Too many English loanwords in Japanese?

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In "Chinese loans in English", we have been debating why there are so few recent borrowings from Chinese into English. In contrast, not long ago the headline of a Japan Times article blazoned: "Gifu man, 71, sues NHK for distress over its excess use of foreign words".

One might well ask why Hoji Takahashi waited until 2013 to lodge his complaint, as loanwords have made up a significant proportion of written and spoken Japanese for 60 years (and the proportion is rising). Also why pick on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)? Commercial radio and television are worse, as are magazines and some newspapers. Amusing too that he has complained about shisutemu システム ("system"), since it's possibly the most used loanword in Japanese — currently getting 488 million Google hits — and certainly must be fulfilling a useful purpose.

I have long marvelled at how many English and other loanwords there are in modern Japanese. On the shelves of my study and office are dictionaries of gairaigo 外来語 ("loanwords") that list tens of thousands of them. My two favorites are nyuansu ニュ アンス ("nuance") and arubaito アルバイト ("part-time job" < Germ. Arbeit).

Here is an article on the general subject of gairaigo, and this is a list (far from complete!) of some gairaigo in modern Japanese (the vast majority from English).

In my next post, I will ask if there are "Too many recent Japanese loanwords in English?"

[Thanks to Jim Breen]


  1. Matt said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 3:30 am

    Also why pick on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)? Commercial radio and television are worse, as are magazines and some newspapers.

    This is addressed in a quote in the article:

    “With Japanese society increasingly Americanized, Takahashi believes that NHK, as Japan’s national broadcaster, shouldn’t go with the trend, but remain determined to prioritize the use of Japanese, which he thinks would go a long way toward protecting Japanese culture,” Mutsuo Miyata, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

    It'd be hard to get even a stunt suit like this up and running against commercial broadcasters, because the "if you don't like it, don't watch" response is too easy. NHK is supposed to be for everyone — plus, in theory, everyone who has a TV pays for it.

    Anyway, merits of this particular lawsuit aside, there is an actual issue lurking beneath the surface here. There are already many companies that have specific guidelines about loanword use in product information, to ensure that their (relatively young and urbanized) writers and translators don't confuse or alienate their (often aging and rural) customers by using too many recently adopted loanwords when native Japanese words would do just as well.

    Or, you know, loanwords from Chinese with a much longer pedigree. Like "-go" and "taisetsu" and "kai".

  2. Sid Smith said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 4:11 am

    Strange coincidence. Only a couple of days ago I was wondering why my Japanese wife was fond of "nuance".

  3. Colin Fine said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    I guess this is parallel to the hordes of pedants with pens at the ready, poised to write and complain to the BBC about every tiniest deviation from what they have been taught to consider "correct". When it's an innovation (as opposed to "bad gramnar") they often assume that it is an importation from America, and so to be fought tooth and nail. Sometimes they are right about the origin, though often not.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:08 am

    In the original post, I should have mentioned that I think that the abundance of borrowings in Japanese is a major factor in making it such a powerful and expressive language. The only other language I know of that can compare in having such a vast amount of borrowings is English, and I revel in that aspect of my mother tongue. I often feel that, no matter what new language I learn, the likelihood that there is at least a handful, and perhaps hundreds, of words from it already in English that I am familiar with is quite high.

    Another language I have studied that is blessed with numerous loanwords is Uyghur, which has countless borrowings from Persian and Arabic, not to mention Russian, French, German, English, and Chinese. I once tried to make a rough estimate of the number of words in Uyghur that derive from Arabic and Persian, and I think that it amounted to about 60% in learned vocabulary. Ditto for Sanskrit in learned Nepali, but that's a somewhat different case (comparable to, but not identical with, the borrowing of Latin and Greek in English), since Sanskrit and Nepali are both Indic languages, while Latin and Greek are not Germanic, and really do have to be borrowed into English, whereas Sanskrit is just part of the linguistic milieu / background of Nepali.

    Urdu, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Hindi, is like Uyghur in borrowing huge amounts of Persian and Arabic vocabulary.

