Mental anguish from having too many English words in Japanese

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One thing I revel in about the English language is the huge number of loanwords it has:  French, Latin, Greek, Native American, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori, Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Swahili, and so on and on and on.  English has words from more than 350 languages, and they amount to 80% of our total vocabulary. (source)  Not to worry, however, that English will lose its innate identity, since around 70 % of words in a typical text derive from Old English. (source)

I've also long admired Japanese for its rich assemblage of foreign words, perhaps next to English in having the largest proportion of borrowings.  That's quite the opposite of written Sinitic, which has relatively few recognizable foreign words for a major language.  I attribute the difference to Japan having the easy ability to borrow words phonetically via kana and rōmaji ローマ字 ("Roman letters"), whereas the morphosyllabic Sinoglyphic script has not yet developed an officially sanctioned standard for transcribing loanwords directly into Chinese texts.  Informally (on the internet, in private correspondence, etc.), however, writing in China is gradually moving toward a digraphia of Sinoglyphs and the Roman alphabet.  (See the second part of "Selected readings" below.)

Be that as it may, the day before yesterday's post, "Share your language" (9/30/23), resonated with a celebrated Japanese court case from a decade ago, which was widely reported on in the media.

"Japan's NHK sued over use of English words" (6/17/13)

A disgruntled viewer is suing Japan's national broadcaster for "mental distress" caused by an excessive use of words borrowed from English.

Hoji Takahashi, 71, is seeking 1.4 million yen ($14,300; £9,300) in damages from NHK.

"The basis of his concern is that Japan is being too Americanised," his lawyer Mutsuo Miyata told the news agency AFP.

The country's modern vocabulary is littered with borrowed words, many of which are changed to fit the Japanese phonic structure.

Mr Takahashi, who is a member of a campaign group supporting the Japanese language, highlighted words such as "toraburu" (trouble), "risuku" (risk) and "shisutemu" (system) in NHK's news and entertainment programmes.

Other examples of English words often used in Japanese include:

    • terebi (TV)
    • rajio (radio)
    • konpuraiansu (compliance)
    • koraboreeshon (collaboration)
    • dejitaru (digital)
    • taoru (towel)

The verdict of this case:

"Court rules against man who sued NHK for using too many loan words" (6/13/14)

The Nagoya District Court has ruled against a 72-year-old man who filed a damages suit against public broadcaster, claiming that its overuse of foreign loan words rendered many of its programs unintelligible, thus causing him emotional stress.

Hoji Takahashi, who heads the "Nihongo wo taisetsu ni suru kai" (Treat Japanese as Important Association), brought the suit because repeated entreaties to NHK had been ignored, his lawyer said. He had been seeking 1.41 million yen in damages.

In handing down the ruling on Thursday, Presiding Judge Kiyofumi Saito said the use of foreign words cannot be proven to cause emotional distress.

In the suit, Takahashi said NHK was relying too heavily on words borrowed from English, instead of their traditional Japanese counterparts. He gave as examples words such as "risuku" (risk), "korabo" (collaboration) and "toraburu" (trouble).

Japanese has a tradition of borrowing words from other languages, often quite inventively and sometimes changing their meaning in the process.

Although English provides the bulk of loanwords — an inheritance of the post World War II U.S. occupation and subsequent fascination with American culture — words borrowed from many other languages are also in use.

Thus, the word for part-time work is a Japanized version of the German "arbeit", "concierge" comes from the French and the Spanish "pan" is understood as bread.

However, Japan's phonic structure, in which sounds are usually made of a consonant and a vowel, renders many of these borrowed words unintelligible to speakers of the language from which they came.

“Young people can probably understand a lot of this stuff, but for older people like myself, when I hear 'asurito' (athlete) and 'konpuraiansu' (compliance), I don’t know what it means," Takahashi was quoted as saying.

The court made a wise decision.

It boils down to young vs. old, n'est-ce pas?

P.S.:  I'm horrendously inept when it comes to computers, tablets, and cell phones, probably less literate in them than a first grader.


Selected readings




  1. Jim Breen said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 8:19 am

    >> Although English provides the bulk of loanwords — an inheritance of the post World War II U.S. occupation and subsequent fascination with American culture ..

