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Paniku, guroi, asutoramu – English transformed

© Image SourceOur next guest post, written by Jim Ronald, Professor of English Linguistics and Deputy Director of the International Affairs Center at Hiroshima Shudo University, discusses the transformation English words go through when adopted into Japanese.


Words from English always change in some ways when they become part of Japanese: in the way that they are written, for example, and also the way that they are pronounced. This is partly because there are more vowel sounds in English than Japanese, with the result that some pairs of words which sound quite different in English, first and fast, and bus and bath, for example, end up in Japanese with the same pronunciation. Another reason is that in Japanese most consonants are followed by vowel sounds, so the 3-syllable credit card is rendered in Japanese as a 6-syllable kureditto ka-do.

As they become part of Japanese, another way that English words change, often beyond recognition, is in their hybridization: as part of English-Japanese compound words, as words with Japanese verb, adjective or adverb endings, through abbreviation, or as a result of all of these together. An example given in a previous post is karaoke.

I have a group of students who have made a dictionary of words which they use, words which aren’t typically found in dictionaries. Here are some of the words which are formed, in part, from English. One Japanese-English abbreviated compound is the word sha-me, composed of a Chinese character and  the “non-Japanese-indicating” script katakana. As the students explain, sha-me is a mobile phone email with an attached photo. It is short for shashin tsuki mēru. There is also a verb form, shameru. It’s interesting to note that by the time it’s become a verb, the katakana has gone, leaving only the Chinese character together with the hiragana script used for Japanese words and endings.

Another Japanese verb derived from English is dekoru – from decorate, and meaning to decorate something such as a mobile phone, camera, or pencil case, with shiny stickers. From this we also get deko-me, which we might be able to work out as being short for “decoration e-mail, made with various added decorations such as emoticons, patterned backgrounds, or color fonts.” Similar English based verbs are panikuru and memoru, meaning, not surprisingly, to panic and to make a note of something.

More opaque is the adjective guroi, from grotesque and meaning more or less the same, while the noun jibetarian is a play on the word vegetarian, and refers to young people who sit on the floor, for example in a train.

Finally, since we’re on the topic of trains, the newish light railway in Hiroshima City is called the Astram, or Asutoramu, made from the Japanese asu meaning tomorrow, together with the English word tram. This is often abbreviated to atomu or atom, by young people who are usually quite unaware of the irony of calling a train that runs through Hiroshima Atom!

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Jim Ronald


  • Re: your analysis of the Japanese pronunciation of “credit card”, I beg to differ. You wrote:

    > so the 3-syllable credit card is rendered in Japanese as a 6-syllable kureditto ka-do.

    There are actually 8 mora (the western concept of a syllable is different from the close but different equivalent in Japanese).


    While mora include all the Japanese sound combinations which look like western syllables, they also include the classification of “double consonants” and “long vowels” as 2 mora. The Japanese post-vowel /N/ semi-vowel sound (as in “shiMbuN”) is also a mora.

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