March is Japanese English month. Our first guest post is just in from:
# Darren Elliott
# Location Nagoya, Japan
# Web www.livesofteachers.com
# Bio An Englishman teaching English in Japanese universities. Learner autonomy, technology, teacher development.
It always strikes me as a little unfair to mark out a language as being ‘difficult’ to learn, but I have to admit that, as much as I love my adopted homeland, I sometimes wish the Japanese would streamline their writing systems. The first one we have to learn is the hiragana. Hiragana is one of two syllabries, meaning that each character represents a distinct sound. This is actually much more logical than the confusing mess that makes up the English spelling system, and had they left it there I would be applauding. However, we have a second syllabry – same sounds, different characters – called katakana, and a set of thousands of ideograms known as kanji. A typical sentence can contain all three, the kanji used for most nouns, and verb and adjective stems, the hiragana conjugating the verbs and filling in the particles, and the katakana used to represent ‘loanwords’ from other languages. It looks a bit like this:
For the non-Japanese speaker in Japan, this can be a boon. The katakana script can be picked up pretty easily, and in the right kind of restaurant the entire menu might be intelligible – I’ll have a hanba-ga-, some furaido potato, a ko-ra and an apuru pai, please!
But, as elsewhere, the popular press enjoy a good language panic. Here in Japan the loanword, or gairaigo, is trotted out on a regular basis as an example of all that is wrong with modern society. The targets of public ire are the usual suspects, too – young people and politicians. Both are accused of using faddy jargon which excludes society at large, sounds horribly clunky and fogs real meaning. It’s hard to argue sometimes, with monstrosities like rodo puraishingu (road pricing) and paburikku inborubument (public involvement) on the lips of the civil servant.
The loanword is not going anywhere, though. Not only can it sprinkle glamour over an otherwise bland sentence, but it can help describe a concept which hasn’t previously existed. The Japanese terebi may be borrowed from the English, but they had to plunder the Greek to form television in the first place. Besides, the kanji are all borrowed from China anyway so I don’t suppose it matters!Email this Post