    In fact the influx of loanwords began many years before WWII. I have some prewar dictionaries, and there are lots of loanwords recorded. Interestingly many medical terms were taken from German.

  2. Coby said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 9:02 am

    I remember being in Japan many years ago with only a bare smattering of Japanese. I was in Nara, trying to ask for directions to the Royal Hotel, where I had a booking. When the person I asked finally understood that I meant Royaru Hoteru and directed me with gestures, I quickly learned the rules for the Japanisation of English words and was able to get around. When I needed some lens-cleaning tissue for my camera, I went into a photo shop and asked for renzu kuriiningu tissyuu; I got what I needed but found out that I should have asked for renzu kuriiningu peepaa (paper).

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 9:13 am

    Isn't パン for bread from Portuguese, not Spanish? It looks on its face like the modern Spanish (which is of course cognate with the modern Portuguese), but I think Portuguese lost the final -n in fairly recent centuries.

    Separately, the usual claim is that at least within Europe the champion language for lexical percentage of loanwords is Albanian – with numerous different strata of borrowings (going back millennia) from Greek, Italic, Slavic, and Turkic. One internet source claims 93%; another says 90% is a bit high.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 9:19 am


    I'm charmed by your Tokyo tale.

    It deserves a prize for one of the best linguistically oriented short short stories I've ever read.

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 9:25 am

    "Although English provides the bulk of loanwords"

    Is that true? While English loans are undoubtedly numerous and salient, Japanese has been borrowing from (various forms of) Chinese much longer.

  6. KWillets said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 11:34 am

    Coincidentally I just ran across a similar protest in Korean news, but against all-English shop signage: Absurd how Korea treats its people’: English signage fad alienates older Koreans.

    This confusion has long been a topic of bemusement; for instance the 1966 film Let's Meet At Walker Hill has a running joke about two country bumpkins massacring terms like "Orange Juice" and "C'est Si Bon" as they try to navigate the Seoul club scene.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 12:53 pm

    Note again the emphasis on "older Koreans".

  8. Ted McClure said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 12:55 pm

    I suspect that a lot of borrowing of European words resumed with the Meiji restoration, ramming through all sorts of westernization. IIRC, the Japanese commercial law code was almost a direct translation from that of Prussia.

  9. Chris Button said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 3:04 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer

    I was about to make the same point about Portuguese. However, I think the nasalization in Portuguese pão would have been sufficient to trigger the moraic nasal coda in Japanese.

  10. Alex Shpilkin said,

    October 2, 2023 @ 4:03 pm

    In some sources pan is said to be from Portugese by way of Papiamentu. Speaking of, another peculiar source of pre-sakoku borrowings is Dutch, like in gomu “eraser” (from gom “rubber; eraser”). And zubon “pants” from French jupon “petticoat” is just strange.

  11. Guy_H said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 12:31 am

    Language contact these days is completely asymmetrical – English gives and every other language takes. English might have a lot of foreign loanwords, but current speakers have never experienced the speed and scale of loanwords seen by other languages these days. I think this is what makes it frustrating for the elderly. Its hard enough for the elderly to navigate new technology, but imagine doing it when every second word is a foreign loanword.

    I'm guilty of this myself – I was trying to explain the new Netflix account sharing restrictions to my Aunt using Cantonese the other day, but I was using way too much English & quickly realized words like network and IP位址 meant nothing to her.

  12. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 7:41 am

    Guy_H said, "Language contact these days is completely asymmetrical".

    This is an important point. English hasn't been able to make a proper case for the preservation of its peculiar word-hoard since 1066, so we're not particularly sensitive to other languages when they try to do so. But, as much as everybody scorns the Académie Française, isn't there value in insisting that the "benefits" to replacing native words with English "status" words is outweighed by the loss of cultural integrity occasioned thereby?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 10:37 am

    "[in] as much as everybody scorns [l’]Académie [f]rançaise" — Not everyone, Benjamin. I for one wholeheartedly applaud its aim « sera de travailler, avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possibles, à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences. », just as I regret the sad demise of the Society for the Preservation of English ("SPE").

