Katakana, Part 2: Loan words and false friends

Loan words

…are ‘borrowed’ from one language into another, like spaghetti, croissant, sushi, frankfurter, serviette, and lingerie. Have you ever heard the word lingerie spoken by a French person? It sounds pretty different to how we say it in Australian English. Yes, go on and make some jokes about Australian English here. But what happened to Nôtre Dame in US English? Aubergine or courgette in British English(es)? Frankfurter or Hamburger – or risotto, sushi, or karaoke – in any English?

Yeah, but when we use them in English, they’re no longer those other words – they’re English words now. They’re in English dictionaries. They’re English words, right? We don’t really ‘loan’ them – we just take them and make them what we will. Sometimes they can morph into having some meaning that’s pretty far removed from what they are in the original language. Take ‘veggie burger.’ As I learned at uni, burger was actually backformed from Hamburger, meaning something like ’someone/something from Hamburg.’ Presumably, people unaware of this heard or saw the ‘ham’ bit and assumed it referred to the meat in the sandwich (even though it’s not ham), and so the thing itself must be a ‘burger.’ Serviette just means ‘towel’ in French, but the meaning in English has narrowed to be a cloth or piece of paper that we use to keep ourselves tidy when eating. Likewise, chef means ‘chief’ or ‘head,’ but in English we use it to mean a cook, not even necessarily the head cook. We even use it as a verb, which is something English loves to do with nouns.

So, what started out as a foreign word from a foreign thing/concept became part of English and lost its foreignness. Or in some cases, maybe we actually had a more Englishy way to say the thing, but perhaps we just liked the word or some nuance it brought from whatever we associate with its original language? (‘Women’s underwear’ maybe didn’t have quite the same ring to it as lingerie, ‘and so on’ probably didn’t sound as educated as et cetera, eggplant vs. aubergine, and wow if you’re interested in this stuff, wiki the etymology of ‘eggplant’…)

It seems pertinent here to point out Australianisms like ‘cab sav’ (cabernet sauvignon), ‘chardy’ (chardonnay), ‘shampers’ (champagne/sparkling wine) and spag bol, which is spaghetti bolognese (that’s ‘spaghetti with meat sauce’ to Americans I believe?) which was a staple of white Australians of my generation/demographic, who probably also remember this Peter Combe song about it.

So loan words: we take words and make them ours, to the point that whoever used the original likely wouldn’t recognise them.

This brings us to

Katakana カタカナScreen Shot 2015-11-29 at 5.42.12 pm

As mentioned in the previous post, katakana is one of 3 Japanese scripts, and it is reserved for loan words and sound effects/anything where the emphasis is on how something sounds.  Importantly, while it is inconsistent in how it transliterates words, it is official. On my bank card, my name is written in katakana. So while it’s like a pronunciation guide, as in this karaoke screen here, and as in ‘parlay voo fron-say?’ it is seen as having legitimate versions of words from other languages.

I mentioned earlier that in English, we sometimes use ‘chef’ as a verb, meaning ‘to work as a cook.’  Well, in Japanese, most, if not all, katakana words taken from other languages are nouns when used in Japanese. For example, ‘to hug’ is ハグする hagu suru, literally ‘do hug.’ ‘Cut’ the katakana way is カットする katto suru. ‘Shut down’ (a computer) is シャットダウンする shattodaun suru. So the way you use the katakana versions of these words is Japanese – they operate differently in Japanese grammar to how their English counterparts do in English.

Anyone who has learned Japanese will have come across some katakana loan words. I think the first one I learned was コーヒーko-hi- (coffee). Talking about this topic with a friend the other day, my friend mentioned that Japanese seems to have a lot of loan words, imported from English and other languages, maybe more than other languages do. English is seen as super-cool, even though many people think it’s impossibly difficult and hate studying it. Apparently it’s a bit similar in Korea, where a lot of ‘English’ phrases are in use that most native speakers wouldn’t understand.

As you may know, Japanese culture often seems to see nationalities as kind of binary: Japanese and ‘foreign.’ ‘Foreign’ is often equated with the USA, and thus English. So just as there is an assumption that if you’re foreign, you’re probably American, there is an assumption that if a word is written in katakana, it’s English. But sometimes they don’t realise something IS from English: most of my students don’t know that ‘bye-bye’ is English, because they have been saying バイバイbaibai as long as they’ve been able to talk. So it doesn’t matter how many times I say bye-bye to them, they still respond with, ‘shee you!’ or a shocked and giggly (in Japanese) ‘Oh, she spoke Japanese!’

Cases like ‘bye-bye’ are fairly rare. Usually, while loan words are integrated into the language, they are still seen on some level as ‘foreign’ because they’re in this ‘foreign’ script. Hence, conversations like this:

Me: What are you eating?

High school boy: パン (pan)

Me: …Do you mean bread?

Boy (in Japanese): Huh? Pan’s not English?

And this:

Me: I was reading a book about the 1300s. Many people got very sick, and it was easy to catch the sickness from other people, so many people died.

Adult student: Oh! I think I know that sickness.

Me: I think it was spread by rats. Apparently they didn’t find a cure, they just stopped it when they stopped the rats.

