Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Loan-Words in Japanese

If loaning words was like loaning money the Japanese language would be bankrupt. It loans, WAYYYYYYYYYYYyyyyyyy too many words. Too many. Way more many than English and perhaps any other language in the world.

Japanese loans so many words it even has multiple ways to classify the words it loans. There are the gairaigo 外来語, or yougo 洋語, which are western loan-words. There are the wasei-eigo 和製英語, which are English words with an overwritten meaning. There are kango 漢語, which are loaned from Chinese. And the list probably goes on and on and on.

By the way, a Japanese word loaned to English is called a gaikougo 外行語. And the opposite of a wasei-eigo would be eisei-wago 英製和語.

Now, here a number of things to know about loan-words in Japanese:


First, the Japanese language has a long history of loaning languagery from Chinese. They loaned the kanji from Chinese, and then they made the kana from the kanji they loaned. So, when you have a "Chinese loan-word," a kango 漢語, it normally ends up being written with the same kanji as the word was written with... IN CHINA.

And this has one little problem.


Because the closest to the Chinese pronunciation the Japanese can get are on'yomi readings, and on'yomi readings are still pronounced by Japanese people, and Japanese people literally can't pronounce the sounds like they do in Chinese. Because it's not the same language!

(It's like Engrish, but Chi... huh.... Chainiizu チャイニーズ)


There are so many English words in Japanese, like... so many. So many. That, if I had someone who didn't speak English ask me something like: "o que devo fazer para aprender Japonês?" My answer would be: "learn English first."

You might think I'm joking, but look at this phrase:
  • koohii ga suki コーヒーが好き
    [I] like coffee.

Now, realize this: koohii コーヒー is how Japanese people say "coffee." That's not their native word. It's loaned from English. "Coffee" in Japanese is koohii because koohii literally comes from the word "coffee" in English.

They don't use any other word for coffee. It's just that word.

That means, every time, every single time, somebody is talking about coffee in Japanese, they're going to use a loan word. And, this goes without saying, it's not just coffee. Ice cream, supermarket, television, internet, website, etc. etc. etc. It's all English in Japanese!

That's right. Names of foods, products, services, fads, customs, imported from the west and loaned from English. All of them called using English words in day-to-day conversations. As time passes, there's an increasing amount of English in the Japanese language. And it gets worse with the internet.

If you try to read a light novel about some dude being ending up in an MMORPG isekai, you'll be met with a torrent of Japanese-English-internet-gamer-lingo, specially the made-up names for weapons, items, places, etc.

And not to mention chuunibyou stuff like daaku fureimu masutaa ダーク・フレイム・マスター, "Dark Flame Master,"and English-loaned words used in names of basically anything and everything in anime.


Now that we've already talked about Chinese and English loan words, let's talk about the rest.

Who cares about the rest?

Alright, Japanese does loan words from pretty much every other language in the world, but so does pretty much every other language in the world. Even "coffee" comes from Turkish. Did you think coffee was an Original English Word™ DO NOT STEAL? Well, it was not!

But there is a difference, though. Maybe a big one. A difference between Japanese and English loan words. A difference which might make all difference. It is that, generally, you can tell when a loan word is a loan word in Japanese!


It's because in English, we only have one alphabet: the Latin alphabet. And all English words, loaned or not, are written with this one single alphabet.

On the other side, there are multiple Japanese alphabets: the hiragana, the katakana, and the kanji (which isn't really an alphabet). Native Japanese words (plus those loaned from Chinese) are written with hiragana and kanji, while foreign, western words are normally written with katakana.

For example:
  • nezumi ねずみ
    Rat. (Japanese, normally written without kanji)
  • samurai
    Samurai. (Japanese, normally written with kanji)
  • maajan 麻雀
    Mahjong. (Chinese, written with kanji)
  • amerika アメリカ
    America. (English, written with katakana)

Of course, for someone who can't tell hiragana, katakana and kanji apart, there's pretty much no difference. But if you can tell them apart, it's easy to know whether a word is actually Japanese or foreign. And if it's foreign, it's probably English. And if you know English, you can probably just guess what the word means assuming it means the same thing as it does in English.
  • reberu レベル
  • reeza レーザ
  • saito サイト
  • geemu ゲーム

Now, you might think the words above aren't all that much alike based on the romaji, but they are. It's just that they have been katakanized, changed from its native English pronunciation into a more limited Japanese pronunciation Japanese people can actually pronounce.

The fact that foreign words are normally written with katakana even gained them another name: "katakana words," or katakanago カタカナ語. Unlike what you'd imagine, this term doesn't apply to any katakana word, but only to foreign words written in katakana!

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