"When does one’s native language stop being native?"

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That's the title of an article by Mark Schreiber in yesterday's (Aug. 25, 2013) Japan Times.  It has to do with a topic that we've discussed quite a bit on Language Log in recent weeks and months (e.g. here, with references to earlier posts on the subject): borrowings to and from Japanese.

Since the article is succinct, lively, and exemplary in its presentation, seemingly designed with a pedagogical purpose in mind, I shall quote it entirely:

A 71-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture made headlines recently when he attempted to initiate a lawsuit against broadcaster NHK. Through its excessive use of foreign derived words, the man claimed, NHK had caused him 精神的苦痛 (seishinteki kutsū, psychological pain). He demanded ¥1.41 million in 慰謝料 (isharyō, damages).

The local court refused to hear the case. But Nikkan Gendai newspaper (July 5) rose to the man’s defense, saying その気持ち、よく分かる (sono kimochi, yoku wakaru, that feeling is well understood), adding 政治もビジネスも、今やカタカナ語だらけ (seiji mo bijinesu mo ima ya katakana-go darake, now more than ever, politics and business are full of katakana loanwords).

だらけ(darake) is a useful descriptive suffix implying, negatively, that something is full of, or crawling with, whatever.

The term カタカナ語 (katakana-go) is used alternatively with 外来語 (gairaigo, words that come from outside, i.e., of foreign origin), but differentiates such words specifically as being written using the katakana syllabary, as opposed to borrowings from Chinese written in kanji.

Nikkan Gendai’s writer recalls that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first-term inaugural speech back in 2006, had used such awkward expressions as イノベーションの創造 (inobēshon no sōzō, creation of innovation) and テレワーク人口の倍増 (terewāku jinkō no baizō, doubling the number of teleworkers, i.e., telecommuters). These terms, said the writer, resulted in 多くの国民がチンプンカンプンだった (ōku no kokumin ga chinpun-kanpun datta, came across as gibberish to many citizens). チンプンカンプン (chinpun-kanpun, gibberish) is of indeterminate origin, although its close resemblance to the Mandarin Chinese phrase 聽不懂,看不懂 ting bu dong, kan bu dong, (literally “hear-not-understand, see-not-understand”) has not escaped notice.

While Abe appears to be making greater efforts to reduce use of katakana-go, plenty of other public figures continue to sprinkle their speech with unfamiliar word imports. The article singled out Keio University professor and economic pundit Heizo Takenaka as particularly notorious, citing such examples as 新たなフロンティアを作り出す (arata na furontia wo tsukuri dasu, to carve out new frontiers); 多様なリスクテイク (tayō na risuku teiku, diverse risk taking) and 営農者をスティミュレイトするのか (einōsha wo sutimyureito suru no ka, will this stimulate agribusiness operators?).

All three of the above, the article points out, have perfectly good ways to express the same thing using Japanese. Frontiers is 開拓地 (kaitakuchi); risk taking is 危険な受け入れ (kiken na ukeire); and stimulate is 刺激する (shigeki suru).

Kenji Uchida of the Hanashikata Kenkyujo (Way of Speaking Institute) advises when making business presentations, 先ずはできるだけ日本語に直して使うこと (Mazu wa dekirudake nihongo ni naoshite tsukau koto, the first thing is to revise it to use Japanese to the greatest extent possible). He added, カタカナ語を使ったら、<すなわち>や<つまり>で意味を説明するのもマナーです (Katakana-go wo tsukattara, “sunawachi” ya “tsumari” de imi wo setsumei suru no mo manā desu, If katakana-go are to be used, it is good manners to follow them with sunawachi or tsumari [both of which mean "in other words"] and explain their meaning).

To demonstrate how bad things have become, Nikkan Gendai points to such extreme cases as シルバーエイジの、アメニティーライフをサポートします (shirubā eiji no, amenitī raifu wo sapōto shimasu, to support an amenity-filled lifestyle for [people of] “silver age”).

Returning to the lawsuit, it occurred to me that the 71-year-old litigant, as a product of the postwar education system, would have been exposed to a huge number of foreign words during his lifetime. Take 1989, the year he turned 47, and also the year the Asahi Shimbun published a book titled カタカナ仕事 (katakana shigoto, katakana occupations) devoted entirely to occupations whose names were written in katakana. They included リフォーマー (reformer, a person who does clothing alterations); メーキャッパー (mēkyappā, make upper or makeup artist); ヒーブ (hību or HEIB, an acronym for home economist in business); フードスタイリスト (fūdo sutairisuto, food stylist); グリーンコーディネーター (gurīn kōdinētā, green coordinator or horticulturalist); イベントプランナー (ibento purannā, event planner); and PAミキサー (PA mikisā, a person who controls the audio for the public address system at concerts and other performances). With examples like the above, I wonder: why did he wait until now to sue someone for all those years of “suffering”?