Adult student: It’s a ペスト (pesuto, the pest, Japanese for ‘plague’ – taken from Portuguese?)

Me: The rats?

Student: We say ペスト.

Me: Oh, you mean the disease? The plague?

Adult student: Wait. (gets out electronic dictionary)

So here are a few weird katakanaisms that some people think are English. By the way, in this post I’m using hyphens to indicate lengthened vowel sounds.

  1. シャーペン sha-pen ‘mechanical pencil/pacer’
  2. マイカー maika– ‘one’s own car’
  3. マイホーム  maiho-mu  ‘one’s own home/house’
  4. マイペース maipe-su  ‘one’s own pace’ (usually slowly)
  5. ゼリー   zeri–  ‘jelly/jello’
  6. ボールペン  bo-rupen  ‘ballpoint pen’
  7. ホッチキス  hotchikisu  ‘stapler’
  8. チャンス chansu ‘chance/opportunity’ (positive meaning only, so not things like ‘cloudy with a chance of rain’)
  9. スタジオ  sutajio ‘studio’
  10. マロン  maron ‘chestnut’ – presumably taken from French
  11. バイキング baikingu ‘all-you-can-eat/buffet’ – something to do with a smorgasbord?

Katakana can be unpredictable and inconsistent. Japanese often has sounds that are much closer to those of the original word, like in the case of スタジオ  sutajio ‘studio’ but someone who thought they had a working knowledge of how letters worked in English presumably saw ‘studio’ written somewhere, without hearing it spoken, and went, ‘Right! This is how we would make those sounds in Japanese…’ So sometimes the katakana is clearly been taken from hearing a word said, and other times whoever decided to coin it didn’t hear the word said, unfortunately.

False friends

When I was in France on exchange, I realised after several weeks that another Australian kid on the same program was under the impression that the word for ‘bin’ (as in rubbish bin, trash can, dust box, whatevs) was boîte (box), even though at school we had learned poubelle.

How had this come about? Well, he had seen a bread bin in someone’s kitchen, i.e. a box where bread is kept. He had asked what the word was, and been told boîte, i.e. box. Incidentally, we had also learned this word at school, but that escaped the notice of this guy. So, not realising ‘bin’ might have a different usage in another language, he just assumed that a bin is a bin whether you’re speaking English or French.. a bargain bin, a loony bin, a bread bin. In fact, this broad usage of ‘bin’ doesn’t even work across all varieties of English. Speaking of which, dear British, American, and other English-speaking friends, when Australians say ‘thongs’ they are talking about ‘flip-flops,’ as in footwear.

This phenomenon of false friends, of thinking you know a word is pretty common. As well as seeing words and thinking we know what they mean, people speaking second languages who have some knowledge of the sounds and structure of the language can often insert some likely-seeming made-up or guessed word when they don’t know the word for what they want to say. French and Spanish speakers speaking English might say assistance when they mean attendance, or call someone sensible when they mean sensitive. Embarrassingly (careful using that word in Spanish, you might call yourself pregnant by accident), native English speakers have declared themselves sexually aroused when just trying to express that they were excited about something.

 So here is a little collection of ones to watch out for in Japan or when conversing with a Japanese person.

  1. ショーツ sho-tsu ‘girls’ underpants’
  2. パンツ pantsu ‘underpants’ (any – yeah, if you’re British it’s fine)
  3. ショートパンツ sho-topantsu ‘shorts’
  4. ショートケーキ sho-toke-ki ‘a piece of cake’ (cut from a whole round cake.) Confusingly, when Japanese people think of cake, they seem to think of a sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries in the middle and on top, which is sort of a strawberry shortcake, but only the sponge kind.
  5. マンション manshon ‘an apartment’
  6. バックbakku ‘to reverse a car, to move backwards’
  7. リバース riba-su ‘to vomit, to throw up’
  8. ウェスト wesuto ‘waist’
  9. グリーンピース guri-npi-su ‘peas’
  10. スマート suma-to ‘slim, slender’
  11. ストーブ suto-bu ‘a gas or kerosene heater’
  12. コック kokku ‘a cook’
  13. ルーズ lu-zu ‘loose’ (as in, the opposite of tight)
  14. ホーム ho-mu ‘platform’ (at a train station)

Thanks for reading! This was going to be my last on this subject, but Part 3 will conclude this katakana series, looking more at how it relates to English in Japan.


3 thoughts on “Katakana, Part 2: Loan words and false friends

  1. Hi Cathy.

    Very interesting and informative, as ever. Thanks. I think you may have written some hiragana for suru, instead of katakana in the second paragraph of the ‘Katakana’ section: “ハグする hagu suru”. I might as well give you grief now, if I can, because I am expecting to get mocked badly for any vocal or written efforts in a few weeks. Love, Dad

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well spotted, Dad! そうですね!I didn’t even think to mention that, but it wasn’t a mistake. する is pretty much always in hiragana. It’s the ‘Japanese’ bit. The only time I can think someone would put する in katakana is if it was a TV subtitle or in a manga (comic) where someone was shouting or somehow speaking very emphatically.


  2. Pingback: Katakana, Part 3: The good, the bad, and the … come on, we can do better than this. | bijinjapan

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