Earlier this week the main topic in the textbook was music. Among other questions, I asked the students if they played a musical instrument or sung. None does, but one said she learned piano as a child. I asked if they ever went to karaoke with friends. Perhaps surprisingly for young Asians, they said no. One student from Taiwan looked puzzled and asked ‘What is ‘carry-okey’? (echoing my pronunciation). I’m 99.99% sure they have karaoke in Taiwan, but it might be known by another name. I explained and he said ‘Oh, ka-ra-o-ke’, which I understand is closer to the Japanese pronunciation. (I currently have two Japanese students, but neither was in the room at the time.)
I have known for some time that the English pronunciation of karaoke is very different from the Japanese. Are we lazy? Are we disrespectful? Or, having adopted a foreign word, can we do with it whatever we like? Would it sound strange if we said ‘ka-ra-o-ke‘ instead of ‘carry-okey’? But clearly, in the opposite direction, the Japanese do whatever they like with their pronunciation of English loanwords. I have known for some time that karaoke means ‘empty orchestra’. It took me a long time to figure out that the kara of karaoke is the same morpheme as in karate (‘empty hand’). It took me even longer to figure out (in fact, I found out when I checked a dictionary before drafting this post) that oke is quite literally ‘orchestra’, which was adopted into Japanese at some earlier time and given a Japanised pronunciation and spelling.