Did English stop being English when it borrowed 60% of its vocabulary from French after 1066?  Persian and Arabic borrow heavily from each other, and Uyghur borrows massively from both, yet all of these languages somehow maintain a core of self-identity.  Nonetheless, hypothetically, can we imagine a situation when a language borrows so heavily from another language that it loses its essential integrity?  Has it ever happened in history?

Finally, is Japanese really in danger of being inundated by English?

[h.t. Ross Bender]


  1. Rowland said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    The thing is, some English loan words such as サポートする are so engrained in the language that they're not consciously thought of as foreign anymore (much like many French loanwords in English). I was playing Fire Emblem: Awakening, a medieval fantasy RPG, with the Japanese voice acting enabled, and characters say "サポートします" a good deal. Presumably if サポートする was still considered foreign, they would've found a more Japanese word to fit the period.

    I predict that some, like the aforementioned, will become integrated and forgotten/ignored, whereas others will be used as trend terms (like リスクテイク) and become nonces. There are definitely English loanwords from earlier on in the 20th century which I've never heard used.

  2. Avinor said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    Mainland Scandinavian borrowed so much from Low German (ca 14th century) that the grammar of Old Norse – in particular the case system – broke down. As a result, we (Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians) can no longer understand our friends on Iceland and the Faroe Islands. They can still reasonably well read Old Norse, while we can't.

    Strindberg famously described Swedish as "Plattdeutsch in twelve dialects".

  3. Rahul said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    Was Nikkan Gendai's use of "bijinesu" deliberately ironic or…?

  4. Daniel said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    I would question in what sense English could be said to have "maintained a core of self-identity" going back earlier than the Norman conquest. Pre-Norman English texts are incomprehensible to typical modern English speakers, who would find it much easier to grasp the meaning of texts written in modern Dutch, in part because of the shared heritage of loanwords.

  5. JQ said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    Well, I think the Germans and Dutch (and Scandinavians to some extent) don't even use their own languages anymore, in business.

    Has anyone else noticed how article writers on the JP, KO and especially ZH wikipedias feel the need to give the English equivalent of any sort of technical word, even those which have native translations? They are basically saying that their language is so inadequate (or English is so widespread globally) for academia or business that in order to make yourself understood to someone in the same field as yourself, you need to use a foreign word.

  6. Roger Lustig said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    @JQ: An author whose book I translated 25 years ago told me that German technical style of the day used words and expressions with straightforward, easily-intuited English cognates. That is, even German word choice was influenced by English vocabulary and usage!

    All this was by way of apology for his difficult, old-fashioned German. I doubt the practice has changed since then.

  7. jo lumley said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    I wanted to comment first on the proposal of "危険な受け入れ kiken na ukeire" as a Japanese non-loan equivalent of risk take(ing). I would gloss kiken na ukeire literally as something like risky/dangerous [adj] acceptance. I am not a native speaker of Japanese so perhaps I am missing something, but it sounds like both (a) strange as Japanese in itself, and (b) not particularly successful as the translation/equivalent it is suggested as. Can any Japanese native speakers comment on whether you find kiken na ukeire to be acceptable?

    Secondly, a quick comment in response to JQ above. Although I can't comment on Wikipedia's style in particular, it's not such unusual practice for reference works (e.g. dictionaries) to give the English equivalents for Japanese words which were coined as translations. For example, Kojien gives "(individual)" at the very beginning of its definition for 個人 kojin, since this word was itself coined as a translation of individual.

  8. Akito said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    I agree kiken na ukeire, "risky/dangerous/untenable acceptance", not only doesn't mean "risk taking" but also is a strange concatenation of words. A better parlance would be kiken wo ukeireru koto, "taking risks". Personally, I'd be quite happy with risuku wo toru/hikiukeru koto.

  9. Jim Breen said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    First a remark on 危険な受け入れ – it is not at all common in Japanese. I don't recall encountering it, and it only gets 4 hits in Google, which is right down in the noise level.

    Then to 開拓地, which Victor has meaning frontiers. I've never encountered in with that meaning – it usually means reclaimed land or land cleared for other purposes. The loanword フロンティア is always given the glosses of a country's border or the frontiers of the Wild West; never 開拓地.

