I thought it would be prudent to start with some pointers on how to refer to sake.
In English: The word is “sake”. The 1st vowel is pronounced long — “ahhhh”, like “father”. The 2nd vowel sounds like how you say the name of the letter “a” — it should sound like the end of “okay”. You could also say that “sake” uses the same vowels as “latté”. You do not pronounce “sake” to rhyme with “hockey”.
What about the accent over the “e”?: It’s optional. The only reason to use it is when you want to emphasize how to pronounce the final vowel. Andy (the Wrdnrd household’s resident student of Japanese language) doesn’t like an accent over the “e”, but i occasionally use it when i want to make sure people won’t mis-read it as the English word “sake“.
In Japanese: In Japanese, “sake” refers to all alcoholic beverages. (Saying “sake” in Japan won’t necessarily get you sake; saying “coke” in the U.S. South won’t necessarily get you a Coke.) If you want to make sure you’re getting “brewed rice alcohol” in Japan, the word you want is “nihonshu” — literally, “Japanese sake/alcohol”.
For extra language fun — writing “sake” in Japanese: The (kanji) character for writing “sake” in Japanese is pictured at right. You’ll see this on sake bottles, tho’ may be written in calligraphy and can be hard to recognize if you haven’t studied writing Japanese (and especially if you haven’t studied how to write Japanese in calligraphy — i sometimes have trouble recognizing characters that i know very well). In Japan, you may see the kanji for “sake” on a lantern or sign outside of a restaurant that serves alcohol — tho’, again, remember that it will mean they serve alcohol of some type and not necessarily that it’s an establishment that specializes in sake. Andy does note that this is a very traditional practice, so you should not expect that all restaurants that serve alcohol will always have this.
Extra super language fun — a note about Chinese: I can write an entirely separate post talking about the relationship between Chinese written language (hanzi) and the Japanese written language (kanji) that was developed from hanzi — if you’re interested. But for now, because i find this fascinating, i just wanted to mention that the character i’ve pictured here is both the Japanese kanji for “alcohol” and the Chinese hanzi character for “alcohol”. In Japanese this character is pronounced (when it appears alone) “saké”, as i’ve outlined it above. In Mandarin Chinese, it’s pronounced “jiu” — sounding something like “Jew”, but with a tone (because Mandarin is a tonal language) that 1st dips down a little before rising again. Again, the hanzi character is how you write the word for “alcohol” and does not refer at all to sake as i am writing about it and as you’ve had it with your sushi in the West.
What next? I’m not sure which set of terms to tackle next. Possibly a quick primer on what some of the various sake classifications — such as “junmai”, “ginjo”, et cetera — mean. But that’s where i’ve been getting my head all tangled up for the past 3 months, so we’ll see. I do have a bunch of other sake-related posts about restaurants i’ve been to, books i’ve read, specific sakes i’ve tried, and blahblahblah, so those will post every now and then as this series progresses.
You are all invited to ask questions, too! That might even help straighten out the tangle i get in whenever i try to write a post about the sake classifications.