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Gairaigo: help or hindrance?

© ImageStockMarch is Japanese English month. Our first guest post is just in from:

# Darren Elliott
# Location Nagoya, Japan
# Web
# 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:

coffee in Japanese

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!

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Darren Elliott


  • Your post takes me back a few years when I decided to learn Japanese. Having ‘mastered’ hiragana and katakana I moved on to kanji with great enthusiasm only to realise it was going to take me quite a great deal more time than the first two sets of characters. I stopped after the first dozen of simple kanji and decided I’d continue after I’ve retired. A couple of years later I was very surprised to find that I still could understand quite a bit of spoken Japanese. Interestingly, my Japanese teacher also said that Hungarian (my mother tongue) was much closer to Japanese in terms of grammar than English. I also found that in terms of phonology Hungarian and Japanese were quite similar to each other.

    With regards gairaigo my personal experience is that the bigger the difference between the borrowing and lending languages, the more ‘awkward’ the loanwords become. English terms in Hungarian sound so much more ‘alien’ than in Dutch for example. Hungarian fájl, a transliteration of English file, still sounds foreign to my ears (it’s been around ever since Windows was translated into Hungarian) but the Dutch borrowings metroseksueel and blogosfeer don’t.

  • The difficulty for Japanese learners of English is the katakana ‘false friend’. Many loanwords are not English, so we get アルバイト (arubaito) which comes from the German word for ‘work’, and means ‘part-time job’. There are also words which are based in English, but mean something very different… or nothing at all. Examples of this type are ペーパドライバー (pe-pa doraiba, paper driver), indicating someone who has a license but doesn’t drive, and ガッツポーズ (gattsu po-zu, guts pose) which is a kind of victorious fist pump.

    Fun though, and often very inventive.

  • An interesting post. I am actually quite grateful to gairaigo for alleviating the need to learn and memorize even more kanji compounds, a process which would surely become neccesary in the light of all the new vocabulary coming into daily use, if the neologisms could not be expressed via katakana, no matter how twisted. As most of you know, kanji are used exclusively in Chinese, and the cognitive energy required to remember all the new entries into the language can be mich more effectively applied towards other, more meaningful pursuits.

  • Wow!That was very interesting! I gave it to read to my neighbour-heis the teacher of Japanese and he asked me to give him all new materials from your blog.

  • Gairaigo is indeed, as many have discovered, often creative and inventive. A prime, fairly recent, example, is “chakumero”, which combines “chaku”, the Japanese term meaning “arrival” (but used only in combination with other Chinese character-derived terms) and the first two syllables of “melody”, with the flapped /r/ replacing the original /l/.
    Hence “arrival melody” or ring tone! However, gairaigo often created problems for Japanese learners of English because such terms as “guts pose” (see Darren’s comment of March 3rd) and the notorious “mansion” for condominium or apartment block are usually designated as “Japanese English”. This is totally misleading. Unlike some Indian and Philippine English terms that I’ve heard, gairaigo is used as part of Japanese, not English, discourse. In other words, it is Japanese and should be recognized as such. By acknowledging, silently or otherwise, the existence of “Japanese English”, with the implication that it is related to and therefore usable in English, Japanese speakers of English are unaware of the problems the use of such terms creates in English discourse. These range from shopping for a “waishatsu” (white shirt = dress shirt) in a New York department store and meeting understandably blank faces to misunderstanding at the garage stemming from the use of “handeru” (handle) for steering wheel.
    Since gairaigo is nearly always written in katakana (although katakana is not used exclusively for gairaigo), I suggest that teachers of English can do their students a great service by raising their awareness of the pitfalls presented by gairaigo. Second, I suggest that “Japanese English” be replaced by “gairainihongo” to emphasize that these terms are mostly understandable only in a Japanese context or cotext as well as to cover terms coming from other languages (see Darren’s comment of March 3rd). Interesting point: the term “arubaito” for part-time job is often replaced with “paato” (part), so-called Japanese English, but in this sense of course 100% Japanese or “gairainihongo”.

  • One I just learnt from NHK (surprisingly up with new language for a stuffy government-owned broadcaster) is arafo (short for around forty). As I tell my students, it’s incredibly creative and I wish we did have that expression in English, but with this one (it’s not always the case) no one outside Japan will understand you if you say it. Tackling this point can make students incredibly self-conscious about making mistakes and doubt that any words in Japanese can also be used in English (the vast majority have the same meaning- if sometimes more restricted and with changed pron), so my attitude is similar to Jan’s and I tell them it is correct- just correct Japanese rather than correct English. I don’t think using the expression “Japanese English” has an effect, though, because the vast majority of Japanese have never heard this expression, and sometimes not even wasei eigo, the closest Japanese expression (just used for Japanese expressions made from English words, like Walkman).

    Arubaito is not exactly the same as paato, being the same kind of contract but used for different kinds of people.

  • Japanese-English is a hindrance. 99% of English speakers, native and second-language speakers, will not be able to understand it.

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