    Japan has been using (and coining) loanwords for centuries, whether it be from Chinese, English, or anything handy. Every so often there is a reaction and a few King Canute-like attempts to stem the flow, but nothing really changes. Before WWII the militarists tried to turn back the clock, but the only lasting monument to their efforts has been the handful of Japonified terms used in baseball. A while back a government agency published a list of overused loanwords with the *real* Japanese words that should be used instead. One was ライブラリ (library) where they wanted 図書館 used instead. They'd missed the point that much of the use of ライブラリ was in the context of computer library files, i.e. compilations of common software routines, and 図書館 was singularly inappropriate for this purpose.

  10. Eugene said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

    @ Avinor: How do you know that borrowing from Low German is what caused the case system of Old Norse to break down? Spanish doesn't have the case system of Latin. Is that due to borrowing from other languages?

  11. dainichi said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

    @jo lumley

    I agree, 危険な受け入れ is hopeless. And for the word "risk" in the financial sense, I don't think there is any alternative to リスク. 危険 does not sound like an opportunity to make money.

    開拓地 for frontier doesn't quite work either, if frontier is being used in the sense I think it is, 開拓地 sounds too much like a physical settlement/output and doesn't quite capture the essence of… well, "an opportunity to make money".

  12. Jenny Tsu said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

    In English, there are many words which were borrowed from other languages (boondocks, gung ho) which I only discovered were borrowed once I grew up and started studying linguistics. To what extent is Japanese different in that its borrowed words are forever stigmatized as "foreign" because they are written in katakana? (Oh, also, Japanese … while you're at it, please go ahead and get rid of all those borrowed Chinese words!)

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    I have long had the impression that Japanese uses European-derived (mainly English) expressions for Western concepts while reserving (Sino-)Japanese ones for native ones. While there are perfectly good Japanese words for milk and tea, the notion of drinking them together is foreign, hence ミルクティー (mirukutii); a ホテル (hoteru) is different from a 旅館 (ryokan); and so on. Since modern business concepts are mainly Western, it would in fact be quite consistent with Japanese culture to use foreign-derived terms for them, in great contrast to Chinese.

  14. Matt said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    I had the same reaction to kiken na ukeire, but reading the article closely it seems to be a suggestion from the Nikkan Gendai newspaper, not Mark Schreiber. Which seemed to suggest that our notorious Gifu troublemaker is actually in the right — even the Nikkan Gendai doesn't understand these loanwords properly! They must be confusing after all!

    But the NG article actually offers 危険を受け入れる (kiken o ukeireru), which is basically in agreement with Akito. So either the NG edited the article after the fact, or the Japan Times is misquoting them rather grievously.

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

    "Can we imagine a situation when a language borrows so heavily from another language that it loses its essential integrity? Has it ever happened in history?"

    Unfortunately "essential integrity" is too imprecise for the question to by really answerable as it stands.

    Taking it (a bit arbitrarily) to mean that the grammatical system (apart from vocabulary) is changed radically under foreign influence, there are hardly any provable real instances.

    It's fairly often said that English (for example) owes its relative morphological simplicity to interference from Norse, but its hard to see how this could be rigorously demonstrated, given that so many languages have undergone morphological simplification over the centuries without any such convenient historical scapegoats.

    Japanese is interesting in that the Kanbun system of reading Classical Chinese as Japanese (and writing Japanese as Classical Chinese too) actually has resulted in some Chinese derived syntactic constructions making it into Japanese; still, nobody would claim that Japanese has become anything like Chinese in basic morphological or syntactic structure despite the vast borrowing of vocabulary and huge influence in semantics.

    In fact the only cases I can think of where one language has unequivocally transformed the structure of another radically are weird mixed languages like Copper Island Aleut (Russian noun inflection, Aleut verbs) which arose in very unusual historical contexts, and perhaps the fascinating Vaupes region of Amazonia where its is considered incest to marry someone with the same language, everyone is at least bilingual, and languages of quite different families have converged markedly in structure but not in vocabulary, because that is strongly tabooed.

    In other words, for it to happen, you need to be in the sort of territory where you're talking about creolization rather than ordinary language transmission and development.

  16. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

    When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about people who are so long long separated from their original L1 community that their adopted language takes over its role. Of course this is the story of many people who emigrate at an early age, but I also think of my mother and her older sister, who were born to a French-speaking family in the French-speaking part of Maine, but moved to another state — where there parents ceased using French in daily life — so early that they never became fully fluent. I'm sure LL has treated this phenomenon before.

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    To continue off-topic, I have an aunt who was Welsh-speaking as a child but was evacuated during the war to an area where everyone spoke only English. She remembers being able to speak Welsh, but can't now understand it it all.

    I knew a Dutch priest in Ghana who had been in Ghana since before independence and could no longer speak Dutch.

