Alphabets & Writing Learn Hiragana Common Anime Words

Why Anime Characters Can't Speak English?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Watching anime in Japanese, I'm sure you've already seen some obscene Engrish word like reberu レベル, "level," thrown around and it made you think: why can't the Japanese speak English? Are they just really, really, really lazy? Do they like their Japanese language better than English? Or what? What's the reason for this travesty? It's actually more complicated than you might think.


Phonetic Differences Between English and Japanese

Perhaps the biggest problem for someone who only speaks Japanese to learn English is that English is actually, believe it or not, different from Japanese. Yep. English and Japanese are different. Big news, everyone.

The deal is that, basically, English language has way too many fucking sounds. Like waaaaaayy too many. Like, there are people in America trying to make a new alphabet to replace the ones they use there, because spelling bees turn out to be too difficult and stressing for children (and adults), because English has many more phonetic sounds than it has alphabet letters. (the new alphabet thing will never work, though)

But that's not all. To make matters worse, Japanese has way too fucking few sounds. Like waaaaayy too few. Like, there are so few sounds in Japanese that it has dozens of homonyms, which are different words with the same sound, like kanji 感じ, "feeling," and kanji 漢字, "Chinese letters." Which is also kind of a problem, just like having too many sounds.

Missing Sounds in Japanese

So what happens when Japanese people try to learn English? Well, for one, trouble.

For example, there are no syllables starting with L in Japanese. There simply aren't. No la, le, li, lo or lu in the Japanese alphabet. You want to say lolipop? You can't. You either say roripoppu ロリポップ or you really don't because you can't pronounce it. That's right. the Japanese people cannot say that English word.

Think about it. You were born in Japan. It has no words with L syllables. The fuck you would use L syllables for? They are useless. There are no words for it. Therefore, you never learn to say the L syllables. You don't have vocal, muscular, and cerebral training to pronounce lolipop right!

In fact, there are no F, V, or Q syllables either, no single word can end in P, L or R, and there are no syllables with H in the middle either!

Missing Sounds in Other Languages

This isn't a problem just in Japanese, mind you. I'm from Brazil, my native tongue is Brazilian Portuguese. It has all sounds of Japanese, alright, but it doesn't have all sounds of English.

The th sound in words such as the, that, this, those, these and so on do not exist in Portuguese. Nobody who starts learning English in a Portuguese-speaking country can say these words right at first, and if they're unlucky they won't ever say them right in their whole lives.

Phonetics Solution

By now you might be thinking: so are all Japanese cursed to speak broken Engrish for the rest of their lives forever? Well, not really. There is a way to learn to pronounce new sounds. It is a very easy, simple way, of which most Japanese people can't afford. Actually, almost nobody in the world can afford it.

It is to spend some time talking out loud with people in English.

That is it.

Just like English natives learn to speak English and even those dreaded th words as babies, adults can also pick up new sounds if they train themselves enough. Sadly, repetition is important here as it's actually vocal and muscle training that is the problem.

Your vocal chords aren't used to this English bullshit you're trying to do, so you need to keep trying to say th or lolipop or level or whatever exactly the same way your English native friend is saying, over and over, until your body gets used to saying it right.

Since this would take 1) your time and 2) a native English speaker around all of that time, it's rarely done. So without a native English teacher most Japanese (and everyone else from the rest of the world) never become able to say "proper English". But that's alright, because most Engrish words you hear in anime are actually Japanese, not English!

What is Gairaigo 外来語

A gairaigo 外来語 is literally "word coming from outside." It's a term used for loan-words or borrowed words from other languages, such as English. The important thing here is that they are borrowed. Loaned. They aren't English anymore, they are Japanese.

In pretty much no language in the world a borrowed word sounds the same in both languages. The English word potato, for example, comes from the Spanish patata, which comes another language's batata. (Wiktionary) Would you say potato is an Spanish word? Nope. No longer. It's an English word now.

Likewise, many Japanese words are borrowed from English and sound Engrish because they are not actually English. They are, in fact, Japanese words. See:
  • keeki ケーキ
  • Cake.
  • koohii コーヒー
  • aisu kuriimu アイス・クリーム
    Ice cream.
  • amerika アメリカ

Most of the loan words are for food or other products and things made outside Japan. Simply put, what would you expect "ice cream" to be called in Japan if Japan didn't invent the ice cream? They wouldn't make a new word for it, but they can't say "ice" either, so aisu kurimu is the only option they have.

As a matter of fact, foreign words are always written in katakana カタカナ, not with kanji, and they always have more or less the same sound and the same meaning as they had in the language they were imported from.

However, there is a situation where that is not true.

What is Wasei-Eigo 和製英語

The word wasei-eigo 和製英語, meaning more or less "Japan-made English," is what Japanese words  made up of English words are called. These aren't just English words imported and made Japanese, no, these are English words which are made Japanese, then shortened or distorted in some diabolical way just to sound cooler than the already-existing Japanese words that mean the same thing.

It's like with the words manga and komikku, except komikku actually sounds like "comic," while the wasei-eigo words tend to be more like:
  • anime アニメ
  • biru ビル
    (short for birudyingu ビルディング)
  • suupaa スーパー
    (short for suupaamaaketto スーパーマーケット)
  • sukinshippu スキンシップ
    Bonding. (family, friends)
    (this comes from skinship. Don't even ask)
  • engeeji ringu エンゲージリング
    Engagement ring.
    (or "engage ring")
  • sofuto ソフト
    (never used for things which are just "soft")
  • nooto ノート
    (never used for just a single "note," which would be memo メモ)
  • reberu appu suru レベルアップする
    To improve something.
    (reberu appu comes from "level up")
  • renji de tin suru レンジでチンする
    Warm up in the microwave.
    (renji comes from the word "range." Yes. The word "range".)
    (tin is the chime sound microwaves make, it's not wasei-eigo)

(you can look up more words in, a Japanese website dedicated to listing wasei-eigo words, how they are used in Japanese, and the meanings of the original English words they came from)

So this is why the Japanese can't speak English properly, and why anime characters can't speak English either. It's because, most of the time, they aren't even speaking English.

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