It all started that day. I was then in third grade, and I got on my computer, unaware of the absence of L in Japanese and the merging of R and L in Korean. Then I came across a game of some language that I couldn’t understand then. It was a Pany Pang game. I went to her website and saw some text of that language. But when I read the link to the game, I realized that it was a Korean game, so I looked up the Korean alphabet. Then I saw that some of the consonants had two sounds, like ㄱ was g/k, ㄷ was d/t, ㅂ was b/p, ㅈ was j/ch, ㅇ was silent/ng, and ㄹ was r/l.
But all of a sudden, Dad burst into my room and asked me, “Can you learn Japanese?”
So I looked up the Japanese language, and the first thing I searched was the alphabet. The first thing I saw was that Japanese had different sets of alphabets, but I didn’t know their names yet. I just skimmed the alphabets.
But I could only recognize a few letters then, like の was “no”, and メ was “me”. But one strange thing I noticed was that there were no characters with L, but there were R-characters.
Then I thought, “So there’s no L in Japanese? How can they say L?“
So I tried with looking up the Japanese word for Lebanon, and it was transliterated as Rebanon. So I learned that because there was no L in Japanese, they replaced it with R. It was a fact so interesting that I fell in love with learning Japanese. Learning Japanese felt like going to a fantasy world, like Hogwarts, Disney World, or Wonderland.
Not only did I look at the alphabet, but I also read a bit about the culture, like the carp festivals, doll festivals, musical instruments, like the koto
, the different types of sushi, like maki
, and chirashi
, and the different types of origami, like planes, cranes, and boats.
The next year, in fourth grade, I had first gone on a site called Lunch in a Box, a daily food blog of Japanese bento lunches, those little portioned boxes, and many of the foods there had some Japanese terms, like ebi(shrimp), tamago(egg), karaage(fried chicken), and ume(plum).
I even learned that Hello Kitty was Japanese, because its company, Sanrio, was Japanese, so its Japanese name was spelled out as Harō Kitī.
One day, a Japanese visitor came to my math class. Her name was Mayumi. She read us a classic Japanese story called Momotaro the Peach Boy, where an elderly couple got a baby from a giant peach, hence the name Momotaro. Then she asked, “How do you say Dallas in Japanese?”
I had that fact in my mind, but I couldn’t spill it out of my mind.
Then she said, “There is no L in the Japanese language, so we replace it with R, so we say Darasu.”
Then in fifth grade, we went to a then-new store called H-Mart. It was a Korean store with a lot of exotic goodies, such as cakes, cookies, candy, and other treats, that even reminded me of those Korean games, especially Pany Pang. It was a very cool place, that felt like a whole new world and a whole new level. It had some little stores around, like bakeries, karaoke rooms, and beauty shops, and some of the beauty shops were named Lee Ka Ja Skin and Lee Ka Ja Hair. And the Lee Ka Ja was written in Korean as “이가자”. So I wondered, why “이가자 ” and not “리가자”? Maybe that felt like an invisible L.
Then in sixth grade, in reading class, in a story we read, it had the word colonel and when the teacher read it aloud, it sounded like kernel to me, where the first L was pronounced like R. I wondered why. But it wasn’t Japanese or Korean. Then I had a Korean newspaper to write as a project for geography class, and because we were to write it in Korean, that took me back to my third grade memories. That even woke up my interest in the L/R thing, where in Korean, the ㄹ character was romanized as an R in initial position and L in final position, like ramyeon and hangeul. And like in Japanese, Lebanon became Rebanon, and lemon became remon. It was probably because L and R sounded similar in those languages. And their R was actually a flap sound, nothing like English, and not even rolled as in Spanish. But Japanese and Koreans were not the only languages to replace their L’s with R’s. There was Maori, a language mostly spoken in New Zealand, like Bulgaria became Purukaria, and Hawaiian did vice versa, like Russia became Lukia.
And I had read that in Korean, L was disabled at the beginning of a word, that they would use R instead, and for the native Korean words, the North Koreans kept the R, and the South Koreans either turned the R into an N or kept it silent. That gave me an idea why Lee Ka Ja was spelled “이가자” and not “리가자”.
But then I remembered, ever since I was a baby, that L and R were adjacent in the alphabets of many Indian languages, like Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, etc. Those languages classified the letters by the type of sounds they made. And they considered L and R to be semivowels, between Y and W.
In seventh grade, I was so hooked at that L/R thing. In a spice page, I had learned the Hebrew word for lemon was limon, like in Spanish, but a rimon was not a lemon but a pomegranate, unlike Japanese or Korean. On Thanksgiving break, I went to my friends Jude and Ruth’s house, and in their kitchen, I saw a box of kaju katli, an Indian sweet, and the lid was labelled kaju katri. So I wondered, “Why katri? Why couldn’t they have written katli?” After Thanksgiving, at the time of Christmas month, my history teacher Mr. Mooney was wearing a “No L” pin.
“Your pin reminds me of the Japanese language,” I said.
“No L, no L, Santa’s name has no L,” Mr. Mooney sang.