  18. David Morris said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    My Mandarin pronunciation obviously needs some practice. I said to my Chinese manager 'Do you know the expression "ting bu dong, kan bu dong" [聽不懂,看不懂]?' and she completely failed to understand what I was saying. I asked her to say it, and my version sounded close enough, but maybe she's not used to hearing Mandarin spoken with an Australian accent.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    Thinking about it more, I suppose the Vaupes example is really just an extreme (if beautiful) case of a common phenomenon, the Sprachbund, where languages in contact, though not necessarily closely related, end up sharing all sorts of features including phonological and syntactic ones.

    The classic instance in Europe is the Balkans, with Greek, Albanian, Romanian, Macedonian and Bulgarian, but there are plenty of others.

    Whether that sort of influence can lead to a loss of "essential integrity" depends on how you choose to use the terms, I suppose. There's no lack of linguistic chauvinists who would say that large-scale borrowing of vocabulary alone is enough to ruin your language; this goes with the folk notion of a language as being basically just the same as its lexicon. (Same misunderstanding as leads to all those ghastly errors with the uncritical use of translation software that keep coming up on LL …)

  20. Michael C. Dunn said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

    "Nonetheless, hypothetically, can we imagine a situation when a language borrows so heavily from another language that it loses its essential integrity? Has it ever happened in history?"

    Maltese? Which is grammatically a dialect of North African Arabic but so laden with loan words from Greek, Italian, lingua franca etc. and written in Latin script that it is now a separate language?

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 6:26 am

    I'd say Maltese is a counter-example, if anything. Full of Sicilian and Italian loanwords, sure – but with a thorughly Arabic structure, including Arabic broken plurals for loans.

    Moreover, other colloquial Arabic forms have also developed into mutually incomprehensible languages without needing any huge influx of foreign loanwords to do so.

    If the Maltese were Muslims and used Arabic script, and maintained Classical Arabic as their learned language, only linguists would be calling Maltese a "language." It would be generally regarded as a dialect of Arabic, and not the most aberrant one at that.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 6:33 am

    On Maltese as a separate language from Arabic: this shows how important scripts are in determining language identity. Consider also Serbian and Croatian, Hindi and Urdu — both pairs of which are essentially the same language, and there must be many other examples that could be cited.

    Conversely, however, there are numerous distinctly different languages that use the same script: e.g., Roman, Arabic.

  23. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    I suppose nevertheless Maltese is a good touchstone for deciding what one actually *means* by "losing essential integrity." It probably is the case that non-linguists, with little awareness of the fact that vocabulary is not the whole of a language, would indeed suppose that Maltese, English, Urdu, Persian, say, have "lost their integrity."

    Japanese is a rather special case because of the (perfectly sensible) way in which the huge Chinese component is usually regarded as not really foreign (though there have been some eminent dissenters historically.)

  24. Nathan said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 6:51 am

    @Jim Breen and @dainichi:

    I've recently written an article on "frontiers" in Japanese and US history and historiography (now under review), so I'd like to add my two yen to this.

    開拓地 (kaitakuchi) is one word used for frontier. It was quite common in referring, for example, to Manchuria. For example, the 1936 gov't plan for mass emigration to Manchuria is called the 満州開拓移民推進計画 (Manshū kaitaku imin suishin keikaku). But 開拓 is hardly limited to the Asian context: it was (and is) a common term for the American "frontier" as well, as in "American Old West" (西部開拓時代).
    As you have both noted, 開拓地 is limited to the land (地) that is pioneered (開拓), which is why we need a separate term (フロンティア) for non-geographic frontiers. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation could never be the 電子開拓地財団 (Denshi Kaitaku Zaidan); it is the 電子フロンティア財団. Investors don't brave 開拓地市場 (kaitaku shijō), but rather フロンティア市場. However, they do 市場開拓 (shijō kaitaku), which is to say that they pioneer ("develop") new markets.

    More importantly, as demonstrated by this image, there is another, more interesting term for "frontier" in the sense of the "American frontier". The image is the cover of the translated version of Frederick Jackson Turner's (in)famous The Frontier in American History, entitled アメリカ史における辺境 (Amerikashi ni okeru henkyō). 辺境 (henkyō) is glossed as "frontier" (フロンティア), and the Worldcat record, for example, is given as:

    アメリカ史における辺境 / Amerikashi ni okeru furontia

    (Of course, Turner's thesis is known as the フロンティア学説 (furontia gakusetsu, and his 1893 paper has been translated as アメリカ史におけるフロンティアの意義 (Amerikashi ni okeru furontia no igi)

    I'm sure LL has taken up the subject somewhere before, but the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (Ninja-L?) has addressed the proliferation of katakana words that simply replace existing Japanese, adding nothing to the meaning. The Institute's 2003 proposal for "alternative ways of saying" katakana words, however, fails to address the all-important question of why these seemingly identical words are being introduced. In the context of the frontier, it seems to me that the real issue is not whether 開拓地 means frontier ("pioneer land"), but how this differs from both フロンティア and 辺境, and how these meanings have abutted, overlapped, and changed over time.

