Like a lot of geeks and a lot of people in journalism, I paid close attention to the weeks of hype and rumors, and then the official announcement yesterday, of Apple’s potentially “game-changing” new tablet computer, the iPad. For weeks, the tech media have passed along rumor after rumor about the device and its features, but the most vexing of all rumors was the name. Blogs tracked down trademark filings and obscure documents and the main contenders for the name were “iSlate” and “iTablet.” At the last minute, “iPad” was proposed.
And during Apple’s hour-and-a-half media event unveiling the gadget, Steve Jobs immediately announced it would indeed be called the “iPad.”
Then I immediately thought, “Wow, I wonder how the Japanese are going to deal with this name?”
The iPod has been long-established in Japan as the premiere digital music player, as it is all over the world. I saw “i-pahd-do” everywhere in Tokyo, in shop windows and being used by music fans, with those iconic but crappy white earbuds.
Now comes the iPad. And I predict there will be some major consumer confusion stirred up in Japan.
The Japanese language has a set of consonant-and-vowel combinations that are much less fluid than English. That’s why the pronunciation of many English words is a struggle for Japanese. It’s not just an “R” and “L” thing, like the WWII-era trick of making captured Japanese say “lollapalooza” (the racist myth was that a Japanese American, or another Asian, would be able to say it but from a Japanese soldier, the word would come out, “raraparooza”).
It’s more complicated than that, and I’m not a linguist, so I’m not gonna try to explain it.
But I can tell you that I once had a hilarious conversation with Tetsuo Shiitani, a Japanese journalist from the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper who was working in Colorado Springs during a reporter exchange program with the Gazette where I worked as entertainment editor. We were talking with my mom, who was born and raised in Japan and though she’s lived in the U.S. since 1966, has stubbornly refused to learn to speak English very well and still has a very strong accent.
During the few months that he lived in Colorado Springs, Tetsuo studied English assiduously and constantly. He had a worn Japanese-English dictionary, and he was always looking up words he didn’t know. He also was going through the English side of the dictionary, page-by-page, word-by-word, and memorizing every entry.
Discussing how difficult he found English, Shiitani admitted that he couldn’t tell the difference between many English words because they all sound alike to him. I asked, “like what words?” He listed a few, and I had to laugh in amazement. My mom started laughing too, and agreed that she could never tell the difference when Americans spoke those words.
What were the words?
“Hat.” “Hot.” “Head.” “Hut.” “Hurt.” “Hit.” “Hood.” “Hard.” “Heart.” “Hold.” “Hid.”
Seriously, when I clearly enunciated them, my mom and Shiitani could not tell which word I was saying. And when they said the words, they sounded mostly alike, unless they really exaggerated the vowels.
So, I think consumers will have a hard time asking for the iPad when it comes to Japan. They’ll say “I-pahd-do” and it’ll sound just like they’re asking for the iPod. There is no direct sound correlation in Japanese to the hard “a” sound that’s in “iPad” and words such as “hat,” “bag,” “Iraq” and so on. The closest sound in Japanese is an elongated “ah” like in “bog.” or “iPod.”
I’m not sure how other Asian languages fare with the transliteration of English words, but it’ll be interesting to see how the marketing for the tablet is crafted in Japan.
UPDATE: It turns out a Japanese company, Fujitsu, has had a product called the iPad out since 2002. It’s an inventory- and price-checking tool that’s sold to retailers in the U.S., and Fujitsu is claiming the trademark on the name, although there are some issues with their legal right to the name. This should be an interesting fight; I predict Apple will buy out the name, but what do I know. No word on how Fujitsu executives handle pronouncing the name of their device.
ANOTHER UPDATE: It also turns out a Japanese company has for several years sold a product called the “Aipad,” a high-tech diaper for seniors that alerts caregivers when wet. Go figure — Japanese obviously will have no big problems pronouncing the new Apple tablet’s name. However, I still contend if I said “iPad” to my mom, she’ll cock her head sideways, make a disparaging noise, and not be able to tell the difference if I said “iPod” in the next breath.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a promotional video produced by Apple: