The Accent of Pokémon

What a cute e

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on January 1st 2018
Tagged as:
Japanese logo for Pocket Monsters

Originally, Pokémon was Pocket Monsters. But, due to copyright issues, they couldn't call it that in the United States. So, internationally, the franchise adopted as its name the common shortening that Pocket Monsters already had in Japan: ポケモン (Po-ke-mon).

Since Japanese is syllabic and pronunciation doesn't do whatever the fuck it wants like in English, there is no ambiguity on how to read ポケモン. But when you go to translate this, there are many schools of thought on the proper romanization.

If you go with the straight-forward "Pokemon", you have an issue. An English speaker will divide the syllables as poke-mon. Not only would this lead to the entirely wrong pronunciation, it also has some unfortunate sexual connotations. The word "poke" already exists in English, and while kids would probably just think of it as innocent teasing poke, just imagine their American parents hearing them talk about poke-mon. To adult ears, this sounds dirty.

Simpsons characters forming an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks
It's a bit ironic to illustrate this with The Simpsons as it was one of the few things Denise's parents banned her from while she was growing up (not to the levels other parents banned other things, but still).

Parents in America at the time would tend to jump to conclusions about things they their children were interested in, and they wouldn't care to learn about the media in question, instead forming their own elaborate ideas of this thing as some sort of horrible boogeyman. So, they would suddenly ban their kid from taking part in it, with no explanation given except maybe something along the lines of, "I won't allow that in my house". They would then form an angry mob with like-minded parents to see the thing in question burned.

With this climate, leaving the name as Pokemon is out of the question. What do you do to make sure that Americans will pronounce it correctly?

Logo for Pokemon

Apparently the answer is, add an acute accent to the e. With Pokémon, no American would ever possibly mispronounce it. Perfect!

Except English-speaking Americans don't do accent marks. Whoops.

Most words with diacritics in English are loan words from other languages, and the trend is, more often than not, to simply omit the diacritics in English. They are not a common feature of the language, and most Americans aren't entirely sure what they even indicate.

So, when Pokémon arrived in the United States, the kids learned how to pronounce it from the television show, but no adults knew what to say. What is this: Pokie-mon, Pokay-mon, Poko-man, Pepperoni... At this point, it's become something of a parody of itself, with people intentionally mangling the pronunciation ever more as a joke.

The Squirtle Squad from Japanese episode 12 The Squirtle Squad from dubbed episode 12
It's a good thing 4Kids edited out that ぜ, or else we might be able to tell that this show is from Japan!
(comparison from Dogasu's Backpack)

The accent mark's attempt to make the pronunciation clear only managed to make people confused, and definitely didn't stop adults from reading it as "Poke Man". Instead, the accent just served to highlight Pokémon as being some foreign thing. Hilariously, at the same time as 4Kids was desperately trying to "Americanize" the anime, the translated title of the show itself screams, "Not American".

That accent mark also creates problems when typing the name. US keyboards don't have keys for accented letters. If you want to type é on a PC running Windows, you have to remember an esoteric number keypad combination (ALT + 0233) . So, when typing normally, people usually don't bother, and just type "Pokemon". So much for that.

This also creates all sorts of encoding problems for web pages, which, as people who have been making Pokémon fansites since last century, we can tell you all about. When making a web page, the easiest way to avoid é from showing up as some unexpected symbol on different computers is to replace it with é. That's way too unwieldy to just casually type every time you want to say Pokémon. So, when we're working on our Pokémon fansites, we often start by typing Pokemon in our raw notes, and then search and replace every instance to add the é.

And don't get us started about what this means for today's tag-based web. Do you tag your fanart with #pokémon or #pokemon, or both? Most sites treat them as different tags, splitting the content (and viewership of your fanart) in two. Good job, whoever is responsible for this.

Psyduck with several speech bubbles containing question marks
Po-ke?-mon?

Not only is the accent mark useless (if not detrimental) in English, it also doesn't really help in other languages that feature accent marks. In Italian, for example, the accent is totally redundant. Coincidentally, Italian and Japanese have similar phonemes and syllabic structure, so, in Italy, simply "Pokemon" would have been pronounced correctly, and the presence of the accent mark actually caused confusion in Italy. Notably, the acute accent in Italian is primarily used for question words. So, how do you read Pokémon? Po-ke?-mon? It also creates confusion with the more common grave accent in Italian. If you were to accidentally read it as Pokèmon, now there is a hiccup in the middle.

Mewtwo with a moustache and pouring a glass of Champagne in front of a French flag
Of course Mewtwo drinks Champagne
(Image from Pokedit)

The acute e in Pokémon makes it extra clear how it should be read in French, but it probably would have been read correctly even without the accent. And, accent or not, there are no sexual connotations to avoid in French.

The acute accent is an integral part of the French language -- and, given the Japanese idolization of France, it almost seems like it was intentionally put there to appeal to the French.

Wasn't this supposed to be about America? How dare Pokémon favor the French! Conspiracy! Treason! Baguettes!

In America, we should start calling them Freedom Monsters! Freemon!

What is this Pikachu thing? We should call it something more American! Like George Washington!

Colonial Pikachu from Pokémon World Championships 2015

How can we better Americanize the monster names like Purin (Jigglypuff). Purin means "pudding", and that's not American enough! We need an American dessert! Like, jelly-filled donuts! Or apple pie! Or better yet, George Washington!

Jigglypuff wearing a powdered wig
♫ George Washington Washingto~on ♪

There we go, we fixed it. Now Pokémon is American.

Psyduck wearing a powdered wig

We don't actually see how they could have dealt with the poke-mon problem any better. This was a losing battle...

Thank you

";

Notes

  1. On Mac, it's a bit easier, with Option-e, then e. But still.
  2. Denise: Before you think that is official art (I apparently fooled Rosy!), I drew the wig on top of the image of Jigglypuff. But I would swear that I have indeed seen official art of Jigglypuff wearing a powdered wig, complete with a little ponytail with a bow, and I can't find it and I am starting to wonder if I imagined it. If you know what I am talking about, please let me know!