    To return to Japanese, however, the prevalence of English words means:

    a. that when I read Japanese, I can spot words that I already know all over the place, and their presence is marked by katakana. Even when listening to spoken Japanese, I can often hear English borrowings that I hadn't studied before as part of Japanese vocabulary

    b. Japanese students learning English have a foot up at the start, since they already know thousands of English borrowings in their own language

    Some may object that Japanese phonology so distorts the form of English words that they are no longer really English, but I would contend that, once you get used to the rules (the most important ones being that you have to break up consonant clusters and that nearly all syllables are open), then it becomes fairly easy to restore the original form of the English borrowings.

  5. Faldone said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    Matt: "… plus, in theory, everyone who has a TV pays for it."

    Of course everyone pays for commercial TV whether they have a TV or not.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 7:16 am

    From Brian Spooner:

    I have been interested in the same process in Persian and Urdu for a long time. In Persian it started with French loans in the 50s and gradually shifted to English in the 60s. It is interesting to compare how loans work differently between different pairs of languages, depending on the degree of inflection and differences in phonetics. I was talking to two Kazakhs yesterday about Russian, Persian and Turkish in Kazakh. I think the increase in loans generally is part of a larger language process under globalization, in which the boundaries between languages are becoming less absolute.

  7. David Morris said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    'Arbeit' is also used in Korean. Koreans think it is an English word, and my students expressed great surprise that I didn't know what it meant.

  8. JMU said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    At the risk of starting a firestorm, let me suggest, following my former colleague Bart Mathias, that the null hypothesis ought to be that there are no exact synonyms in a language. If words X and Y have different forms, then, in the absence of proof that they have the very same function or meaning, we should assume that they don't.

    To say that there are Japanese words "just as good as" this or that borrowing belittles the difficulty of translation and covertly perpetuates the old imperialist idea that our languaculture (Michael Agar's word) is superior to theirs. When a Japanese uses /sisutemu/ or /nyuuansu/, it is presumptuous to think s/he is simply cowed by English (or French or what-have-you).

    The fact that not every Japanese feels comfortable using the same borrowings is a completely separate issue. As Bill Croft pointed out, the evolution of language involves both innovation and propagation. Any speaker can innovate, intentionally or unintentionally, but the course of propagation is contingent: probably most innovative gestures die out early; many spread only within certain classes, regions, age-cohorts, and speaker groups of other kinds. But just because an innovation has not yet become universally accepted does not mean that those who have accepted it are lazy, vain, or "disloyal" to the speech community. On the contrary, linguists should assume they had a pragmatically sound reason for starting or adopting the innovation.

  9. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    One of the peculiarities of written Japanese is its ability to accommodate interlinear glosses on Chinese characters, known as furigana or rubi, indicating that those characters are to be read and interpreted with a non-standard pronunciation. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these types of interlinear glosses were often used to tie foreign loanwords to familiar characters. For example, the katakana for arubaito might be written alongside the approximately synonymous characters 仕事 (which would normally be pronounced "shigoto"). This type of interlinearity gives readers the option to choose between (1) reading the Chinese characters, (2) reading the foreign loanword, or (3) reading both and reflecting on the implied semantic equivalence between the two.

    It seems to me that this sort of gairaigo glossing of Chinese characters is less common in Japanese texts from recent decades, which usually just incorporate katakana directly into the main line of text. I wonder to what extent this reflects the greater penetration of these gairaigo into the Japanese language, to the extent that they have become more like naturalized Japanese words rather than opportunities to show off a knowledge of foreign vocabulary, as might have been the case in the Meiji period.

  10. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    Victor Mair's remarks about Uyghur having a lot of foreign words from numerous languages reminds me of what a Romaninan friend told me about Romanian. She said it is full of words borrowed from numerous languages because Romania was a crossroads in Eurasian history, and numerous foreign conquerors passed through Romania over the centuries.
    Re "too many English loanwords in Japanese". I'm impressed with the number of loanwords from English borrowed recently into German. Reading about the San Franscisco Boeing plane crash in the Deutsche Allgemeine, I find, for instance, the English words "crash", "runway", "cockpit" used interchangeably with the equivalent German words.
    As various comments (in VM's previous LL on English loanwords in Chinese) have indicated, the massive borrowings from English into Chinese and other languages is probably due to the world-dominance of English-language culture over the last few centuries. Everyone has wanted to learn English for the last hundred years or so but only in the last ten or twenty years has there been a widespread desire to learn Mandarin. Thus it is only natural that Japanese (and Chinese to a lesser extent) would massively borrow words from English, while there is much less borrowing the other way around.
    Re Victor Mair's previous remarks about massive borrowing from Buddhist Sanskrit into medieval Chinese, I wonder why Indian Buddhist missionaries braved forbidding deserts and mountains to reach China, whereas we don't hear of Chinese Confucianist or Taoist missionaries going to India in those times, although Chinese Confucianism and Taoism did spread over Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

  11. naddy said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    Victor Mair:

    The only other language I know of that can compare in having such a vast amount of borrowings is English

    Russian? Persian? Armenian? Albanian? Aren't the latter two so smothered under layers of loanwords that it is hard to find native vocabulary?

