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English Loan Words in Japanese
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

The history of borrowing in Japanese

Japanese started borrowing words from Europe in the mid-1800s when it first opened up to foreign trade. Because the traditional writing system, kanji, is based on Chinese syllable-based characters, a new alphabet, called katakana, had been created to handle foreign words and place names and concepts that were untranslatable into kanji. Katakana thus became the alphabet of foreign loan words. Foreign words, therefore, at least in writing, remain visibly dissimilar to more native Japanese words and cannot become fully assimilated into Japanese; the loan words superficially retain their foreignness. In the 20th century the pace of borrowing picked up considerably and Japan has now become one of the most avid borrowers of foreign words. A 1964 study estimated that 10% of Japanese dictionary entries were loan words. This number will have vastly increased by now. Tuttle's New Dictionary of Loanwords in Japanese (1994) includes almost 4,000 of these foreign loan words, which are known as gairaigo.


The appeal of foreign words

As with most borrowings, Japanese borrowings are used to denote new concepts, but there is also a strong fashion influence. Japanese seizes on foreign words for creative purposes. European loan words, particularly English words, seem to bear some sort of cachet or prestige. This is seen most clearly in the enthusiasm of young Japanese people for using as many foreign words as possible in their colloquial speech, and in the way foreign words are used in advertising in Japan. Any visitor to Japan will be amazed (and amused) to find so many English words being used to advertise Japanese products. David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (CUP, 1997) points out Japanese car manufacturers' preference for English, French and Italian words when selecting names for their products (eg Nissan Bluebird, Cherry, Sunny, Violet, Stanza). Often the choice of words used for other products will seem quite bizarre. This is the case, for example, with the soft drink called Pocari Sweat or the cleaning gloves called Clean life, please. Other product names are more inexplicable, like the shampoo called I've, the electric razor called Love-Love, and the condoms called Super Winky! Japanese advertisers admit that the meaning of the words used is often of secondary importance - after all, for the most part, the public are not aware of their meaning - what matters more is that they inspire confidence in the consumer and they are felt to do this precisely because of their foreignness.

Another important characteristic of loan words in Japanese is that, being brought into existence through the dictates of fashion, they are also often subject to its fickleness and words, senses and usages go in and out of fashion faster than the dictionaries can keep up with them.


Changes in spelling and pronunciation

Once borrowed, foreign words often have to be adapted to Japanese spelling and pronunciation, usually by the addition of extra vowels, but once you get used to the adaptations made it is fairly easy to recognise them (though perhaps not their meaning). Hence, Christmas becomes kurisumasu, and hotdog becomes hottodoggu. Incidentally, these adaptations to English words in Japanese are often the source of English learners' spelling errors; the learner fails to adapt them back to their original English form.

As with all cognates, some are entirely trustworthy; they are exactly what they seem to be. For example, kitchin corresponds to English kitchen, endingu means ending, faitingu supiritto means fighting spirit and guddobai means, quite simply, goodbye. A BBC website offering advice for football fans visiting Japan during the 2002 World Cup urged optimistically 'Speak English!':

So if you're stuck for a Japanese word, take a punt with one from these shores. Blurt it out in that slightly staccato, evenly spaced Japanese way of speaking and you could well be understood. I'm not making this up. Melons, for example. In Japan, that's meron. Beer is biiru. Radio's rajio. Cola is koora. Stick "… o kudasai" (please give me) after any of those words and you are immediately equipped to ask for a beer or a Coke, and to buy a radio, or indeed a melon. A few more English "loan words" you could find yourself using at the footie: soccer - sakkaa; goalkeeper - kiipaa; ball - booru, half-time - haafu taimu. The referee's a refurii (among other things). And the football world champions are, of course, Furansu.


Borrowings from other languages

Of course, the writer is seriously overstating the case here and this advice could cause all kinds of confusion. One thing to bear in mind is that it is not just English that Japanese borrows from. A word may indeed be a loan word and may look like an English loan word, but in fact be a False Friend. Here are a few examples: pan is borrowed from Portuguese pćo, and means bread; pinto is borrowed from Dutch brandpunt and means focus, point; retteru also comes from Dutch, not English, letter and means label or sticker; ankru comes from French encore; and baito is a shortening of German Arbeit (work) and means part-time job.



Japanese also takes loan words and shortens them while retaining the original English meaning, as we saw with Korean in the last issue. This process leads to more False Friends: spa means supermarket; depto means department store; ado means advertisement; nto means note but also means notebook, and misu means miss, but also error, mistake or typo. One researcher lists seven meanings of the shortening con: conditioner, condenser, control, computer, complex, converter, concrete. Does it mean the same as English con too, I wonder?