  25. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    A way in which languages most certainly can lose their essential integrity is in the whole sad area of minority languages under serious threat (not something that is relevant with populations of millions of linguistically self-confident speakers as in Japan.)

    You can eventually end up in a situation where it can be hard to say to what extent the language still exists as a language, as opposed to an in-group jargon within the majority language.

    A less extreme case was dicussed on LL IIRC: the form of Irish which has resulted from the widespread learning of the language as a second language by English speakers in Ireland, which one gathered is perfectly functional as language but is at some considerable remove from "real" Irish transmitted as a mother tongue.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    In these cases of undoubted loss of language integrity, the very thing least vulnerable seems actually to be vocabulary. So Anglo-Romany lives on as a special vocabulary within English after the loss of the Romany grammatical system; in the Vaupes, mingling of vocabulary is taboo but the actual structures of the languages have converged.

    Vocabulary is the part of language that is most obvious to non-linguists, and therefore both the part that people try consciously to maintain and the part that chauvinists imagine as being the big threat.

    The grammatical structures of a language, which are the real soul of the language, are more resistant to outside influence short of situations of outright language endangerment; but being something that untaught native speakers are not consciously aware of for the most part, they are susceptible to considerable change for example when there are many multilingual speakers in the population. But this tends to pass unnoticed by the purists, who focus on the very thing which is least fundamental – vocabulary.

  27. Daniel Schut said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    I love that Vaupes-example of a Sprachbund created by a culture of interlinguistic marriages. Sounds like something Borges could have written.

  28. Vanya said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 8:50 am

    "Nonetheless, hypothetically, can we imagine a situation when a language borrows so heavily from another language that it loses its essential integrity?"

    How do you define integrity? If the current generation can no longer understand the language of their great grand-parents, I suppose you could argue that "essential integrity" has been breached, in the sense that continuity, as perceived by native speakers, has been broken. Norman English might be a good example. Modern Turkish would be another example, although the borrowings in that case were mostly from "native" Turkic dialects (or supposed to be). In that sense Japanese could be closer to losing "integrity" than many other modern languages – aren't late Meiji era texts, particularly in the original orthography, difficult for modern Japanese to read? Whereas English, German or Russian speakers percieve a strong sense of continuity with texts from the same period.

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    The reason premodern Japanese texts are difficult is not really to do with foreign borrowings in 20th Century Japanese; it's that they were generally written in literary Japanese, with thousand-year old classical morphology, and an orthography in both Kanji and kana considerably more complicated (if you can credit it) than that left after the postwar simplifications in Japanese writing.

    A better parallel would be the abandonment of the old archaizing Katharevousa style in Greek in favour of just writing the modern spoken Demotic pretty much as is. Younger Greeks find Katharevousa texts pretty hard; but it's nothing to do with changes in the actual spoken language, much less foreign loanwords.

  30. C said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    This is an excellent topic and discussion! I'm reading everything with a great deal of interest.

    When I was studying Japanese (with a native speaking instructor) — sadly only through the intermediate level — we were non infrequenlty counseled to use certain katakana loan words in place of the Japanese equivalent if we were in Japan (ベースボール instead of やきゅう and ミルク in place of ぎゅうにゅう, were two prime examples). I didn't sense any concern on sensei's part with respect to any of that, and she was not a younger person (if there is some implication that it might an age-related situation).

  31. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    Mind you, I remember reading a newspaper in Athens some forty years ago which was in Katharevousa and largely comprehensible to me on account of the classical Greek I did at school. I was held up for an embarrassing length of time by the word ράδιο. "Easy thing? doesn't make much sense …"

  32. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    I suppose a really sophisticated cultural xenophobe (fortunately a pretty small overlap) would really be worried by calques more than loanwords.

    After all, a loanword wears its foreignness upfront (especially if it's in Japanese and you write it in katakana.) How much more sinister than the obviously American ベースボール is the subversive 野球, pretending to be Japanese and leading our children away from their Kendo practice into regrettable foreign sports!

    (Fortunately the people of Japan have instead adopted the entirely sensible line that baseball is perfectly Japanese, just like kanji.)

  33. Mark F. said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    It would really be helpful to us more ignorant readers if people would take the time to give Romanizations and translations of the Japanese words they're talking about.

    As for the original questions of the post, well, I can't resist saying that Old English did stop being Old English when it borrowed 60% of its vocabulary. But of course Japanese isn't about to do that.

