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From English to Japanese: A word’s journey into another language

6 Comments
By James M. Rogers
English to Japanese Loanwords
Image: James M. Rogers

When a word enters another language, it’s similar to taking a journey. Like people, some stay but never assimilate, while others do entirely. Some words just shallowly enter into another language, while the roads other words go down can be long and winding. To elucidate on the changes that occur during a word’s transformation into a loanword, let’s look at some words shared between English and Japanese.

Japanese words in English

The relationship between English and Japanese is mostly one-way. However, some Japanese words used in English have assimilated so much that English speakers aren’t even aware that the words come from Japanese. For example, the “honcho” in “head honcho” is from 班長 (hancho), which means “group leader” in Japanese. “Tycoon” is from Japanese as well. It comes from 大君 (taikun), a word that was originally used in Japanese to describe a leader who does not have imperial lineage. Many English speakers may not be aware of the Japanese origin for the word “rickshaw.” It comes from the Japanese 自力者 (jirikisha), with the kanji for “ji” meaning “self,” “riki” meaning “power” and “sha,” meaning “vehicle.” The photography term “bokeh” is yet another example. It describes the blurry background in pictures taken with a lens capable of deep depth of field.  It comes from the Japanese 暈けている (boketeiru), which means “blurry.”

English words in Japanese

Some English loanword dictionaries for the Japanese language have tens of thousands of entries — but only around 1,000 to 3,000 are used daily. Why the ambiguity, though? The reason is that the journey from becoming a known word to a loanword can be long, interrupted, canceled or even lost (in its original language).

A word’s transformation into another language

Foreign words undergo transformation in various ways when they enter another language. The following are some of the technical terms that linguists use to describe such changes.

Rephonalization

All languages have phonological differences and thus, when a foreign word enters a language it will undergo phonological changes due to the differences in the languages’ sound systems  or “rephonalization.” The minimal pair “r” and “l” is an example of unavoidable rephonalization required when an English word with either of these sounds enters the Japanese language since its sound system does not distinguish between the two, such as with “rock” and “lock.”

Truncation

Words can also be shortened to varying degrees, with differing effects on comprehensibility. For example, “accelerator” is shortened to アクセル (akuseru) in Japanese. So, not only could the word become incomprehensible to an English speaker because of rephonalization, it could also be confused with the words "axle" or “axel.”

Compounding

In the 1997 book “The Life of Language,” Laura Miller uses the term 和製英語 (waseieigo, or “English made in Japan”) to describe the phenomenon of compounding. Some of the meanings of these novel creations can be easily guessed by English speakers even without contextual clues, such as how テレビゲーム (terebigeemu, or “TV game”) is the Japanese word that represents “video game.” Compounds can also be opaque in their meaning, such as how パイプカット (paipukatto, or “pipe cut”) represents the word “vasectomy.”

Interestingly, the compound キャッチボール (kyacchibooru, or “catch ball”) is commonly thought of as originating in Japan since “play catch” is the proper term in English, but in fact —  it may not be. In a 2008 paper titled “Made in Japan or Not? An Examination of Vocabulary Items Sometimes Classified as Japanese Innovations,” Nicholas Warren, an instructor at Fukuoka Women’s Junior College, provides evidence of English speaker usage of the supposed Japanese term as early as 1631, opining: “Could it, then, be an obsolete word which is nevertheless enjoying an extended lease on life in Japan?”

“... the journey from becoming a known word to a loanword can be long, interrupted, canceled or even lost (in its original language).”

Semantic shift

The degree to which a word’s meaning can shift when it enters another language varies. Some words shift so drastically that a breakdown of communication can occur. One does not have to think hard to foresee how the Japanese word マンション for “apartment building” (pronounced manshon, or “mansion”) could confuse an English speaker. Or, to make matters worse, how about taking your ヨット (yotto, or “yacht”) to your ンション, with the Japanese meaning of “yacht” actually referring to a small boat.

“Convergent cognates” is a term used to describe when semantic restriction occurs in loanwords. This form of deviation can be seen in loanwords such as アイドル (aidoru, or “idol”), where the meaning has been restricted to only being used for famous entertainers, particularly musicians who have a fervent fan base.

The term “divergent cognates” is used to describe when a word undergoes semantic expansion. For instance, セレブ  (serebu, or “celeb”) is a truncated version of “celebrity” that includes not only famous individuals, but also the wealthy. So, a rich CEO of a company could be considered a セレブ.

