Wednesday 15 August 2012


One new word I have learnt from the London Olympics is keirin, one of the forms of cycle racing. Everyone on British TV calls it ˈkeɪ rɪn (despite Steve Doerr’s assertion that “the keiren event was usually pronounced ˈkɪərən in my experience”). This is phonetically interesting, because in BrE we normally get the sequence eɪr only across a morpheme boundary, as in play#room, hay#ride, day-release, way round. Within a morpheme, historical FACE plus r plus a vowel normally develops into eər, as in Mary, various, sharing. The only similar case I can think of is Beirut, which sometimes has . sometimes . Anyhow, we pronounce keirin as if it were spelt kay-rin, K-rin. I find that the word is actually borrowed from Japanese 競輪, or in kana ケイリン, keirin, keerin. (In Japanese ei and ee are not distinct.) I don’t know if this word has an accent in Japanese, or if so which mora it is on.

The OED dates the word to as long ago as 1957.

Steve’s version looks as if it could have been influenced by the man’s name Ciarán or Kieran, which is regularly ˈkɪərən.


  1. I think this reflects a slight but nagging problem in adapting Chinese and Japanese words to English. I'm never sure whether I should pronounce the second syllable of words like "pinyin" and "Harbin" with the schwi of the weak vowel system or the stressable /ɪ/ of the strong vowel system (the former feeling more natural to me as an English-speaker, and the latter seeming more correct from a sinospheric point of view), or whether I'm allowed to reduce the first syllable of "Hokkaido" to a schwa or not.

  2. Actually, one of the quotes within the OED listing dates the sport to 1948, when it was created by law, and the name to 1951 or earlier. It seems unlikely that the word was not used by English-speaking observers of the sport before 1957.

    Whatever the date when English speakers started referring to the race, it surely belongs to an age much later than when it would be altered to resemble caring. By the fifties we were happy enough with beiru:t. And there's a whole host of other Arab place names in Deir el (from the word for monastery) which I've always heard as deir ɪl. The fact that all the examples are spelled eir must be a considerable help.

    I think it makes more sense to say the (within a morpheme) 'long a' tends to become ɛə before letter/sound r. It's not the sound pure and simple that's affected; it's the combination of sound, letter and historical baggage.

  3. Kensuke Nanjo tells me the Japanese word has NO accent.

    1. My little Wörterbuch der deutschen und japanischen Sprache by R. Schinzinger et al. (Tokyo, Sanshusha, 1980) has ke˹irin.

  4. /ˈkʰeɪ ɹɪn/ may be more common in England (and possibly, elsewhere), but I (as a Victoria Pendleton fan, who's watched every single cycling competition at the London games) can swear that the TV commentators did pronounce the word /ˈkʰɪəɹən/, just as Steve Doerr reported. I suppose this could be a regional feature, considering, atleast to the best of my knowledge, none of the commentators were English (or even British) - one Australian (perhaps if memory serves), the other South African (though he could have been a Namibian or Zimbabwean, or something else; but I did recognize the 'Saad Efrican ekcent').

    1. I'm guessing the commentators you heard were the same ones listed here, all of whom are British.

  5. Oops! Sorry for mis-spelling keirin.

  6. Jason Reid

    I stand by what I heard, but perhaps we do hear different commentators in different countries (I'm not a Brit, neither was I in Britain during the London 2012 Olympics). However, that does make my comments from now on irrelevant, as Doerr and I must have heard different individuals talking.

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