  34. Bill W said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw

    When travelling in Greece I saw this sign posted on the roads, and was able to decipher it, using on my exposure to classical Greek and some familiarity with the phonological transformation that the language has undergone in the past two millenia:


    i takhitita elegkhete me radar — speed checked by radar

    I was particularly pleased to see the Platonic/Socratic word ἐλέγχω (to "check"), in a form that doesn't differ from ancient Greek, paired with modern ΡΑΝΤΑΡ, 'radar,' a word derived ultimately from ancient Greek through English, but which required a radical re-spelling in modern Greek to capture the English pronunciation, which itself reflects the ancient Greek pronunciation.

  35. Tad Dockery said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    @David, your mention of minority languages under threat, with Japan as a focal point, certainly brings to mind the situation of the Ainu and the Ryukuan languages. I'd hazard that the same attitude that frets over lexical purity thinks of Ryukuan as "bad Japanese", and Ainu as a curiosity.

  36. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    modern ΡΑΝΤΑΡ, 'radar,' a word derived ultimately from ancient Greek

    Huh? How does radar, 'RAdio Detecting And Ranging', derive from ancient Greek?

  37. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    @Mark F.

    "…Old English did stop being Old English when it borrowed 60% of its vocabulary. But of course Japanese isn't about to do that."

    I have dictionaries of Japanese gairaigo ("borrowings") that exceed 50,000 items. See the earlier posts on this them where we've pointed out that practically any English word can be katakanaized and borrowed into Japanese.

    "It would really be helpful to us more ignorant readers if people would take the time to give Romanizations and translations of the Japanese words they're talking about."

    I thoroughly applaud your request — also for Chinese and other non-Roman orthographies that are likely only be known by a very tiny fraction of Language Log readers.

  38. ohwilleke said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    Japanese is about 70% loanwords with only about 30% original Yaoyi words. Has it lost its essential integrity? A speaker of the original Yaoyi language might think so, although Chinese would surely be a more serious culprit than English. Ideograms and Chinese number systems, for example, would have been absent in the original dialect.

  39. Akito said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    Chinese hasn't impacted Japanese so strongly as to change its overall structure, but it has introduced some new rules of word formation. For example, many verb phrases were imported with their word order intact, and this reflects in such everyday compounds as dokusho ("reading books"), jōsha ("boarding a vehicle"), and inshu ("drinking liquor"), all with their Verb-Object order in place. This rule of word formation is usually followed when new compounds are coined.

    Another Chinese influece is seen in saying the verbs of reporting before long subordinate clauses. In Kanbun reading, for example, it is standard practice to say Shi iwaku ("Confucius said") first and then follow through with what he said, instead of saying the content first and then finishing off with to shi wa iu. In modern use, you often hear people engaged in discussion, say Watashi omoimasu ni ("I think") + long subordinate clause, instead of the other way around. An informal version might be watashi omoun desu kedo + clause (or more).

  40. Chris C. said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 2:12 pm


    As you have both noted, 開拓地 is limited to the land (地) that is pioneered (開拓), which is why we need a separate term (フロンティア) for non-geographic frontiers.

    That's an interesting assertion. Are you claiming that metaphorical uses of words are impossible to reach in Japanese? I mean, English "frontier" originally meant the front line of an army. As used of ideas or for other non-geographic senses, as in the name of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it's strictly metaphorical. We did not need a new coinage or fresh loanword. (Fresh, because "frontier" is a French loanword to begin with.) Why is it needed for Japanese?

  41. Daniel said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    @Dave Eddyshaw: The reason premodern Japanese texts are difficult is not really to do with foreign borrowings in 20th Century Japanese; it's that they were generally written in literary Japanese.

    Just yesterday, I was visiting a bookshop in Kyoto and came across a textbook on literary Japanese (bungobun 文語文) intended for students of modern Japanese history. (In Japan, "modern," kindai 近代, means roughly 1868-1945.) This surprised me somewhat, since it covers a reasonably straightforward form of literary language that I had assumed Japanese students would become familiar with during their high school years.

    As for loanwords, I imagine that one of the problems to be faced by contemporary Japanese students of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century intellectual history is the number of German loanwords that have subsequently dropped out of the language—perhaps under certain circumstances, the loss of loanwords can be just as much a problem for a language's continuous identity as the introduction of new ones.

  42. hector said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    I think all you linguists are missing the sociological context of the original complaint. The gentleman wanted damages for psychological pain.

    It has often been the case that cosmopolitan elites borrow many words from the internationally influential language of the period, partly to show how sophisticated they are. The effect, whether intentional or not, is to increase social distance from the majority of the population, which, surprise!, takes offence.