  14. Ingleo said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 10:43 am

    It would be ideal if some journalists can interview the old Japanese man who sued NHK a decade ago. I hope he's still alive. It's a good documentary topic or for a short film about the struggle of the older generation in this ever changing world.

  15. Chris Button said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 11:10 am

    @ Alex Shpilkin

    Wouldn't a direct Portuguese source be far more likely than Papiamentu though?

    I think people struggle with pão because there is no "n" in the orthography while there is one in romanized Japanese "pan" that makes it look like Spanish or Papiamentu "pan" on the page. But from a phonetic perspective, the overt nasalization instead of coronal "n" in Portuguese perhaps makes it an even closer match for a Japanese moraic nasal coda (distinctly not coronal) than Spanish or Papiamentu would.

  16. Scott P. said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

    Language contact these days is completely asymmetrical – English gives and every other language takes.

    I think this is very incorrect. English is absorbing words from many languages currently, particularly Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. Heck, "emoji' is a borrowing!

  17. ohwilleke said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 2:28 pm

    Of course, Chinese is the dominant source of loan words in Japanese. According to some sources I've seen: approximately 60% of kango (Chinese words), 30% of wago (original Japanese words), and 10% of gairaigo (non-Chinese loanwords); of this 10%, English is estimated to be responsible for about 80% (i.e. about 8% of the total vocabulary).

    Notable, there are almost no Ainu or Jomon words in Japanese even though a very significant proportion of Japanese genetic ancestry is Jomon in origin.

  18. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 8:00 am

    "Notable, there are almost no Ainu or Jomon words in Japanese even though a very significant proportion of Japanese genetic ancestry is Jomon in origin."
    This is similar to the situation with the very slight transfer of Welsh words in English, despite the 1500 years of coexistence in Great Britain: see, for example,

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 11:59 am

    I suspect (I do not know) that the proportion of Japanese with Ainu/Jomon genetic ancestry is significantly greater than the proportion of English with Welsh genetic ancestry, Tom.

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 1:39 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Although Tom said “Welsh”, it would be better to consider the genetic inheritance from the British, or Romano-British, versus the number of Brittonic words (including Welsh and Cornish as daughter languages).
    While recent research has identified a significant genetic input from North-West Europe (academics are reluctant to describe it as Germanic), the older, British component is still very high, yet very few words were borrowed in the Anglo-Saxon period, or later.

  21. ohwilleke said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 5:18 pm


    I did not know, or even suspect, that this was the case. Thanks for the insight.

  22. magni said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 2:17 am

    A little of a Chinese perspective on this. The frequent presence of transliterated loanwords in Japanese (typically as katakana) is often an object of mockery on Chinese Web forums. This post ( along with its comment section can serve as a synopsis of on what this narrative is usually based and how it is formulated. Texts come under fire on intelligibility grounds, which are from the fields of IT, cosmetics, finance that rely heavily on loanwords to the point that these sentences consist of almost purely English transliterations.

    Chinese speakers take pride in criticizing the modern Japanese approach of directly borrowing words from English and other languages, in no small part because of the alleged superiority of Chinese characters as ideographs (in the folk linguistics / jingoist sense, meaning "one can guess the meaning of a word at first sight"). They consider the mass borrowing of foreign words indicative of the loss of productivity of Japanese. This thinking is intertwined with the long-standing, deep-rooted tradition with generations of Chinese translators who have spared no effort in contriving perfect semantic equivalents for foreign ideas. Presumably, this comes down to the promise of Chinese characters as "carriers of meaning".

  23. Victor Mair said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 9:18 am


    Many thanks for your contribution. I've often wondered what the Chinese thought of the seemingly profligate borrowing of the Japanese, and whether they pondered the implications of their correspondingly few loans.

  24. Philip Anderson said,

    October 8, 2023 @ 8:06 am

    English speakers often see the readiness of English to borrow foreign words as a strength (which I think is true – although keeping both the original spelling and pronunciation has further complicated English spelling). But they also tend to mock other languages when they borrow English words, without seeing any contradiction.
    Many languages modify the pronunciation to match their spelling conventions and phonetics; others, like Welsh change the spelling to make it phonetics, e.g. teiars.

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