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The Chinese word for noodles is lamen, or la-mien, and the Japanese also call it lamen, using their hiragana/katana syllaby. So the word is spoken with the L sound in both China and Japan (Taiwan, too), not the R sound.

However, modern English spells it and speaks it as ramen and I wonder: was this an editing/spelling mistake made by Japanese or English editors in the 1950s? Ask any Japanese person in Japan and they will tell you it's really lamen. Why did English-speaking countries turn it into ramen and is there any way to turn it back to its correct spelling and pronunciation: lamen?

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closed as not constructive by waiwai933 Jun 24 '12 at 6:17

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Actually, the more proper phonetic translation requires a letter with the sounds L and R combined. So neither translations are incorrect; rather, it depends on how you look at it. –  Sȱɳɨȼ Ʈħe ǶḝÐɠḝħȱɠ Jun 24 '12 at 3:34
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But Sonic, the words for London, Lover, locksmith and Louisiana in Japanese are all written with that so-called L/R combo character, if you will, but the Japanese do spell those words in English, as we do also, with an L as the first letter, not an R. We don't say or spell it as rover or Rondon, do we? So why did LAMEN gets mis-spelled into "ramen"? All other L/R problems in Japanese are resolved in English into the L letter. Only lamen gets the R treatment? Why? –  Daniel Halevi Bloom Jun 24 '12 at 3:38
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Get used to it? English isn't suddenly going to adopt lamen because you say so –  simchona Jun 24 '12 at 5:27
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The informational content of this question an answers is excellent. The tendentious attitude distracts from the good story, but adds an instance to the meta-story of descriptivism vs prescriptivism -and- language change and borrowings. Exec Summary: What should be and what is aren't the same...or shouldn't be...or something. I think you might have picked that up from the responses, comments, and closing. –  Mitch Jun 24 '12 at 14:22
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@DanielHaleviBloom Next you'll be telling me pineapple is wrong in English because every other country pronounces it ananas. This is not how pronunciation works. –  Matt Эллен Jun 25 '12 at 9:57

1 Answer 1

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, English gets ramen from Japanese--not Chinese. They note:

Etymology: < Japanese rāmen (1930 or earlier) < Chinese lāmiàn hand-pulled wheat-flour noodles < lā pull, stretch, lengthen + miàn noodle (see mien n.2), with miàn assimilated to Japanese men noodle (1566 or earlier; < the base of Chinese miàn).

There is no character for L in Japanese, so both L and R sounds are written with the same r-based characters. In pronunciation, the sound is somewhere in between an English version of those two sounds. However, given that the word is written ramen in Japanese, I would guess that either a literal transliteration was made in which the word was copied over as "ramen", or perhaps someone heard it and wrote it down that way.

Either way, it is not "incorrect" to spell ramen as such in English. Words go through a process of change as they are borrowed from one language to another, and many other words have changed over time. There are many other borrowed words which have gone through their own changes. The process of adopting a foreign word means it takes on a new life--it doesn't necessarily stay the same as its originating language.

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"joy" from French has a completely different sound than its original. –  simchona Jun 24 '12 at 5:30
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If you're just going to say I'm wrong, why bother asking the question at all? –  simchona Jun 24 '12 at 5:30
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You're not willing to entertain any other opinion besides your own, but you are also making an incorrect assertion. "ramune" is on menus both with L and R –  simchona Jun 24 '12 at 5:36
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@DanielHaleviBloom: "Show me one other word in English that was changed like this" - if you're restricted to the 'r/l' problem in general then how do you pronounce 'Colonel'? (the French is more literally pronounced) –  Mitch Jun 24 '12 at 14:16
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DanielHalevi, the words you quoted - samurai, karaoke, harakiri - prove that R is the conventional way of representing the Japanese r/l consonant in English. "Lamen" would be inconsistent based on the data you yourself pointed out as "correct". –  alcas Jun 25 '12 at 0:26

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