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When the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb comes around, as it did this week, people in the newsroom return to the perennial question of how to pronounce "Hiroshima."

Dictionaries are of little help, since they list both "hi-ro-SHI-ma" and "hi-RO-shi-ma." Both pronunciations are in current use.

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One of the online sites that addresses the issue has this information from a person self-described as having a graduate degree in Japanese linguistics:

"Unlike English, Japanese does not have stress accent (where you pronounce the accented syllable louder and hold it a millisecond longer), but it does have pitch accent, in which the accented syllable is pronounced at a slightly higher pitch. Since pitch accent makes the accented syllable stand out, it sounds like stress accent to English-speakers' ears.

"(It's NOT like the tones of standard Chinese, where every single syllable has one of four tone contours--straight, rising, dipping, or falling, or Cantonese, where every syllable has one of nine tone contours.) …

"Different parts of Japan have different patterns of pitch accent. For example, the word for 'over there' is pronounced 'mu-KO-o,' where the caps indicate a syllable pronounced at a higher pitch. However, in Osaka, they pronounce it 'MU-ko-o,' which sounds like 'MU-ko,' the word for 'son-in-law.'

"I've spent most of my time in Japan in the Tokyo area, so Tokyo pitch patterns sound most natural to me.

"Once when I was in Osaka asking where I could buy a certain item, a passerby directed me to 'MU-ko-o no mi-se,' which she meant as 'the store over there,' but which I first misunderstood as 'my son-in-law's store.' Then I realized that she was too young to have a son-in-law.

"So how does that relate to the pronunciation of 'Hiroshima'? Well, Tokyo people definitely pronounce it 'Hi-RO-shi-ma,' but even though I've been there, I can't remember how the locals pronounce it, since it was 25 years ago. They may well say 'Hi-ro-SHI-ma.' "

So that is not much more help than the dictionary, though there is a suggestion that "hi-RO-shi-ma" is close to a Japanese pronunciation.

But we are English speakers, and we do not feel bound by other languages. We do not call the capital of France "pah-REE." So the way we render "Hiroshima" is up to us.

What I remember from growing up was the "hi-ro-SHI-ma" pronunciation. When I got to college, everyone appeared to say "hi-RO-shi-ma." So it's possible that the latter pronunciation was taken up by university-educated sophisticates who thought it the more authentically Japanese rendering of the name.

That would make the pronunciation a class marker, and thus the source of people's uncertainty and mild anxiety over the point. My advice: This is America; both pronunciations are current; pick the one that suits you. You are unlikely to be misunderstood.

As always, comments are welcome. Correct me if I am wrong.

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