Japanese Loanwords (gairaigo): 5 things to remember

japaneseloanwordsgairaigo

 

Foreign words imported into Japanese (known as 外来語 gairaigo) is an increasingly large part of the Japanese language. Japanese loanwords are easy to spot, as they are written in katakana rather than hiragana or kanji.

The use of loanwords is often touted as a way for learners of Japanese to quickly increase their vocabulary. This is somewhat true and fortunately for beginners, common Japanese words are indeed borrowed from English.

 

Computer コンピュータ (Romaji: konpyuutaa)

Piano ピアノ (Romaji: piano)

Hamburger ハンバーガー (Romaji: hanbaagaa)

 

However, loanwords in katakana are not always what they seem and therefore can cause issues for some learners for a few reasons:

  1. Pronunciation differences
  2. Loanwords are not always from English
  3. Loanwords from English can be false friends
  4. Pseudo-Anglicisms
  5. Abbreviations

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

 

(1) Pronunciation differences

Japanese is a phonetic language, unlike English. This point can cause confusion for Japanese beginners, as items are written in Japanese based on their pronunciation, not their spelling.

For example, the country Cuba is キューバ not クバ.

 

(2) Loanwords are not always from English

English native speakers tend to think of Japanese loanwords as being from English, but this is often not the case.

Portuguese loanwords

パン (pan) bread

イギリス (igirisu) the UK

キリスト(kirisuto) Christ

コップ (koppu) cup

 

Dutch loanwords

コーヒー (koohii) coffee

ランドセル (randoseru) backpack used by Japanese schoolchildren

ゴム (gomu) gum; rubber

コッコ (kokku) cook

 

French loanwords

アンケート (ankeeto) survey, questionnaire

コンクール (konkuuru) competition

ズボン (zubon) trousers

エステ (esute) beauty salon

 

German loanwords

アルバイト (arubaito) part-time job

エネルギー (enerugii) energy

テーマ (teema) theme

カルテ (karute) a patient’s medical records

 

(3) Loanwords from English are often false friends

English loanwords do not always retain their meaning when used in Japanese. Some words take on additional meanings in Japanese, and others have completely different meanings to their English counterparts.

These so-called ‘false friends’ are fairly common, so make sure you check with a friend or refer to a dictionary when you come across new words.

 

Examples of Japanese-English false friends

ペンション (penshon)

The word pension refers to the payments one is entitled to after they retire, but in Japan a pension refers to a type of lodging or inn

 

ホーム (hoomu)

This is a shortened version of プラットフォーム means railway platform

 

カンニング (kanningu)

カンニング in Japanese refers to ‘cheating’ (ie. on a test) and is often used with the verb します.

 

(4) Pseudo Anglicisms/ Wasei-Eigo

Pseudo Anglicisms are words borrowed from English in other languages but do not actually exist in English in the way an English speaker would recognise or use. Japanese has a lot of these, known in Japanese as 和製英語 wasei eigo.

 

サラリーマン (sarariiman)

Literally ‘salary man’, this refers to a male office worker

 

ベビーカー (bebiikaa)

pram, stroller, pushchair

 

チャームポイント (chaamupointo)

‘Charm point’ is used by people when describing an attractive feature about themselves or others.

 

(5) Abbreviations

Abbreviations are pretty common in Japanese. For example, けいたいでんわ (keitai denwa 携帯電話) is the correct word for mobile phone, but it is usually shortened to just けいたい (keitai 携帯).

When some words are imported into Japanese they become quite long and so it makes sense to abbreviate them. Loanwords are often shortened to four syllables, which makes it easier to remember but on the other hand, makes it more difficult to work out what the original word or phrase was.

Japanese

English

Original Japanese word

パソコンPC, personal computerパーソナルコンピューター
コンビニConvenience storeコンビニエンスストア
デパートDepartment storeデパートメントストア

 

So what is the best way to tackle Japanese loanwords?

This post isn’t intended to scare you from learning any loanwords, as they are incredibly useful.

It is best to treat loanwords as Japanese words, even if they sound similar to English. ‘Relearning’ words that are already familiar to you might sound counterintuitive but could save you from embarrassment later on.

Asking a Japanese friend or tutor is a good way to confirm the correct meaning of any word. Failing that, searching Google images (not Google Translate!) comes in really handy for checking whether that new katakana word means what you think it means.

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