So I found out that it was an Animaniacs song, where Wakko was writing a letter to Santa, and he misspelled it as Santla. And it’s not even Santra, unlike the Hindi word for orange. Santa’s name has no R either.
But that “No L” pin was a sign of Christmas month, otherwise known as December, because it sounded like noël, the French word for Christmas.
The next month, I took a Japanese book from Barnes and Noble, and I had skimmed some more words.
Fredy and Jocelyn, two classmates in my English class, were so impressed with my learning that they called me Chinese.
But why Chinese? Why couldn’t they call me Japanese? But I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese.
Maybe they couldn’t understand the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Or maybe they thought I was Chinese from heart. Even my mom too was called Chinese in her school days, not for the love of languages, but because of her hairstyle.
Dad said it would be better for me to learn Japanese silently and secretly than talking about it in class.
So then I ignored Fredy and Jocelyn and stopped talking about the L/R thing, and they stopped calling me Chinese. But I still had the heart to learn more Japanese, especially the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
By eighth grade, I had learned so much grammar that my Japanese was accelerating, as I was more interested in the culture, like I enjoyed looking at its toys, like Re-Ment, Whipple, and Konapun, and treats, like Meiji chocolates, Pocky sticks, Yan Yans, Chelsea candies, Popin Cookin, and even ramune, that I could easily get at H-Mart.
But in eighth grade, I did not mention that no L thing at all, either at school or in personal life, fearing that people would call me Chinese again. Yet the name calling was less, and unlike seventh grade, no one in eighth grade called me Chinese. Dad was right, so the magic worked.
Like, in history class, we read a newspaper where all the S’s were replaced with F’s, and not only did it remind me of the Japanese replacing their L’s with R’s, but also Shahid Kapoor pronouncing his S’s as F’s in Kaminey. But I didn’t talk about those. I just wondered, “Why F instead of S?”
Then came my freshman year. I took French class. When we were learning the Christmas terms, I asked my French teacher Mr. Davenport, “Do you know that there is no L in Japanese?”
“Capucine,” he asked me. “What strange thing about the Japanese language is a French holiday?”
“Noël/no L,” I replied.
Capucine was my French name.
When Christmas came, I got a Portuguese book for my present. I saw that although Portuguese had L, it replaced some of its L’s with R’s, like blanco, the Spanish word for white, became branco, obligado became obrigado, iglesia became igreja, and plato became prato, but ramen became lamen. And even in Italian, bolsa, which meant bag in Spanish, became borsa. And Hindi lehsun(garlic) and dalchini(cinnamon) became roshun and daruchini respectively in Bengali. And English title became titre in French, and colonel became coronel in Spanish. But does that mean there is no L in Italian, Bengali, or even French? NO!!!
They were just some spelling differences.
One day, in English class, I asked my English teacher, “Do you know that there’s no L in Japanese?”
And Casey said, “They replace it with R.”
And in geometry class, we got papers on the shapes and planes, and I wondered, “How come trapezoidal, orthogonal, parenthetical, and mathematical end in L, but circular, linear, angular, triangular, and rectangular end in R?” Maybe those words that ended in R already contained L, that I had later found on Wiktionary.
I later looked at a Chinese book, and although Chinese did have R, it replaced most of its R’s with L’s, like Ron became Luo en, and Hungary became Xiongyali, but it had no final L’s, and they too replaced L’s with R’s, like Alvin became A’erwen, but only in final position. It kind of reminded me of Portuguese and Korean in reversed roles.
And on the first day of sophomore year, at lunch, I asked Casey, “Why is there no L in Japanese?”
“Because they can’t say L,” Casey said. “Every language has a letter it can’t say.”
And in French class, suffer was souffre, which reminded me of souffle.
And junior year, my family started playing an Indian singing game called antakshari, where the next song would begin with the last letter, usually consonant, of the previous song, and one time, only that time, I asked for an R song, but Dad sang an L song instead, and I said, “No, I meant R, as in rainbow“, so from then on, instead of “ra” and “la”, I would say words like rainbow and lollipop to set them apart, and not only would I do with R and L, but with all the letters. Like, remember those letter-wise playlists I made? I didn’t even merge the L and R songs into the same playlist. They had their separate playlists.
One day, in French class, one of the kids pronounced banc, which meant bench, as blanc, that meant white.
Mr. Davenport said, “It’s banc, not blanc. There’s no L.”
And no R either, not even branc.
And oh, Mr. Davenport didn’t have a class in the third hour of school, because every teacher had a class he/she didn’t have, that reminded me of the saying that every language had a letter it didn’t have.
And now to fast-forward to my second year of college, we went to Carrollton for dinner and I had noticed that the sushi bar, originally named Kula, had changed its name to Kura, now aware of the fact of Japanese not having L and thus replacing with R.
“Look!” I said. “That Kula became Kura!”
“Is it because there’s no L in Japanese?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, but we don’t mix L and R in antakshari.”
“Because we’re not Japanese.”
“Or Korean. Just Hindi songs.”
Like, if they changed Kula to Kura, shouldn’t Walmart be Warmart?
But it’s true, that every language is different, and one way it is different, is that it has a letter it doesn’t have.