katakana blues

m. werneburg, 2010.06.18

My surname is “Werneburg”, and the name just doesn’t work in Japanese. It originates in the forested heart of Germany where its pronunciation is obvious even if it is by no means an everyday name. But Germany’s rolling hills and rolling r’s are a long way from Japan, and it’s here that the import—like an invader species—causes some chaos.

The first problem for foreigners like me is that the Japanese language has a range of sounds that is more limited than in our European languages. Whereas English has some twenty vowels and twenty-four consonants, Japanese has only five vowel sounds and nineteen consonant sounds. Further restricting the pronunciation in Japanese is the use of a syllabary rather than an alphabet. These syllables combine a consonant and a vowel together, so that when you want to use a consonant you have to follow it with a vowel sound that fits one of the available syllables. The ‘n’ sound sometimes stands alone, but the rest must always incorporate a vowel.

This differs from English in that English-speakers can modify vowel sounds and combine consonants to make a wide variety of nuanced sounds. For instance, putting an ‘r’ after the ‘a’ in “cat” yields “cart”, and changes the vowel sound entirely. This is not available in Japanese.

This has an enormous impact on pronunciation. Foreign names can become unrecognizable. My name becomes downright comical.

The katakana spelling I’ve chosen is ヴェーネバーグ. This is based on the original German pronunciation, and is written in roman characters as “veenebaagu”. I’m sure you can see the potential for comedic errors. The “gu” at the end is particularly funny to me but again if I want a ‘g’ I need to choose one of ‘ga’, ‘gi’, ‘gu’, ‘ge’, or ‘go’.

Fair enough, that’s how they speak here. I grew up in Canada pronouncing my name in an English fashion, not the German way. Now it’s time to move to the Japanese way.

And yet, even that’s not enough. As they say, “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”

Some of the computer systems in use in the country can’t deal with the “veh” sound at the beginning (ヴェー) and insist that it’s got to be “vueh” or worse yet “ueh”. So they’ll insist that my name is ヴエネーバーグ (vueneebaagu) or ウエネーバーグ(ueneebaagu).

The problem of dueling computer systems is a constant headache. Such as wire transfers.

I have two bank accounts. The spelling of my name is different in the two accounts, and I have to be very careful to ensure that the banks’ systems (and staff) are careful about which spelling they need. It gets even worse when they start to mix “full width” and “half width” Katakana together, but I just don’t understand this level of lunacy and can’t explain it here. Suffice it to say that I have to anticipate problems due to the different capabilities of the computer systems at different levels of government and between the government, client and supplier institutions, (past) employers, aforementioned banks, landlords, the government registers of my company, and various other institutions.

So I’ve become one of those foreigners with an unrecognizable surname. If I’d known any of this was coming, I’d have opted for something that all of the readers (human and otherwise) could agree upon, like “uenebagu”; laughable as that looks in the roman character set, at least it would have been a lot easier for the Japanese to pronounce, and the spelling would be consistent for humans and computers alike.

While I’ve amassed quite a collection of mis-spellings of “Werneburg” among English-speakers. I haven’t been here long enough to amass as long a list of mis-spellings. But here are some I’ve noticed.


One of the airlines thinks we spell our name like this. We’ve had it pronounced this way in person, too. It’s probably because the Japanese language assigns both the ‘bu’ and ‘vu’ sounds to the same Katakana syllable ヴ so it’s up to the reader to guess the pronunciation. And since the original name involved a ‘v’/'b’ shift, it’s only fair that it do so again!

Michal Vienebarg

In fairness, I have to hand it to these people for trying. There’s no way of making that name in katakana, they must have started from scratch with “English”. For my part, I can’t even decipher anything from the kanji in their name to tell who they are. All I know is that they sent me correspondence.

The “barg” at the end is kinda fun, though.


「うぇめばぐ」This name has popped up in Canada, but it’s now followed me to Japan. Hello, old friend.


「ベネパク」No complicated "ve" structure, no long vowel sounds, no "gu" at the end, just easy Japanese.


The rep from a moving agency heard「ヴェーネルバーグ」, which sounds like "Ve-neruba-gu". My wife prefers this one to the official version!


Mari's friend in Australia made this admirable and interesting attempt. "Verunuba-gu".

I’m stuck with it

Little Orphan Annie was right. It’s a hard-knock life, it really is. My son’s going to grow up with all of these spelling problems and inter-organizational nonsense dogging his every move. Sorry, kid. Maybe I should have tried to make a katakana version of “Whirlybird”. Let’s see: “Ueribado” or ウエリバド. I proposed this spelling to my wife, and she rejected it out of hand.

Actually, she rejects any change of the spelling of our surname, because it would mean going to court to change the registration of the family in Japan. These things are treated with great care in Japan, well above the endless paperwork involved with changing my name in official documents. So if you’re a foreigner moving to Japan, chose your name with care. If my cautionary tale’s not enough, contact me and I’ll help you get sorted.