    Also, while English has borrowed extensively in the past, I don't think it still does a lot. Loanwords tend to flow from the prestige language of the time/region to other languages, but now English is the global prestige language and English-speakers themselves are left without a foreign prestige culture to turn to.

  12. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    Just now I meant to say the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine.

  13. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    Instead of "world-dominance" (and yes, prestige) of "English-language culture", I should have said
    "Anglo-American culture".

  14. Izfal said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Sanskrit in learned Nepali and other modern Indic languages is more comparable to Latin or Church Slavonic in the learned vocabularies of Romance languages or Russian respectively.

    Koreans usually think Western foreign words are all English, and if the pronunciation of loanwords deviates from real (!) English, they think it is due to the bad (!) pronunciation of Japanese.

    For example, 알레르기 al-le-reu-gi is originally from German Allergie, through the intermediary of Japanese, but now many (if not most) Koreans pronounce it as 알러지 al-leo-ji or 앨러지 ael-leo-ji due to English allergy and some even think that al-le-reu-gi is bad Japanese spelling-pronunciation.

    In fact many Greco-Latinate German scientific words have been replaced by English ones, and this process is still going on, with some people welcoming and other people hating the terms of English origin (pronunciation).

    Let me give you another example. In Korean, butane is still spelled 부탄 bu-tan in accordance with German Butan, but the reformed (or deformed) new spelling prescribes 뷰테인 byu-te-in, cf. English [bjutein], and this orthographic reformation (read: deformation) initiated by some so-called global-minded (Americanized) chemists is regarded as ridiculous and pathetic by many people.

    But the general public does not care much about this issue, because first they don't know about the spelling reform of chemical terminology at all, and second it is only about specialized terminology even if a lot of people know some terms like 부탄 (butane). Newspapers and other media are not yet influenced by the reform. They still generally use the conventional spelling.

    However, this Anglicizing process in Korean loanwords will not be reversed at least for the time being.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    One characteristic I've noticed about English borrowings in Japanese is that they are often used to distinguish between Japanese and non-Japanese concepts. For instance, while 旅馆 is the normal Chinese word for 'hotel', in Japanese it's the traditionally Japanese ryokan, while a western-style hotel is ホテル hoteru. Similarly, non-Japanese rice dishes don't use 御飯 gohan but ライス raisu, and tea with milk ("milk tea") doesn't use 牛乳 gyūnyū or 茶 cha but is ミルクティー mirukutī.

    I wonder if any other languages use borrowings in a similar way.

  16. markonsea said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

    Coby: The obvious (to me) parallel is the use of French words in English to denote the meat from an animal we use our native word for: beef (boeuf) from cattle, mutton (mouton) from sheep, pork (porc) from pigs …

  17. Xmun said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    As Walter Scott pointed out in the early pages of (I think) "Ivanhoe".

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    @Daniel Trambaiolo:

    I came across this use of katakana beside kanji expressing a foreign pronunciation instead of the usual Sino-Japanese in an unexpected way in Tanizaki's "Sasameyuki", where some entire phrases in German are actually written in Japanese, but with katakana beside representing the German pronunciation (more or less.)

    It produces the bizarre sensation of reading with subtitles.

  19. Jason said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    Tne characteristic I've noticed about English borrowings in Japanese is that they are often used to distinguish between Japanese and non-Japanese concepts … I wonder if any other languages use borrowings in a similar way.

    This runs the other way. For example, as you probably know sake simply means acoholic drink in Japanese, but in English refers specifically to what is called 日本酒 nihonshu in Japan.

    Likewise, a sombrero in Spanish means hat (any hat with a brim), but in English refers specifically to the stereotypical Mexican hat with high peak and broad upturned brim.

    I think this is pretty standard.

