Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Language: What's the Difference Between Huzi and Fuji?

When the first big waves of foreigners started coming to Japan in the late 1800s, it became apparent a romanization system, a method of writing Japanese words in the Roman alphabet, was needed to help bridge the language gap.

One system developed, Nihonsiki, was based on Japanese and was technically more correct in the fine details. For example, it had "hu" for the character ふ, meant to be a very soft puff of air midway between an English f and h, but when foreigners unfamiliar with Japanese read it aloud it sounded like a strong "hoo". "Zi", for the character じ, came out more like "zee" than the sound they were aiming for, which is more of a "jee".

A second system, called Hepburn romanization, was based on English sounds and was friendlier to both the foreign tongue and Japanese ear. ;) Nihonsiki's Mt. "Huzi" became Hepburn's Mt. "Fuji".

Today you can see both systems, though variants of Hepburn are more prevalent: in the school system I taught in kids were taught a variant of Nihonsiki in elementary and then the Hepburn system in middle school.

There is no difference in meaning between Huzi and Fuji, only different ways of writing the same sounds. I've seen the misconception on a couple of forums around the Net that somehow one version has a different meaning than the other, but there is absolutely no difference between words like Mituwa and Mitsuwa, other than the system used to write the word. Most of the syllables are written the same in both, but here are the exceptions, Hepburn second.

ti - chi
tu - tsu
zi or di - ji
du - zu
si - shi
tya - cha

Can you guess what these familiar words are, if written in Hepburn?

1. susi
2. titi
3. tunami

1. sushi     2. chichi (father)   3. tsunami

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