It’s pronounced “bokay”

Little man lost in bokeh

I wrote the following post on Tumblr in response to a friend's experience in a photography class. I thought I should probably have posted it here as well as one further attempt to answer the question "what is bokeh?". 

Friend Amy signed up for a photography course in Edmonton to keep herself from going stir crazy in what she swears is the most boring place on earth. To her credit, she signed up for the “advanced” course, which is awesome. To kick off the class, the instructor passed around a quiz listing a pile of photography terms and asked the students to pick the correct answer from among the multiple choices given.

To Amy’s surprise, one of the terms was “Bokeh.”

Apparently she wasn’t paying attention when I explained what that word was all about, but she was able to parse out the answer by process of elimination, which is great.

What wasn’t so great was when she pronounced the word as “bokeh” (rhymes with “okay”, sounds like it could almost be describing the bunch of flowers a bride throws), but her instructor tried to correct her, pronouncing the word as “boca”.

That ain’t right.

It’s pronounced like “bokay,” to rhyme with “okay.” If you want to know why, please read on.

You can make all of the Gif/Jif-style arguments you want, raging against the person who invented the word and tells you it should be pronounced a certain way—pleading the foolish argument of Justification By Mob—but, when it comes to “bokeh”, there is a very easy way to check the pronunciation.

Ask a Japanese person.

After all, the word was appropriated from the Japanese word 暈ける / ぼける / bokeru. When it comes to vowel sounds, Japanese is a delightfully draconian language that leaves no room for discussion. 

  • “ぼ” is always “bo”, and it is always pronounced like the “bo” in “boat”.
  • “け” is always “ke”, and it is always pronounced like the “kay” in “okay”.

In different parts of Japan, where folks have different dialects, all of the kana/characters are still pronounced exactly the same way. There is no variance (well, at least not in vowel sounds; variance in vocabulary is an entirely different matter!). No matter where you go in Japan, “ぼけ” would always be pronounced as “bokay”.

“る”doesn’t enter into the discussion as it is dropped for the anglicized version of the word. However, if you’re keeping score, it is translated as “ru”, which, due to the wonders of the Japanese version of “R” (which is not simply “L” and involves a small bit of “D” as well [thanks Heather]) is pronounced kind of like the stuff you make with water and flour to thicken gravy, and kind of like the French word for road, but not exactly. )

So, were you to ask a Japanese person to pronounce the word “bokeh” for you, it would come out very close to “bokay”. It would be decidedly different from “boca”.

That being said, I can see where the confusion can come in: that final “H”. It gives the impression that there should be some breathy pause at the end of the word, which can segue into the “boca” pronunciation. The only way that you could try to argue that this was the correct pronunciation would be Proof By Mob: because everyone else is doing it.

Except they’re not.

They all cite the Japanese origin for “bokeh,” and though the wikipedia article mentions “boca” or “boke-uh”, it mentions it only as a “sometimes heard”, secondary pronunciation.

This is meant to be edifying for those who weren’t sure about the pronunciation and wanted a concrete explanation for where the word came from and what pronunciation clues we could draw from its history. However, I fully expect that those who have called it “boca/boke-uh” for years will likely go on doing so.

Just please be sure to tell your photography students the whole story: that this is where the word originated, and that this is the pronunciation closest to the native Japanese, but you chose to pronounce it the way you do. Give them the choice rather than telling them that one is right and one is wrong.