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January 08, 2016


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I find it hard to believe that "almost no one in the United States could pronounce ... Totsuko". But I do remember wondering how to pronounce the name "Sony" when I first came across it (in the late 60s or early 70s): "sunny" (unlikely, though seems to be what the company originally intended), or "soh-nee" (rhyming with "bony"), or maybe even "saw-nee"? And I certainly did not connect the name with "sound" or "sonus". English doesn't work that way. I suspect that the real reason for not using "Totsuko" was that it was clearly a Japanese name and the company was aware of likely racist or, more generally, xenophobic resistance to such a name among American consumers in the 1950s, not to mention lingering animosity from World War II (and WWII movies). "Sony", while unusual, does not strike one as being especially Japanese, which certainly would have worked in its favor. Today, of course, Japanese products are highly respected, and no one has problems with names like "Yamaha", "Hitachi", or "Mitsubishi" -- either pronouncing them or buying them.

Rolig: I don't speak Japanese, but I have observed that many English-speakers have trouble with the /ts/ consonant blend -- "tsar," for example, becomes "zar" or "sar." You make a valid point that the mid-1950s was too soon after World War II for Americans to look favorably on a Japanese brand name.

Nancy, it's true that an initial ts- can give Americans trouble, but we have no problem with an intervocalic -ts-, as in "Patsy" or "hotsy-totsy" (not to mention such borrowings as "pizza", "matzoh", and "Katzenjammer"). Anyone who can pronounce "Massachusetts" should be able to pronounce "Totsuko". I think too much is made of Americans' difficulties with unusual words.

Another thought occurs to me, too: "Sony", with its "-y" spelling is distinctly un-Japanese -- "y" is only used in English transliteration of Japanese before a vowel (Yamaha, Tokyo), never at the end of a word to represent the "ee" sound.

Isn't it the "u" in Totsuko which is the issue rather than the "ts"? As I understand it "u"s (and "i''s) are generally voiceless in Japanese if, as is the case here, the consonants immediately before and after it are voiceless, and so the pronunciation should be more towards "TOATSco" than "toatSUEco".

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