The problem with shortenings is that the English learner might use the same word in English thinking the cognates mean the same. English learners of Japanese might also make the same assumptions.



A further trap awaiting the Japanese learner of English (or vice versa) is that, as we have seen with other languages, if a suitable English word is not immediately to hand pseudo-anglicisms are invented. The word walkman, which English borrowed from Japanese, is one such confection. These words, often noun compounds, look like English words but are actually entirely made in Japan: a chmu pointo (charm point) is an attractive quality; amefuto is American football; a beddo taun (bed town) is a dormitory town; masu komi is mass communication; a g sutoppu (go stop) is a traffic signal; sekuhara is sexual harassment; and a gdoman (guardman) is a security guard.

These types of words are not strictly speaking false friends since no true cognate in English exists, but the danger is that the Japanese learner of English might assume they are real English and use them as such.



Often, because of the necessary spelling conversions and notably the problem with the letter 'l' for Japanese speakers, the loan word can be misleading: raisu, for example, is the gairaigo word for rice, as one would expect, but rain means line. Similarly, korekushon means collection, not correction, surend means slender, not surrender, and hanbgu means hamburger, not handbag, which is handobaggu.

Also, as with any language, the existence of homonyms within English loan words in Japanese is an additional threat to clear understanding. The Japanese learner of English needs to bear in mind that while the same loan word may be used for homonyms in Japanese, the corresponding English words may be different: ranpu is the loan word for both ramp and lamp; raito covers both right and light; roketto both rocket and locket, and ssu both source and sauce.


Partially false friends

In addition to all of the potential pitfalls above, Japanese loan words also have their more straightforward false friends. Sometimes there is some overlap in meaning with the English word senses, but the word, once imported into Japanese may take on additional meanings, as shown in the list below:

Japanese English
nekku neck + bottleneck
nachurarisuto naturalist + nature lover
pto part + part-time + part-timer
sbisu service + free of charge
ritchi rich + extravagant
sain sign + signature, autograph
sofuto soft + software
shu sure + skilful
sumto smart + slim
waido wide + extra-long
sutando stand + table lamp
tarento talent + talented person, TV celebrity
ea poketto air pocket + blind spot (figurative)
handoru handle + steering wheel
bi boy + porter
mashiin machine + car + motorbike

The loan word may also have a narrower meaning than in English. For example, bando has only the music sense in Japanese, kurashikku is specifically classical music, a gaun is a dressing gown only, and a guraund is a stadium or playground.


Completely false friends

Finally, we come to those False Friends which have completely different meanings to their English cognates, though one can sometimes see how they came about.

Japanese English
barakku dilapidated housing
kone connection, contact (person)
konsento electric socket
kut quarter
daiaguramu train timetable
jokki jug, mug
hire fillet, tenderloin
kanningu cheating (in an exam)
uetto sentimental
manshion luxury apartment
manikyua nail polish
pea pair
pike picket, picket line
pur play
mentaritii intelligence


Loan words and the language learner

It is difficult to say which category of loan word false friend poses the most problems for learners, though I suspect that it is those words which are closest in meaning to the original English words or most likely to appear in the same context. If a Japanese learner of English uses the word jockey, for example, in a context requiring the word jug it is more likely to be identified as an error, and therefore to be corrected, than if they describe somebody as wet. In the latter instance the role of language interference may not be spotted and offence may well be taken, with the learner perhaps never quite knowing what went wrong.

When navigating the pitfalls of English loan words in Japanese, it helps to bear in mind that these once-English words are now Japanese; an essential part of the Japanese language with Japanese meanings, pronunciations and usage. The challenge for the teacher of English is to help the learner to relearn these English words, with the English meaning, pronunciation, spelling and usage. The English learner of Japanese, on the other hand, must relearn words that they thought they knew, and even learn some new 'English' words that aren't English at all! Some very agile learning acrobatics are called for when dealing with loan word false friends. Spotting them is just the beginning.


Further reading

Tuttle New Dictionary of Loanwords in Japanese, Taeko Kamiya, Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Ltd., 1994

Easy Katakana, Tina Wells, McGraw-Hill, 1989. The book covers 1,500 loan words from English.


Next in the series

In the next issue I will take a close look at three words that are particularly slippery for learners of English to get hold of as a result of language interference: actual, eventual and important.