  20. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

    @David Eddyshaw:
    That's a good example. Can you think of anything more recent? One obvious postwar case is Ōe Kenzaburō's A Personal Matter 個人的な体験 (1964), in which the name of the character Bird is written as 鳥, glossed as バード. That's still going quite a long way back, though. I haven't seen much of this sort of thing in recent Japanese writing, but this might be simply because I don't happen to be reading the contemporary genres where loanword furigana are still in use.

    Some recent Japanese authors whose works include dialogue in Chinese occasionally use rubi to indicate the Mandarin pronunciations of the kanji (e.g. 你好, glossed as ニーハオ), but that is clearly a slightly different phenomenon since the glosses have a natural relationship to the kanji rather than the ad-hoc relationship when glossing with European loanwords.

  21. Ethan said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

    @Daniel Trambaiolo:
    The practice seems alive and well when writing titles and lyrics from pop culture. For example, in the title of the recent popular series とある魔術の禁書目録 (To Aru Majutsu no Index) 書目録 is pronounced インデックス (Index) and indicated as such in furigana when the word is written. Series web site .

  22. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

    Do you happen to know whether Walter Scott was the first to point out this pattern in the English lexicon? Or was it already widely familiar to educated English speakers in 1820?

  23. S. Tsow said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

    Regarding Julie Lee's question as to why Chinese Taoists and Confucianists didn't brave the deserts to carry their message to India and other lands, I believe it's a problem of attitude. They probably felt, "We're so good, YOU have to come to US. Besides, we don't like curry."

    Also, they were probably too aristocratic. If they had braved those deserts, they would have got the hems of their robes dirty.

    Regarding loan words, I've wondered why English has to borrow the Japanese word "tsunami." We used to use the term "tidal wave," but recent tsunamis have not been tidal–they've been caused by undersea earthquakes. Have we got so lazy that we can't invent a word for them? How about "seismic waves" or, more concisely, "quakewaves"?

    Alternately, we could go for the simplistic and inane and just call them real big waves.

  24. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 11:53 pm

    S. Tsow:
    You have a point there about the Chinese feeling of superiority, especially among Confucianists.

  25. cM said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 4:17 am

    My favourite loanword in Japanese is クーデター, which combines the loanliness (sorry…) of both English and Japanese, as it is – at least I've been told so by someone usually well-informed about Japanese – actually loaned from *English*.

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    @ Jason: The examples you gave refer to concepts specific to the culture of the lending language, and of course this is quite standard, as you put it. But the Japanese usage represents a more general Japanese vs. non-Japanese contrast, and I haven't found this in any other language.

  27. Jongseong Park said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 6:19 am


    Let me give you another example. In Korean, butane is still spelled 부탄 bu-tan in accordance with German Butan, but the reformed (or deformed) new spelling prescribes 뷰테인 byu-te-in, cf. English [bjutein], and this orthographic reformation (read: deformation) initiated by some so-called global-minded (Americanized) chemists is regarded as ridiculous and pathetic by many people.

    Count me as one of the many Koreans who think this forced anglicization of established loanwords is "ridiculous and pathetic". Thank God it hasn't really caught on yet outside the community of specialists, but in the long term…

    From what I've heard, the push for anglicized forms came from the Korean Chemical Society upon finding out in international conferences that the names they used in Korean were (shock, horror) pronounced differently in English. Many Koreans seem to think that all Western loanwords come from English (see David Morris's example above of his students thinking arbeit was English), so they must have concluded that we've been using the wrong forms of chemistry loanwords all this time.

    The National Institute of the Korean Language, instead of educating the chemists that English pronunciation isn't the only (or even preferred) basis of Korean loanwords from Greek or Latin scientific vocabulary, helped legitimize the "reform" by accepting the KCS's recommendations. There were some legitimate issues here (e.g. does 알킨 alkin represent alkyne or alkene) but this could have been handled better.

  28. J.Xiao said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    Is there any difference in meanings / connotations between the word 系統 (keitō) and the commonly-used システム (shisutemu) in Japanese?

  29. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    Thanks for this example. I assume this sort of thing is well beyond the scope of what irate pensioners in Gifu can get themselves worked up about. (Would this "index" be best considered a loanword from Latin?)

  30. Andy Jones said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    @Daniel Trambaiolo:

    I think there is evidence that furigana/rubi developed from interlineal glosses in Chinese texts.

