Loanwords

One thing I find fascinating is that a large fraction of the Japanese language is made up of loanwords, I’ve heard about ten percent of their language being of English origin.  But they take our words and adapt them to their syllabic structure, making them Japanese words.  Most English speakers wouldn’t even understand them.  There’s a hilarious music video called “Japanglish” that makes fun of that, and I still can’t hear “ma-ko-do-ru-no-DO” without laughing to myself.

English has very few loanwords from Japanese.  There are a few, “skosh”, from “sukoshi”, meaning “little,” was one that surprised me, but the list is actually very small.  We have not borrowed many words from Japanese – and the ones we have are more because we seem to think they’re cute than anything else.  I hear “nani” has become a popular word in some circles.

But the point of this post is this:  We mispronounce the Japanese words.  Many people pronounce “Kawaii” as they would “Hawaii”, when it’s more properly pronounced as “ka-wa-ii”.  “Karate” is pronounced by many with a long “e”, but it’s actually pronounced ka-ra-te”.  Unfortunately that seems to only be done by pretentious people.  “Karaoke” is not “carry-okie”, but “ka-ra-o-ke”.  We even mispronounce “Toyota”.  It’s “to-yo-ta”, not “toy-ota”.

But after some thought, I decided I don’t care.  If nearly all of the English words that the Japanese have borrowed from us are said in a way that we can’t understand, I think it’s perfectly fair that we get to make some of their words our own.

If they don’t like it, they can learn how to pronounce “McDonald’s”.  Then we’ll talk.

As for me, though, I’m probably going to pronounce them correctly.  I’m trying to train myself to pronounce words the same way a Japanese person would.  It’s actually more difficult than it sounds, because we tend to accent certain syllables, where there is no such thing in Japanese.  For example, in English, “content” means two different things that depend on which syllable is stressed.  But Japanese has no such thing, and stressing the syllables actually leads to mispronouncing because that makes us tend to use vowel sounds that Japanese people don’t actually have.

All this to say, if you borrow a word from a language and make it yours, fine.  But if you want the speakers of the other language to understand you, best to learn how to pronounce it properly.

Pronunciation

On a YouTube channel I watch, the person who made a video mispronounced the word “Hitachi”.  He pronounced it “Hai-TA-chi”.  I posted a helpful comment telling him the correct way to pronounce it.

Someone “took me to task” for correcting his pronunciation, with the rationalization “we aren’t Japanese”.  Of course, he devolved to calling me stupid in a roundabout way, so I ended the chat  But I’m going to explore that here.

He’s right about one fact:  we aren’t Japanese.  But that’s not important.  I think there are circumstances where it is okay to take a word from another language and change its pronunciation.  Say, for example, that the word contains a sound that does not exist in the “loanee” language.  Then it’s perfectly reasonable to alter the word so that it is easier to pronounce.  That is even more true if the meaning of the word changes significantly.

But there are some circumstances where I think that is not appropriate.  Specifically, proper names.  If you are going to say someone’s name, I think you should make an effort to pronounce it correctly.  Of course, the problem of the sound not existing is still extant, but otherwise, one should at least make an effort.  Because one’s name is one’s name, and it’s a sign of respect to pronounce it properly.

So, I think the commenter (setting aside their thinly veiled attempts at insults) was incorrect.  It’s pronounced “hee-ta-chi”, should be pronounced that way, and those who do not should be gently corrected.

This is why when I say, for example, “Takahashi Minami”, I first of all always say it with the given name first, and I always try to pronounce it the way a native speaker would (as close as I can get, anyway).  It’s just a matter of respect.  I’ll even add “san” when appropriate.  It is, to me, rather jarring when I read articles that try to “westernize” Japanese names.  It never feels right to me.

I will also attempt to say “kawaii” correctly, even if I’m using it as an English loanword (which it is now!).  It is not pronounced like “Hawaii”.  But I will not say the Japanese pronunciation of “typhoon” (taifu) because it is not only a loanword but has been significantly altered to the point where “typhoon” is actually an English word, and that is its correct pronunciation.

Apparently, some people believe that it is never appropriate to correct one’s pronunciation.

They can then ignore me.

I will not stop because they don’t like it.

So there.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.