Pīman and suītsu – loanwords in Japanese

Posted by on March 31, 2010

© Digital Stock/Corbis

Well, even good things have to come to an end …

In our final Japanese English guest post, following on from last week, Yuka Masda discusses false friends in various forms of disguise.

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‘Pīman’ family – non-English loanwords
The first one of the two groups of false friends I mentioned in my ealier post last week may be represented by pīman, which originally comes from French (piment meaning ‘green pepper’). As you will have found in another blog entry, katakana, one of the Japanese orthographies, is supposed to represent, along with onomatopoeia, loanwords of any origin other than Chinese, so its use is not limited to English. This points to an interesting modern Japanese mindset which assumes anything foreign must be American, or at least English-language related. This phenomenon is surprising to observe against the recent noticeable diversification of interests in multi-cultures, spurred by the nationwide fad of ‘internationalisation’, which in Japan is more often used in the sense of multiculturalism. It goes to show that this new diversification of interest is developing along with the globalisation of English observed all over the world in the last few decades, due to the spread of computer technology and other factors.

‘Suītsu’ family – English loanwords
Next, there is a group of false friends which actually were once English, but this group is not as unified as it looks. These words are as cunning as Sherlock Holmes in their disguises, as quite a few of them have sounds resembling those of English. It is not too hard to guess that the word suītsu comes from sweets and largely shares the meaning with the British definition of sweets. However, they are clearly Japanese, for the nouns have no singular-plural distinctions, the adjectives and verbs acquire Japanese word endings as you can see in Jim Ronald’s blog entry. They often have different meanings too. The word jūsu, originally from juice, is used to indicate any canned drinks. We have another Chinese-origin word, kajuu, for juice.

And another …
An example that comes in between these two extremes of suītsu and jūsu would be pasokon. Google images for pasokon and PC and you will notice an almost imperceptible difference. Disregard those entries for pasokon-related products and stick to pasokon itself. An image of a laptop is almost always accompanied by the word nōto-pasokon, with nōto meaning notebook as in the popular anime ‘Death Note’ (which at first I falsely imagined to be a story involving a note left by the deceased). However, any web definition of pasokon would give you PC. From this, we can surmise that the word pasokon has a stronger association with desktop rather than PC in general, and that the actual usage deviates from the conscious definition of the speakers. This is another interesting linguistic phenomenon.

This deviation occurs presumably because the speakers have knowledge of the English word PC, and of the fact that pasokon derives from this word, and this knowledge (described in psychology as semantic memory, a permanent store of representational knowledge including facts, concepts, and words and their meaning*) limits the conscious definition, while the word pasokon, once assimilated into Japanese, has acquired its own life and is working its magic on the speakers in the ever mysterious way of human language. It is another example of humans trying to harness their own brain products as we see in the descriptive versus prescriptive grammar, the Académie Française’s interventions in the use of French, or, on a larger scale, in the effort of controlling weapons of mass destruction. However, such effort of harnessing language ain’t gonna have no complete hold on you and me cus it’s just us usin’ it.

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* Definition taken from the Oxford Handbook of Memory.

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Comments (3)
  • I also assumed that katakana must be a big influence on most Japanese students thinking at least some of arbeit, piman etc were used in English outside Japan, but actually my Koreans use those words just as much in class without having a separate script to represent those words. I know- surprised me too!

    Posted by Alex Case on 7th April, 2010
  • PS- that’s just my impression. It would be fairly easy to design a piece of research to test that, but if I’d been at all interested in research I never would’ve got out of science and into TEFL…

    Posted by Alex Case on 7th April, 2010
  • Thanks for the interesting comments, Alex!

    In my view, katakana only aids our knowledge that it represents a distinct group of words by serving as a tag, but the core of the matter lies in the duality of conscious and effortful v. automatic and effortless processing of language, as we saw in the example of ‘pasokon’. Our mind tells us to categorise ‘pīman’ as English when highlighted, while it automatically processes the word as Japanese on a daily basis.

    As for testing this idea, I’m not sure if it’s that easy without narrowing down the scope of the question, but we can certainly have fun thinking on, so once again, thanks for discussing this with me.

    P.S. I love science.

    Posted by Yuka Masda on 7th April, 2010
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