Borrowed Sounds Pt. 2: Katakana Cognates

Katakana McD'sThe modern Japanese lexicon has experienced two periods of rapid expansion. The first came in 1868, following the fall of the Shogunate and the opening of international trade. As I described in my last post on borrowed language, these new words were constructed mainly using Japanese characters and their associated Chinese sounds. The second period of began in 1945. American soldiers and civilians poured into the defeated nation, bringing their clothes, food, slang, and popular culture, along with an aggressive program of political reform. All these new arrivals found expression in the Japanese language, usually by direct borrowing of English words.

The adoption of new vocabulary at this time was so rapid that publishers began putting out catalogs of new words, including everything from adopted theoretical concepts, to idioms and popular phrases. A 1948 release got readers caught up on the meaning of jitterbug and pinup, alongside terms like alibi, casting vote, ecstasy, scandal, up-to-date, Achilles’ heel, Amen, baloney, corny, and phony. Often these borrowed sounds were worked into entirely new terms such as money-moon, a post-wedding trip for people who married purely for financial reasons. “Bestseller” was adapted into sexseller, a popular work of soft-porn.

Since World War II, foreign words have continued to enter Japanese. Like the borrowed Chinese characters and sounds, these words were put through an adaptive process to make them fit in the phonetics of the Japanese language. The results are often unrecognizable and always amusing. To Japanesify a word, it must conform to a few rules. Words are usually made of alternating consonants and vowels, ending with a vowel. There is only one sound for L and R, which is somewhere in between the two, and there is no V sound. English words don’t always adapt easily. V’s become B’s and unstressed R’s are often dropped, so the local civic center is called the “sibiku senta.” Extra vowels are inserted to break up clusters of consonants, turning McDonald’s into “Makudonarudo.”

With so many borrowed words floating around, reading directions, menus, ATM’s, and product labels should be a breeze, but if you have ever tried, you know that the Roman alphabet is not so common here. Japanese has a special alphabet called katakana that is used exclusively for foreign words. There are about fifty symbols, each one representing a paired consonant and vowel like Ki, Ta, So, and Pe. Katakana are based on shorthand kanji, but they stand out the page with their simple and blocky shapes.

Learning to read katakana is very practical, because aside from the occasional French or German word, everything they spell out is from English. Just consider this menu from McDonald’s, virtually every word is borrowed and written in katakana:

Katakana MenuThe top says: Makudoranudo Meniyu. Item #1 is a Biggumakku. You can opt for the setto or the bariyusetto (value set), which includes poteto (French fries) or sarada (salad). Number 2 is the Kuota Paunda Chizu, then the Jushi Chikin Fire (fillet), Daburu Kuota Paunda, and so on. Down at the bottom is desato, where you can get your hotto appuru pai, sofuto tuisuto, and makkusheiku.

Learning to decipher and speak Japanese English is a valuable skill. If you walk up to the counter and order (in casual American accent) “a burger n’ fries”, the attendant will probably tilt her head to the side in a typical gesture of confusion. Ask for a hanbaga bariyu setto and you just might get what you are looking for. Katakana English, although based entirely on borrowed sounds, is very much its own language.

History of katakana words from John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II


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