder why the “u” is there? For languages using the same alphabet it makes sense to spell the words as the native users do, but why aren’t words from Arabic, Russian, Greek, etc. spelled phonetically when translated? I know that Chinese, for example, underwent a change in how it was written in English (i.e. from Peking to Beijing), but why hasn’t the rule always been to spell it as pronounced? Assumingly somebody was the first to transliterate these languages into our alphabet, why not make it as easy as possible for others to pronounce them correctly?

Short answer, though, is pronunciations and transliterations are not exact sciences.

Here’s what I think I’ve heard:

In Japanese, certain vowels are not totally silent, but almost silent, thus the term “whispered” vowels.

Other transliterations have unusual spellings because some of the sounds are not quite the way we pronounce them in English–or, they do exist in English, and we just don’t differentiate between the subtle differences. Neither “pee-king” nor “bay-jing” pronunciations are the “proper” Chinese pronunciations–just some close approximations. The “old style” spellings (like T’eng instead of Deng) actually give a littler better idea–if you know how to use it.

Arabic is inexact because a lot of those sounds don’t exist in English or even other Semitic languages, and are hard for non-native speakers to master anyway. And those glottal stops can occur in the most bewildering places.

But if you’re speaking strictly of place names, that goes back to an old Straight Dope column that illustrated that it’s very common for a people’s place names in their own language often to be very different from the names their neighbors use. Sometimes it’s just a shoe-horned phonetic approximate (like Beijing), and sometimes it’s totally different (especially with country names).

OK, I’ve used up enough bandwidth. Maybe a real expert can elucidate.

>> I know that Chinese, for example, underwent a change in how it was written in English (i.e. from Peking to Beijing),

Not really. This is a common misconception. What has changed is that Americans have started to use the Chinese word rather than the traditional English one. If you say Peking (which, as far as I am concerned is still the correct English name) then you write Peking. If you use the Chinese name, then you write it Beijing. Just like if you use the English name for the capital of Italy you would write it Rome but if you decide to use the Italian name you would write it Roma. So, Chinese has not suffered any change in how it is written in “English”. I would say Chinese is not “written in English”. If you mean to discuss pinyin and the different systems of romanising Chinese, that is a different kettle of fish.

And just who informed you of this, someone who learned their Japanese from comic books? I assure you that the u in sukiyaki IS pronounced, but it is subtle, it isn’t like “soo.” The only occurence of a totally silent u I am aware of is when “su” appears at the end of a word like “desu” and even that is optional, it is perfectly correct to pronounce it fully.

It is true that you don’t get a one-to-one match up across other languages let alone other alphabets. In Korean for example the southern port city Pusan is also commonly written as Busan. The letter (Korean does have an alphabet–a brilliant design if I am any judge) that begins that word is sort of a cross between a “P” and a “B”.

Other letters have a harder “P” or “B” sound than English commonly pronounces.

See An Introduction to Korean

To the OP:

In theory this is a neat idea but it often just doesn’t work in practice. English for example just doesn’t have all the sounds that are used in other tongues. Also since when was English itself phonetically correct?

For the same reason that English words are not spelled phonetically: different people pronounce the same words differently. This is largely a function of a person’s dialect and idiodialect. Sometimes the same person will pronounce the same words differently; this can be the result of the word’s context or the register in which the person is speaking. For example, when you say the word “the”, perhaps sometimes you make it sound like “thuh”, and sometimes you make it sound like “thee”.

Consider the difficulties involved in spelling German phonetically in any alphabet. The sentence “Mein Name ist Hans” could be rendered “phonetically” in English by something like “Mine nahmmuh ist Hahnce”. However, if that sentence is uttered by a speaker from Zurich, it’s more likely to be spelled “Meen nahmme ish Hahnce.” How is an English speaker to know that “mine” and “meen” refer to the same German word if they are written differently?

There are advantages to a regularized orthography, particularly in English, where there is dialectical variation to the point where two speakers of different dialects may be mutually unintelligible.

Actually, we just discussed this recently inWhy aren’t Chinese words spelled phonetically?

There is also a tradeoff sometimes involving spelling and pronunciation when you transliterate. Often our version is not phonetic/phonemic because theirs isn’t either. For example, in German or Russian, when a word ends with a voiced consonant like a d, v, g or b, it is pronounced as its unvoiced equivalent t, f, k or p respectively. Therefore, hund is pronounced HOONT (OO as in BOOK). In the Russian alphabet, Pavlov also ends in a V (which confusingly looks like a B) but is pronounced pavLOFF. However, we try and remain faithful to the spelling and keep the V. Unfortunately, this just makes for mispronunciations.