  31. Rodger C said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    @Julie Lee: I think the main thing is probably that Confucians and Taoists don't think in terms of "spreading the word." Confucianism as a philosophy of government spread naturally to Korea and Japan when their states were being formed, but it wasn't needed in countries like India that already had state-organized society. The spreading was driven from the non-Chinese side. Taoism, I have the impression, exists in Korea and Japan mainly to give a philosophical coloring to pre-Sinification beliefs. Again, the adoption was driven from the non-Chinese side. Buddhism precedes Confucianism by several centuries in Japan precisely because it had missionaries.

  32. Kenny said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    An important thing to note about English loanwords into Japanese is that quite a few of them have different meanings compared to the English "original". Anyway, some examples of words with different meanings: コンセント (konsento) means outlet (power outlet); パンツ (pantsu) means panties (it also supposedly means pants but I haven't seen/heard that happen); マンション (mansion) means large apartment (or a classier apartment) and does not refer to houses; テンション (tenshon) means tension but is often used positively to mean something like excitement or high spirits.

    In a fill-in-the-blank exercise where the missing word was power outlet one of my Japanese teachers thought for sure I knew the answer because the word came from English and had no idea that no English speaker would think konsento meant outlet rather than consent.

    On the topic of Japanese characters given foreign pronunciations in furigana, it supposedly happens all over the place in the Japanese version of Harry Potter. The Knight Bus is translated as Knight of the Night (yoru no kishi) but given the gloss naito.

  33. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    @Andy Jones
    I assume that by "interlineal glosses in Chinese texts," you are referring to texts written in classical Chinese (kanbun), transcribed in Japan with katakana glosses added? If you mean texts transcribed in China with interlineal glosses in Chinese, I would be interested to know where you have seen these. To the best of my knowledge, the earliest furigana are found in late Heian and Kamakura-period kanbun manuscripts, were usually added by someone other than the writer of the original text, and were often added using a different color of ink.

    The deliberate use of non-standard furigana glosses started to become popular in the seventeenth century, expanding to include the use of Dutch loanword glosses from the early nineteenth century onwards, and other European languages (English, German, French) in the Meiji period.

  34. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    Apparently "consento" コンセント is a shortened version of "concentric plug," which makes more sense than trying to relate it to the meaning of the English word "consent."

    On the issue of Japanese loanwords with slightly different shades of meaning from their English originals, there is a good example in the "Suntory Time" scene of Lost in Translation (available on YouTube). The director uses words like passhon and tenshon to describe what he wants from Bill Murray, but the incompetent interpreter doesn't use either "passion" or "tension" in her translation, preferring to render these as "more intensity." Presumably this was a deliberate joke put in by the script consultants — the interpreter is completely incapable of translating the director's speech into English, but she is still well-trained enough to know she has to steer clear of false friends.

  35. Kenny said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    @Daniel Trambaiolo
    Konsento: Yeah, I looked that up eventually. I just meant that a "normal" English speaker studying Japanese would think it means consent, which of course makes no sense in context.

    Native English-speakers get a big leg up when they study Japanese, but they (and I) tend to forget that the borrowed words have a life of their own separate from the original.

    I remember that scene from Lost in Translation. It's pretty funny and generally matches my experience for the short time I was in Japan. People who translated into English often left large portions of Japanese out. People also generally left a lot of details out when they used English. English directions from police=confusingly vague. Japanese directions=detailed and clear.

  36. julie lee said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    @Rodger C:
    Yes , historically Chinese Taoism and Confucianism did not seem to think in terms of "spreading the word". That's puzzled me when I read about all the missionaries streaming into medieval China, risking life and limb— missionaries of Buddhism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Nestorianism, Islam. I haven't heard about Taoist and Confucianist proselytizers trekking over deserts and mountains to save souls in distant lands.

  37. Wentao said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

    @julie lee
    The Chinese are very hesitant to "spread their word". If I remember correctly, for a long time, giving a non-Chinese a Confucian book, or even teaching them the Chinese language for that matter, is a crime punishable by death.

  38. Ethan said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    Here's one from Jpop song lyrics (Kalafina's Red Moon): printed lyrics from CD liner: 運命 ("unmei" = fate), sung and indicated with furigana as: カルマ ("karma"). OK, "karma" is ultimately a loan from Sanskrit rather than English.