    As to the finale of the article, why the man waited so long to sue, well, he's 71 now, old enough not to have to worry about any professional difficulties that might occur from sticking his neck out and making a public fuss.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    It would seem that someone ought to have already done a comparison not of total %age of lexicon of a given language that's loanwords (especially because that can cover obscure/technical jargon) but percentage of core vocabulary (using the Swadesh list or some equivalent) that's not autochthonous. I'm not sure to what extent Japanese is an outlier in that regard, but e.g. I find it pretty striking that when you learn as a kid to count to ten in Japanese you learn the originally-Sinitic ("On") versions of the numbers rather than the "native" ("Kun") versions (possibly with some variation for 4 and 7). I think that's pretty unusual, even though I don't think the numbers from one to ten are part of the usual Swadesh list proper. OTOH, the Swadesh list is for methodological reasons biased toward old-fashioned low-tech referents – modern people in some societies might talk significantly more frequently about baseball than lice, for example — so perhaps there's some other measure of common "core" vocabulary that could be used. You could also try to figure out a measure of how quickly core vocabulary has turned over within the last X generations, to operationalize (and quantify in a way that would make cross-linguistic comparisons possible) the plausible intuition that the old and non-cosmopolitan may have trouble understanding the hip new jargon being spouted on television by the young and cosmopolitan.

  44. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    I've read than Korean (South Korean, anyway) is just as much given as Japanese to the wholesale press-ganging of English words nowadays.

    Doubtless there are LL readers who know …

  45. David Morris said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    In one building in South Korea, I saw an advertisement for (something like) 'Olympic Buffet Restaurant and Reception Centre' all 'English' words written in Korean.

  46. Matt said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:46 pm

    That's an interesting assertion. Are you claiming that metaphorical uses of words are impossible to reach in Japanese?

    Yes, exactly. Nathan's comment is a great contribution (although I do have one quibble with it…), but it's kind of begging the question: "開拓地 can't be used as the Japanese word for '(metaphorical) frontier' instead of フロンティア, because the Japanese word for '(metaphorical) frontier' is フロンティア." There's nothing about 開拓地 that makes it inherently unsuitable for metaphorical usage, although it would obviously be quixotic to try to force everyone to use it that way now that the division of labor between 開拓地 and フロンティア is so well-established.

    (My quibble: the book's title is アメリカ史における辺境, or Amerikashi ni okeru furontia, but definitely not Amerikashi ni okeru henkyō — 辺境 is a gloss on フロンティア, not the other way around. Either way, though, it's very interesting to see 辺境 appear in that context, especially given the recent popularity of Uchida Tatsuru's Nihon henkyō-ron, etc. )

  47. Mark F. said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

    Me: "…Old English did stop being Old English when it borrowed 60% of its vocabulary. But of course Japanese isn't about to do that."

    VM: I have dictionaries of Japanese gairaigo ("borrowings") that exceed 50,000 items. See the earlier posts on this them where we've pointed out that practically any English word can be katakanaized and borrowed into Japanese.

    Well, I still don't think Japanese is about to experience a wave of borrowings from English that can compare in abruptness and size to the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. I would assume that the huge number of borrowings from Chinese (don't think I realized how big it was) had happened over a long time. (Of course the effects of the Norman Conquest took a long time to play out as well, but I still have the impression it was fairly abrupt as language change goes. Maybe I'm wrong about that.)

  48. Vanya said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 4:01 am

    @Daniel the loss of loanwords can be just as much a problem for a language's continuous identity as the introduction of new ones.

    Yes, that somewhat describes the situation of modern Turkish vs. Ottoman Turkish. Radical attempts to "purify" can create as much or more discontinuity as borrowing.

    David Eddyshaw brings up an interesting point – the Korean peninsula is probably the best place to answer Professor Mair's question. The North has been resistant to foreign borrowings and the South uses English vocabulary all the time. I understand that North Koreans require adjustment time and some vocabulary acquisition if they make it to South Korea, but I have never heard that North Koreans feel that South Korean dialects have "lost their integrity", they are still recognizably part of the Korean language.

  49. Bill W said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 6:11 am

    OK I was wrong. Radio is from Latin radius, not Greek ῥᾴδιος.

  50. Rodger C said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 8:06 am

    @Mark F: French borrowings into English peaked not right after 1066 but in the 13th century. The Chinese borrowings into Japanese also occurred in two waves, one of them centuries after the other one, which are, ahem, familiar to anyone who's acquired a cursory knowledge of the history of the language.

  51. Chris C. said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    @Matt — I don't understand your reply. First you agree with Nathan that Japanese words cannot be used metaphorically, then you say there's nothing inherently unsuitable about 開拓地 as metaphor. But what specifically got my attention about Nathan's post was the claim that a loanword was needed because 開拓地 was limited to geographic use.

