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:
- Pronunciation differences
- Loanwords are not always from English
- Loanwords from English can be false friends
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.
パン (pan) bread
イギリス (igirisu) the UK
コップ (koppu) cup
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
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
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
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
This is a shortened version of プラットフォーム means railway platform
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.
Literally ‘salary man’, this refers to a male office worker
pram, stroller, pushchair
‘Charm point’ is used by people when describing an attractive feature about themselves or others.
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.
Original Japanese word
|パソコン||PC, personal computer||パーソナルコンピューター|
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.