Friday, 1 June 2012

lychees

When I was a child the range of fruit and vegetables available in the shops was very limited compared with what is on offer today. Mostly, they were just those that grow in Britain — apples, pears, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, plums, cherries, blackberries, gooseberries; carrots, peas, cabbage, marrows, onions, leeks, turnips and broad and runner beans. I think the only exotics ordinary people were familiar with were oranges, lemons, bananas and melons, and during the war and the post-war austerity even they were not to be had.

It wasn’t until I was studying for my master’s in London that I first tasted a green pepper, or discovered that marrows picked early can be eaten as courgettes (AmE zucchini). I didn’t discover aubergines (AmE eggplant) until 1960, when I first visited Greece. I think I first ate a mango in 1966, when I visited Jamaica for my PhD fieldwork.

In the late fifties, when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, we sometimes had a meal in an Indian restaurant. So I had probably eaten cooked aubergine, but without knowing what it looked like raw, and under the name brinjal.

We also sometimes ate in Chinese restaurants. There, for dessert, we often chose lychees. These were certainly tinned; the actual fruits wouldn’t have become available in British supermarkets until thirty or forty years later.

We called this fruit a ˌlaɪˈtʃiː, or perhaps ˈlaɪtʃiː. It was written on the menu as lychee. This spelling, and the pronunciation with in the first syllable, are also what you find in Daniel Jones’s EPD. When the time came to compile LPD, I recorded this word in line with my own usage and DJ’s, with the spelling lychee and a main pron ˌlaɪˈtʃiː. I’m aware, though, that some people pronounce the first syllable with rather than , and some people spell it litchi.

What about AmE? I note that Webster’s Collegiate prefers the spelling lychee, and gives both ˈliː- and ˈlaɪ- as possible pronunciations.

The OED, however, spells the word litchi and gives only the pronunciation ˈliːtʃiː.

The OED’s version corresponds well to the Linnaean name of the tree that bears the fruit, Litchi chinensis. The French name, too, is indeed litchi, and the German name Litschi.

The OED doesn’t make much of an effort about the word’s etymology, saying just

Etymology: < Chinese li-chi. First used as a generic name in P. Sonnerat Voyage aux Indes Orientales (1782) III. 255.

Research shows that the Mandarin name is 荔枝, which would nowadays be written (in Pinyin) as lìzhī.

So where does the prevailing, or at least widespread, pronunciation with come from? Is it just a spelling pronunciation, an English misinterpretation of the ambiguous y or i of the spelling?

Not necessarily. Further research reveals the interesting fact that the Japanese name of the fruit is not the *riichi that you might expect, but reishi. Here’s part of the relevant article in the Japanese Wikipedia.

The claim is that the Japanese name comes not from Mandarin but from Cantonese, where the pronunciation is lai6ji1. Assuming this to be true, here is a ready explanation of our English pronunciation ˌlaɪˈtʃiː. Our forebears must have become acquainted with the fruit, and its local name, through contacts with the Cantonese-speaking former British colony of Hong Kong.

Perhaps readers versed in matters sinological could confirm this.

17 comments:

  1. This reminds me of an anecdote from my own childhood (1970s perhaps?) when my dad ordered the (unfamiliar) fruit lychees off a menu, pronouncing it ˈliːʧiːz, and was brought a bowl of peaches by the waitress who had misheard him.

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  2. It could also perhaps have come into English via the Malaysian colonies: in Malay it has the diphthong too (ˈlaɪtʃi, spelt in the modern Malay orthography laici).

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  3. In AmE it is pronounced leechee.

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  4. As a Cantonese native, I can confirm that the fruit is pronounced [lɐitsiː] in Cantonese. I guess this is where the [ˌlaɪˈtʃiː] pronunciation is from.

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  5. If they chose a spelling (/used a pronunciation) that reflected the aɪ vocal of Cantonese, why didn't they choose a spelling that would reflect its ts... or at least not point in the direction of the Mandarin tʃ/ʈʂ?

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    1. [ts] as a consonant cluster for syllable onset does not exist in English.

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    2. The question of [ts ~ tɕ ~ tʃ] in Cantonese is complex and is affected by recent sound changes. See here.

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    3. @ 憲次

      On one hand, it's a loanword, so I thought the rules would be a bit more relaxed (tzatziki, in TFD [tsætˈsɪkɪ]).

      On the other, it reminded me of itsy, bitsy, ditsy... Going for something like that seemed, to me (either [ts] or [t.s]), like a more natural approximation than going for tʃ, but I didn't know about the [ts ~ tɕ ~ tʃ] thing.

      Thank you both.

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  6. It's hard to see why any English fruit-canner or fruit importer (or, indeed, a Chinese fruit-canner exporting under an English label) would have chose a Y spelling for anything other than an approximation to .

    It must be significant that the restaurants that introduced the canned fruit to Britain and wrote the name on their menus and told the punters what it was were very largely Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong.

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  7. Marc Leavitt, as an American in New York I'm pretty sure I've heard both.

    Americans also very often came into contact with the Cantonese names for things before we got the Mandarin names, since early Chinese immigration to America tended much more Cantonese-speaking. So if we had adopted a pronunciation independently, it would have been [ai] too, probably .

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  8. It's always been [ˌlaɪˈtʃiː] for me (brought up in UK, living in NZ).

    On an only vaguely related note, how should you pronounce Hitachi (the name of the Japanese company)? I keep hearing an advert on the radio for [ˌhaɪˈtɑːʃiː] heat pumps (and heard it again today). That's badly wrong isn't it?

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    1. Yep. In LPD I give hɪˈtɑːtʃi (or -ˈtætʃ-), which is what one hears in the UK. In Japanese it's ˈçitatɕi.

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    2. ... and both the /i/s frequently get devoiced in these positions, resulting in something very close to /çtatɕ/.

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  9. I (EFL speaker) always pronounced "lychee" like [ˈlɪtʃiː], the firts vowel probably modelled after that of "myriad" and "lymphoma" etc.

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  10. Reishi is the regular Japanese Kan-on pronunciation of the two characters “荔枝”. Kan-on was based on the dialect of Chang'an (Modern-day Xi'an) during the Tang dynasty. The reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation is /lei tɕie/ but it was believed /ie/ had coalesced with /i/ in the Chang'an dialect when Japanese borrowed Kan-on pronunciation.
    As Japanese /ti/ probably had not palatalized to /tɕi/ back then, it was not surprising /si/ or maybe /ɕi/ was used to approximate /tɕi/.

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  11. In AmE it is pronounced leechee.

    Don't generalize from your own usage. I'm American, and I say LYE-chee.

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  12. As I Hongkonger, I can confirm it.

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