Thursday, December 7, 2017

Katakana-go カタカナ語

In Japanese, katakana-go カタカナ語 (also katakanago), and sometimes katakana kotoba カタカナ言葉, "katakana words," refers to loan-words coming from English and the west, that is, the gairaigo 外来語, which are noticeably written with katakana instead of kanji or hiragana, as they go through katakanization.

Despite katakana-go meaning literally "katakana words" or "katakana language," not all words written with katakana are called katakana-go. Again: it refers only to loan-words. For example, katakana カタカナ is not katakana-go, but arufabetto アルファベット is.

The reason the term katakana-go exists at all is because these foreign katakana-written words stick out like a sore thumb in text. Because they are foreign, they don't match the tone of normal Japanese. This happens mainly for two reasons.

Longer Words

First, while Japanese words usually have 2 to 4 syllables, foreign words may be much, much longer. Words used in names of foreign people, names of products and services, organizations, etc. can get ridiculously long compared to a random noun in Japanese.

Because of this, long katakana words which are used often have abbreviated versions. For example:
  • suupaamaaketto スーパーマーケット
    suupaa スーパー
  • sumaatofon スマートフォン
    sumaho スマホ
  • terebijon テレビジョン
    terebi テレビ

No Kanji

Second, in native Japanese a long word can sometimes be written with a single kanji character. For example, "soul" is written as tamashii 魂, which is much shorter than tamashii たましい. The katakana words are foreign, so they don't have kanji, which means they are always written much longer than your average word.
  • kanji to arufabetto 漢字とアルファベット
    Kanji and alphabet.
  • kuruma to kaa 車とカー
    Car and car.
  • momoiro to pinku 桃色とピンク
    Pink and pink.

In some rare cases a katakana word might get written with kanji based solely on the kanji's readings. In this case, it's called an ateji 当て字.

Katakana vs. Letters

Now, you might be having some silly ideas about this. You might be thinking that katakana is easier than kanji, because kanji is hard, and katakana is closer to our much easier alphabet. But you'd be wrong.

Not Enough Spaces

In case you haven't noticed, you don't use spaces in Japanese. So, with very long words, names made of multiple words, you don't know where one thing starts and where the other ends. Sometimes, a middle dot is used to separate words. For example:
  • burakku sutaa ブラック・スター
    Black star.
  • reddo hatto rinakkusu レッド・ハット・リナックス
    RedHat Linux.

Not Enough Sounds

Another thing you might not have noticed, is that in Japanese you only have fifty sounds. A word like "programming" creates weird syllables with consonants and vowels in a far more compact way than Japanese can create.

Since there are fewer possible sounds, it's also hard to figure out the original word, since the number of homonyms increase dramatically.
  1. basu バス
  2. basu バス
  3. basu バス
  4. basu バス
    Basse (place).
  5. basu バス
    Buss (place).

Not Enough Japanese

So katakana words have a bunch of problems in them!

It's no wonder that some Japanese natives even have trouble reading long complicated words written just in katakana. Of course, they can read it, and it's not everybody who has trouble with it, but it's generally much easier to read Japanese with kanji than Japanese without kanji.

Katakana Looks Cool

Note that, sometimes, katakana words are preferred over kanji, despite them being much more problematic to read and understand.

This happens because, aesthetically speaking, katakana words, written with katakana, look cooler than kanji. They look more modern. More foreign. More globalized. More futuristic. Meanwhile kanji has that old decaying ancient, cultural, historical look in it.

In practice, this means that on magazines, covers of CDs, names of TV programs, etc. foreign words might be used instead of their Japanese counterparts.

One great example of this is komikku コミック, "comics," a word often used to say "manga" in Japanese.

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