From sumo to sudoku

Posted by on March 26, 2010

© Digital VisionJapanese English month continues with our next guest post from Yuka Masda, from Hiroshima Shudo University. The post follows on from earlier discussions of how Japanese absorbs English words and the state of ‘Japanese English’ today.

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Throughout history, English has absorbed an immense amount of vocabulary, mostly from Latin (mile, pound, butter, port) and French (question, age, library), but also from Old Norse (birth, egg, call), Celtic (London, hooligan) and other languages including Japanese (anime, shiitake mushroom, satsuma, sudoku) nowadays. Meanwhile, here in Japan we have internalised by far the biggest chunk from Chinese languages, and some more from Portuguese (kappa – mackintosh), Dutch (gomu – rubber), Sanskrit (dan’na – master), and others, now with a major shift towards English (suītsu – sweets, jūsu – juice, pasokon – PC), so much so that it looks as if it might finally overturn the steadfast authority the Chinese languages have held over Japanese for centuries.

More than a decade ago in the UK, people would often confess to me how embarrassing it was to be able to speak only English. I understood it to be a roundabout way of showing pride in their own language, which, after all, was and still is the lingua franca of the world. It was a comforting remark for me to hear as someone belonging to another monolingual culture – a minority of the world, so it was slightly disappointing to observe how confused my fellow ‘mono-linguist’ looked on hearing that the situation was the same in Japan. In those days Japan was still a blank spot in British people’s knowledge map of Asia, understandably so considering the historical background. This has significantly changed over the years, especially after the 1991 launch of the Sumo competition at the Royal Albert Hall. The word Sumo, or now sumo in the lower case, has embedded itself firmly in the English lexicon. The word was not listed in the 1984 edition of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary with 49,000 entries, but it is in the 1992 edition. The situation is approximately the same with the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, with the word’s first appearance in 1995. The word sumo was also included in the Macmillan English Dictionary when it was first published in 2002.

So, Japan is one of the most monolingual countries. As another poster on this blog recently argued, there is no established form of Japanese English, and this is because there is no pressing need to speak English. This may be one of the reasons why a lot of ‘English’ words you encounter in Japan are thinly disguised Japanese as I will explain in my next blog, but interestingly, Japanese speakers are not aware of this fact. As I was writing this, a new entry on Japanese English was posted to share a comical experience in which the poster discovered the word pīman wasn’t an English word as he thought it was. We believe they are English, just as firmly as English speakers would believe that words like egg, library and butter are genuine English words, which, by now, they are. This is one of the interesting language phenomena I notice daily, in this case in Japanese speakers, my students amongst others. However, these false friends come in several different forms, and the problem gets even more confusing thanks to the complicated Japanese writing system. In my next blog, I will talk about two groups of false friends: (1) words belonging to – what I refer to as – the pīman family and (2) words belonging to the suītsu family.

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Comments (4)
  • Do you know the meaning of the word “sumo” – not the definition of it as wrestling, but the meaning of the word itself.

    thank you

    Paul

    Posted by Paul Hogan on 5th May, 2010
  • Wikdictionary says the following: From Japanese 相撲 (sumō) to mutually rush at

    Posted by Kati Sule on 5th May, 2010
  • Thanks for the question, Paul.

    According to an edition of Kojien, the word originates from a verb ‘sumahu’ or ‘sumau’, an old word meaning ‘to fight’, hence, it means fighting according to the rules of sumo. Additionally, it can mean the fighters themselves (‘sumo-tori’, or ‘rikishi’). I will continue below.

    Posted by Yuka Masda on 6th May, 2010
  • I presume your question is about the real life usage of this word in Japanese. In my understanding, the word’s dominant meaning in real life is the same as the dictionary definition; it denotes the ‘sport’ of sumo. I hope that answers your question.

    Yuka

    Posted by Yuka Masda on 6th May, 2010
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