April 27, 2007

O mi casa

I started encountering the word "omikase" here and there (such as on the Althouse blog) in connection with Japanese restaurants. The meaning was obvious from context and it certainly looked like a Japanese word. My brain was immediately convinced it was legit. Except that it's not Japanese.

The "o" is obviously an honorific, but then what the heck is "mikase"? Okay, "mi" is an honorific too, so it could mean the really, really honorable "kase" (shackles).

I asked a Japanese friend and she pointed out that the intended word was "omakase" (お任せ), meaning "leave it to me" or "surprise me." Doh! Of course! This was, she added, another case of a Japanese word--like karaoke or harakiri--getting mangled in English.

These two examples additionally point to an interesting phonological phenomenon. We see that in each of these four-syllable words, in the second syllable the consonant + /ah/ has shifted to consonant + /i/ (and the first syllable from consonant + /ah/ to consonant + /eh/).

omakase (o-mah-kah-seh)    omikase
harakiri (harah kiri)heri keri
karaoke (karah okay)keri oki

My theory is that Standard American English always wants to push back vowels forward, palatalizing and nasalizing them, especially when followed by labial consonants such as /r/ or /m/. Pronouncing "hara" or "kara" with an American /r/ is actually quite difficult. (The Japanese /r/ is closer to an /l/.)

But this also explains why Midland American English dialects dropped the quintessential /ah/ inherited from British English. (Southern dialects are another question.)

But why "omikase" did sound so natural to me? Then it struck me: it's the honorific "o" with "mi casa" (御ミカサ). Or "my honorable home." Perfect Japanese! Except it's Spanish! Well, one of the most common foreign words in Japanese is "pan," which was imported from Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. So here's a new one.

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