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Return to 外来語

2009 November 8

I wrote this post on Friday during some downtime. I’m in a bit of a funk at the moment, but I have a bunch of photos and posts to make that I’ll be working on tomorrow, so hopefully Monday night will bring some new content.

Today my class did a lesson on 外来語, and even I learned a lot!

Japan has a long history of importing words, dating back to when they brought kanji over from China. There are three main types of words: 和語 (“wago”), native Japanese words; 漢語 (“kango”), kanji compounds with pronunciation imported from China; and 外来語 (“gairaigo”), words that came from a foreign country. For example, there are three ways to say “car” in Japan. 車, “kuruma”, is the original Japanese word. カー, “kaa”, was imported from English and can also be used. Finally, 自動車, “jidousha”, is a kanji compound meaning “self-moving vehicle” that is the formal word for car.

外来語 comes from many languages: English, obviously, but also Portuguese (through Oda Nobunaga), Russian, Spanish, and even Dutch. Within the category of 外来語 there is also the fuzzy 和製英語 (“wasei-eigo”) – words that sound like English but were constructed from bits of real English by the Japanese.

Katakana is the angular Japanese phonetic system generally used for foreign words, but sometimes for sounds or when someone is too lazy to write a Chinese character. My kids were asked to guess whether the following katakana words were Japanese- or foreign-made. (Double vowels aren’t what they would be read as in English, just the single vowel extended.)

リンゴ, “ringo” – Japanese. It’s often written in katakana, but just because the kanji looks like this: 林檎

ハサミ, “hasami” – Japanese. Again, the kanji is difficult: 鋏. My kids haven’t heard the word “scissors” before, so they were surprised by it, but they knew this was native.

テレビゲーム, “terebi geemu” – Japanese. We say “video game” in America. This term specifically refers to video games played on consoles like Playstation or Xbox that have to be hooked up to a television, so it makes sense. My kids were shocked to hear it wasn’t an American term.

ジェットコスター, “jetto kosutaa” – Japanese. We say “roller coaster” in English, at least in America. This name may have come from a specific coaster, the way that buffets are called “バイキング”, “baikingu”, after a specific restaurant called the Viking.

オートバイ, “ootobai” – Japanese. We would call this a motorcycle or motorbike, but the Japanese adopted “auto bike”.

キーホルダー, “kii horudaa” – Japanese. It’s “key holder”, but at least in America, we call it a key ring.

イクラ, “ikura” – Foreign. Ikura is the word for fish roe used in sushi. Even I thought this was Japanese, but it’s apparently from the Russian word for eggs.

コンペイト, “konpeito” – Foreign. It’s a kind of candy that was adopted from Portugal by Oda Nobunaga.

ピーマン, “piiman” – Foreign. Apparently the Japanese use the French word “piment” for peppers.

カレンダー, “karendaa” – Foreign. Same as the English “calendar”. There’s apparently a native Japanese word for it, but only one student out of 17 knew it.

ランドセル, “randoseru” – Foreign. It’s the Dutch word for backpack; the Japanese imported it from Holland.

カスタネット, “kasutanetto” – Foreign. Same as the English “castanet”, it comes from the Spanish “castañeta”.

The kids were very impressed to hear that certain Japanese words had made it into English: for example, tofu, futon, and sushi. I didn’t get to teach them the English pronunciation, but I’m sure they’d be amused. And yet, learning about loan words has not kept them from assuming that English is just Japanese pronounced funny, so maybe it’s a bad idea to show them any that is!

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