Speech part modification can also cause a semantic shift, such as how the English verb “sign” is both a verb and a noun in Japanese (サイン, or sain) used to refer to an autograph.

Uncommon Language

Sometimes a loanword becomes either antiquated language or even obsolete, but that word lives on in its new language.

For instance, a well-dressed older man is referred to as a ダンディ (dandi, or “dandy”) in Japanese. While the term is dated, it’s still comprehendible. The same cannot be said for クラクション (kurakushon, or “klaxon”), the outdated proprietary eponym for “car horn.”

The known/loanword differentiation

When a loanword enters a language, it undergoes some kind of transformation. When does the host language take ownership of it and make it part of the language, though?

Many words begin as being known to only a select group. Then, they may slowly disseminate, become commonly known, and some eventually become loanwords. These words usually come from a specialized field and will thus not be of interest to the general public unless, for example, some technological innovation becomes mainstream, such as ソフトウェア (sofutouea, or “software”). Even then, it will take some time before they become a bona fide loanword. Until then, they may be “known” to varying degrees. An example of this is ブロックチェーン (burokkucheen, or “blockchain”) since the word and technology has not yet been established as being a permanent part of society yet.

The relationship between the English language and Japanese is quite complex. Granted, it’s one-sided, but still interesting from a linguistics standpoint. Moreover, that’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning interlingual exchange. The relationship between other languages, for instance, Romance languages, is far more complex. However, such complexity is what makes studying language so fascinating.

Dr. James Rogers is an associate professor at Meijo University who has published approximately 50 articles in academic journals on linguistics, Japanese studies, race and the environment.

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6 Comments
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For instance, a well-dressed older man is referred to as a ダンディ (dandi, or “dandy”) in Japanese. While the term is dated, it’s still comprehendible. The same cannot be said for クラクション (kurakushon, or “klaxon”), the outdated proprietary eponym for “car horn.”

"Klaxon" may be obsolete in English but not in French and Italian.

The Oxford English Dictionary's last entry for "klaxon" is as recent as 1973.

Another example of words for tools derived from brand names is ホチキス (hochikisu) 'stapler'.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I have a big problem with Katakana. As a method of transcribing foreign words, it basically doesn't work, especially with English. One thing I really cannot understand is why every English word ending in -er has the nobasu sign (-). I cannot think of any case where the final -er in English is a lengthened vowel. "Mothaaah," "fathaaaah," etc. But the worst is "lager," which is rendered ラガー in Japanese. Ordering a lager in a pub with "Pureeze give me a ragaaaaah," would not be understood. ラーガ would be closer as the a vowel at the beginning of the word is lengthened. And, on the subject of suds, why is beer ビール, but beer garden is ビアガーデン?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

These kind of articles can be very entertaining for people with an interest in both languages. This one is well explained and not overly detailed so its easy to read and comprehend.

Of course it may not be too entertaining for English speaking people that have lived for long in Japan (since most examples and explanations are well known) but for people not so experienced it makes for a nice read and maybe a trigger to looking for more information about the topic.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

the Japanese writing system is a total mess to put it lightly and completely illogical.

Learning to speak it and body language and etiquette isn't too difficult .

If you can't read Japanese you can't speak it. Don't get me wrong, you may be able to communicate and have simple conversations, but an understanding of how to read Japanese is required to be able to understand and actually communicate with people in high-level situations.

Don't agree? I'd bet large money you don't read Japanese, because any of us who do speak it (not just daily conversation) know that a knowledge of kanji, keigo, and various idioms are required to truly communicate.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Don't agree? I'd bet large money you don't read Japanese, because any of us who do speak it (not just daily conversation) know that a knowledge of kanji, keigo, and various idioms are required to truly communicate.

For example, have you ever heard a Japanese person use a word you've never heard, but knew exactly what the meaning was due to an understanding of what kanji were used to put it together? We have.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Most people in the US say "sunami" instead of "tsunami." This is interesting. Most US people say, "I can't say t-s." But they do. "Lots", "boots", "cats" all require saying 't-s'. Just say: "boots", "oots", OOOOTS, tsunami". There ya go. I find 't-s', 'k-s', and Greek words like "xare" very easy to say. Just use your ears. English and Japanese are two great languages. I like the way words visit back and forth between these languages.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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