    Well, so was "frontier" before we began to apply it metaphorically, and even its geographic sense was an extension of its earlier military usage. Yes, it would be artificial to invent a "pure" Japanese term now, but suppose the loanword hadn't been taken up? Nathan seemed to think that one would have been needed anyway. That's what I was questioning.

  52. Mark F. said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    Rodger C: Yeah, I should have said something like "I guess I don't really know the history, although I had heard Japanese had borrowed a lot from Chinese. I always sort of figured that happened over a really long period of time."

    Anyway, this discussion has definitely undermined my intuition that it was unrealistic to imagine Japanese finding itself with, say, 50+ percent of its vocabulary borrowed from English after a century or two.

  53. Akito said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    辺境 henkyō, to my mind, is something like "periphery" or "outlying area", without much action going on there. I don't think it is equivalent to フロンティア furontia ("frontier"), which suggests pioneering and advancement. Maybe technical usage is different.

    開拓地 kaitakuchi and フロンティア furontia mean different things, but maybe they are not mutually exclusive along the geographical-metaphorical axis. I've been teaching at a private university, and in this day and age it is of prime importance to enlarge our "catchment" area. This kind of market development can be referred to as 開拓 kaitaku, and the area so developed 開拓地 kaitakuchi. We are also encouraged to 開拓 kaitaku new fields in research and pedagogy. That's even more metaphorical, though geographical in origin.

  54. Daniel said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

    I would agree with Akito that the difference between kaitakuchi 開拓地 and furontia フロンティア is not simply one of literal vs. metaphorical. Part of the problem is the peculiar way that the English word "frontier" conflates the senses of "area under development" (J. kaitakuchi 開拓地) with "(progressively advancing) border" (J. henkyō 辺境, or perhaps genkai 限界?). This conflation really only makes sense in English due to the ideological associations of the frontier in the destiny-manifesting nineteenth-century United States. Few other cultures have gone through a precisely analogous historical development, so it is perhaps not surprising that they have borrowed "frontier" as a loanword for metaphorical senses connected to this history.

    Some comparisons of language used to describe the Turner thesis, based on a quick survey of Wikipedia and WorldCat :
    – Romance languages all seem to use cognates of "frontier," as we might expect.
    – A German translation of Turner's book published in 1947 (!) was titled Die Grenze: ihre Bedeutung in der amerikanischen Geschichte, but subsequent German historiography seems mostly to talk about "die Frontierthese", "die Frontierdebatte", etc.
    – One Russian translation of Turner's book is titled Frontir v amerikanskoĭ istorii, but the "Frontier Thesis" can be either «Теория границы» or «тезис фронтира».
    – Polish seems to avoid the loanword: one Polish book title refers to teoria pogranicza Fredericka Jacksona Turnera ("the border theory of Frederick Jackson Turner").
    – Arabic also seems to avoid the loanword, since the Arabic Wikipedia refers to the "border thesis" (أطروحة الحدود).

    It would be interesting to learn which other languages have borrowed the word "frontier" in metaphorical senses.

  55. Jake Nelson said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Watch some Japanese TV shows aimed at kids and teenagers sometime. About 1/3 of the words are English, and it increases every year. (I find the use of "pinchi" (As in, 'in a pinch', but often used for a seriously life-threatening situation) especially funny.)

  56. Gpa said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    Google hits are nonsense! Many Japanese borrowed words from Chinese, Korean, then English. So Japanese language, if it were to be more pure, can't even exist at all. [開]拓地, 限界[used as is from Chinese writing via right to left writing], 辺境,危険, 個人 are all from Chinese.

  57. Bob Massingbird said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    I have strange experience with Bahasa Indonesia. As we know it was basically Malay, a standardized Malay, employed by Indonesia as official language . However, since most of its speakers are not native Malay speaker, in practice in every day usage, the language is so bastardized that Peninsular Malays have difficult time grasping the meaning of its sentence after its words is replaced by local languages words, often cognates.

    For example Indonesians will use Javanese word "maling" instead of proper Malay "pencuri" for thieves. This lead me to question: did Indonesian have stopped to became a Malay language? Is it now basically an Austronesian creole?

  58. hanmeng said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

    About twenty years ago a Chinese graduate student studying in the U.S. told me she was thinking of studying another language, but not Japanese, since it was no more than a dialect (方言) of Chinese.

  59. John M. said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

    On the topic of English's huge borrowed vocabulary from French,
    French itself (both in Europe and North America) has of course experienced a wave of English loanwords over the past century, which has infuriated some purists. Ironically, many of these "new" words are in fact ultimately of Old French origin!

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