  39. julie lee said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    You must be joking !

  40. Jean-Michel said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

    'Arbeit' is also used in Korean. Koreans think it is an English word, and my students expressed great surprise that I didn't know what it meant.

    I had a similar experience with a trilingual (Mandarin/Japanese/English-speaking) Chinese friend who was telling me about his surgery. He referred to a "mesu" (メス), which I realized from the context must've been from the German messer "knife" (I don't know German, but I knew the word from that old Brecht/Weill number about Mr. Macheath). My friend had assumed it was a normal English word. Later I found that メス is used in Japanese specifically to refer to surgical knives and that a good chunk of Japanese medical vocabulary comes from German. The English loan ナイフ naifu can be used for generic knives.

  41. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 1:43 am

    @Jean-Michel: Borrowings from German medical and scientific vocabulary were common in the late nineteenth century, but mesu メス is in fact an older borrowing – it comes from the Dutch mes and was first used in the writings of eighteenth-century "Dutch-style" (ranpō 蘭方) surgeons.

    @Ethan: The pairing of karma with 運命 is another interesting example, since unmei 運命 is not the normal word for karma in a Japanese Buddhist context ( 業/katsuma 羯磨). As you say, the word karma is "ultimately" from Sanskrit, but it wouldn't surprise me if this particular example had spent some time in California before heading back across the Pacific.

  42. Jean-Michel said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 3:04 am

    @Daniel Trambaiolo: Thanks for that, I'd never heard the Dutch word so I assumed it was German. An -s final fits ス -su better than -sser (which I imagine would've become -se or -seru).

  43. Deirdre said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 5:22 am

    If I may dare an anecdote – I noticed this when I was visiting Japan. Even common words like 'arigato' are loan words (from the Portuguese in that case).
    I mentioned this to my Japanese-speaking brother-in-law and a Japanese friend and gave a few examples. And they were impressed and replied "Adonai", the joke not at all intended.

  44. J.Xiao said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 6:11 am


    From what I've heard, this is just a common folk etymology. The phonetic similarity between arigato and Portuguese obrigado is coincidental, and incidence of arigato being in use had appeared before the Portuguese arrival in Japan. Arigato was said to be instead derived as a modified form of 有り難し (Arigatashi), see this wiki article for reference:

  45. leoboiko said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    @Daniel and others: That practice of "subtitle furigana" is pretty common in lyrics, manga and games, even those made for teenagers. Like this:

    The same "gikun" technique is also used with Japanese itself, in a kind of parallel prose:
    (In this example, the character tells the other to stay "here", but the word "here" is written as a gloss to the characters for Tokyo, and from that you know that he means he should stay in Tokyo (and don't go to Kyoto where a fight is going on.)

  46. Avery said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    If anyone (who reads Japanese) doubts the old man's confusion, they should try picking up a Japanese fashion magazine sometime. Most sentences there are entirely loan words. Read it out loud and it's like poorly understood French spoken in an unintelligible Japanese accent.

  47. Etienne said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    Professor Mair–

    I wish to second Naddy's point that English is by no means unique or unusual in its lexical mixedness and that numerous languages have undergone comparable or greater lexical admixture. Allow me to add a few more languages to the list: Malay, Hungarian, Romanian, the Continental Scandinavian languages, practically all the major Turkic languages (Uyghur is quite typical), Vietnamese, Swahili, Hausa, Wolof, Maltese. I might add the thousands of minority languages which are not the dominant language of a a nation-state and which (to the extent that they survive at all) are being flooded with loanwords from some dominant state language.

    Your point that Sanskrit loanwords in Nepali somehow do not count as loanwords makes absolutely no sense to me. Whatever their historical relationship, Nepali (and any Modern Indo-Aryan language) and Sanskrit definitely qualify as wholly separate (structurally different and mutually unintelligible) languages. In which case most of the major languages of India could be added to the list of "lexically mixed" languages.

    In short, English is not exceptionally mixed, and if it were being heavily influenced by some other language I very much doubt English speakers would be more rational about the situation than speakers of other languages are in the face of the flood of English loanwords.

    (Monty Python quote: and now for something completely different) I have this odd picture in my head of an alternate Universe where Japan has won World War II and where English is being flooded with Japanese loanwords. I imagine some Japanese Academic (let's call him Hitoru Mai) revelling in the Nipponization of English, mocking English speakers' poor command of spoken and written Japanese, and regularly bemoaning English spelling and wondering why the self-evident superiority of Kanji is not being recognized by those oddly dim people whose culture and language Hitoru Mai advertizes himself as such an expert in.

  48. Matt said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

    (reposting because the comment seems to have vanished)

    JMU: Great post. I have two responses.

    (1) Framing the matter as acceptance vs non-acceptance obscures the issue of comprehension. As an active opponent of loanwords, the man filing this suit is probably more familiar with them than the average person in his demographic, but there really are many people in Japan who find it difficult to keep up with the pace of word-loaning. It's qualitatively different from peeving about singular "they" or "Americanization" or other issues that do not genuinely interfere with understanding. And so it's totally legitimate to ask what balance the national broadcaster should strike between facilitating up-to-date discourse in the idiom deemed most suitable by those driving it (partly with the goal of helping people learn that discourse), and ensuring that the discourse is understandable by as much of the nation as possible. This is already the way it works, of course–NHK does not simply televise dry recitations of papers in medicine or diplomatic proceedings, they interpret issues for a general audience. It's possible that using fewer loanwords would improve their interpretative technique. (Quantifying this would be another matter.)

    (2) I would not say that Japanese are "cowed" by English, but it would be willfully naiive to deny that there is any extralinguistic component influencing the decision between loaning a word (kompyūta), calquing a word from existing morphemes (hikōki), or repurposing an existing word (kuruma). If we can recognize that the political situation before and after 1945 dis- and encouraged (respectively) direct loans from foreign languages, we should be able to recognize the political component to the current situation too. We would do well to acknowledge that the current dominance of loanwords, mostly from English, does not represent an apolitical End of Sociolinguistic History of which no legitimate critique can be made.

  49. leoboiko said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    Still on the subject of furigana "subtitles", I forgot to mention Ariga's article on their use in Edo literature:‎

    One of her examples follows. In Bakin's Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, at some point, a warrior who has subdued an angry bull earns a reward and says, そは又 要(えう)なき人情(おくりもの) sō wa mata yō-naki okurimono "that's an unnecessary gift" (i.e. "you didn't have to go to all this trouble"; the parenthesis represent furigana glosses, originally written by the preceding characters). What's interesting is that the word glossed as okurimono "gift" is actually the Sino-Japanese word ninjō "kindness". The parallel effect is like: the actual word (i.e. sound) of his utterance is okurimono "present", but the author at the same time reminds you that the samurai is grateful not just for the material gifts, but for the host's benevolence.

    This sort of play was apparently quite widespread in Edo-period popular books; perhaps, much like in modern manga, the liberal use of furigana freed authors to use kanji for more creative purposes.

    In view of this kind of precedent, I suppose it was quite natural to add English glosses to kanji words—perhaps we should propose they're kanji glosses to English words…

  50. joanne salton said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 6:24 am

    Imagining the world out loud with the Anglo-Americans on the receiving end of some attitude or other usually meets with a blank stare (from said group, at least), so I'd like to say, that as much as I have come to admire Prof.Mair, I agree with Etienne that this Hitoru Mai character is worth picturing.

  51. ohwilleke said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

    Most Japanese words are loan words. According to one study cited in a wikipedia article on the Japanese language:

    ""Current estimates are that "wago" (i.e. words attributable to the original Yaoyi language) make up 33.8% of the Japanese lexicon, that "knago" (i.e. words with roots borrowed from Chinese since the 5th century CE) make up 49.1% of Japanese words (and in addition, the Chinese ideograms used in the Japanese written language), that foreign words called gairaigo make up 8.8% of Japanese words, and that 8.3% of Japanese words are konshugo that draw upon multiple languages. This account attributes only a small number of words in modern Japanese to Ainu roots."

  52. JS said,

    July 18, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    I imagine some Japanese Academic (let's call him Hitoru Mai) revelling in the Nipponization of English, mocking English speakers' poor command of spoken and written Japanese, and regularly bemoaning English spelling and wondering why the self-evident superiority of Kanji is not being recognized by those oddly dim people whose culture and language Hitoru Mai advertizes himself as such an expert in.

    Wow! You are right that there is an axe a-grinding, but the nature of that axe has eluded you by a gobsmackingly large margin.

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