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strange katakana 1

Why, it was just yesterday that I teamed up with Koichi to kick some Katakana butt on edufire. A rather special class, it was – none of your usual vocabulary fluff. We’re talking real, useful katakana and it’s guaranteed to knock the Christmas socks off any native Japanese speaker when they hear you, or Tofugu isn’t a wonky bean-curd fishman! So, let’s get stuck right in to this 2-part blog post – Gakuranman x Tofugu – Fluency through Katakana Special!

I went for a vintage look with the slides – what do you reckon? Is the ‘Fugu a classic fish yet or still wet around the gills?

katakana.002

So, there are four Japanese alphabets, but you already knew that, right? For those of you just starting out, let me explain:

Romaji – Simply Japanese written with the English alphabet. Steer well clear of this lest you want to end just floundering around in Japan. You’ll need to be able to read the signs, so at a bear minimum you should learn the hiragana and katakana alphabets.

Hiragana – The Sexy Alphabet. For Sexy People. Why? Because it’s curvaceous, dynamic and feminine. Well, not really feminine, but I like to think of it as so ;). So soft and curly.

Katakana – Hard, angular and rough. The natural masculine alphabet, right? You’ll notice that the strokes are generally straighter and the letters more rigid.

Kanji – And kanji, everyone’s favourite, originating from China. Be thankful that it’s Japanese you’re studying – the Chinese need to learn about 10,000 kanji in contrast to Japan’s 3000 basic kanji!

katakana.003

And here is above, just for your reference. The amazing katakana alphabet!

katakana.004

Now we’re getting to the meat of it! There are so many uses for katakana, you can’t even count them on one hand! You probably know that it’s generally used for writing foreign words, but what else? Perhaps you know it’s for emphasising words too? Good! But there are more uses, oh yes! It’s used to write onomatopoeia, those lovely buzz-words that sound just like they’re written, as well as scientific and medical terms that have kanji that are simply to difficult to waste time remembering. You’ll also find that katakana is used to write people’s names, joins two words together and generally compresses everything down into one tiny little word. The most popular type are the 4-syllable words!

The examples on the intro slide are nice and basic:

ズボン – Trousers (or for you Americans who can seem to distinguish between underwear and trousers, I guess you’d call them pants).
ピンポン – Ping-Pong! The sound of a doorbell.
チョウ – Very/Super/Extra – an emphatic word.
ホモ・サピエンス – Homo Sapiens. Us, basically.
ワンピース – A one-piece dress. Two words combined.
パソコン – A PC (personal computer). Two words combined and shortened into a classic 4-syllable marvel.

katakana.005

So what’s first? Foreign Barbarians of course! All of the following words come from various countries. Bonus points and Tofugu-shaped cookies to those readers who can identify which word comes form which country in the comment below!

ピエロ – Clown. Like em or loath em?
アルバイト – Part time work. This word is used a lot in Japan.
クレーム – A claim or complaint about something.
サイン – A sign. No, no. Not that kind of sign… The signature, autograph kind!
ジョッキ – A beer-mug. Perplexing.
チャック – A zip. Ever forget to do yours up?
スナック – A…snack?? Nope, this is a Snack Bar in Japan. Usually a place where men go to drink and chat to the owners and often women who work there.
キャスター – A newscaster. Need good vocals for this job.
コンセント – You’ll never get my consent to marry my daughter! Not quite…this consent is a mains plug that you stick in the wall.
シール – Stickers! I must get some Gakuranman ones made…
ウイルス – A virus. Used a lot in the media recently with all the chatter of flu.
ドライバー – A screwdriver! Who would have thought…

katakana.006

Here’s some more. Just so many to choose from!

トランプ – Cards (Trump cards). Anyone ever played trumps?
バイキング – Oh-ho. Those dastardly Vikings. But no, this means an ‘all-you-can-eat’ restaurant.
マント – A cloak or a cape. Interesting, I could have sworn it was Tofugu’s arch nemesis, Manta-ray!
マンション – An upper-market apartment. Not a mansion.
アンケート – A questionnaire!
ホッチキス – A…hot kiss? Hah, you wouldn’t want to kiss this. It means a stapler.
ノルマ – A quota (business term, I think).
パンク – Not a punk rocker unfortunately, but a puncture.
フロント – The front of a hotel. A.k.a reception desk.
メイク – Koichi’s personal favourite. Makeup.
レンジ – A range of..? Nope, microwave I’m afraid.
レントゲン – An x-ray. Woo.

katakana.007

Okay, so let’s check out some hot little onomatopoeia. Ka-ching!

ペチャクチャ – A rabble of chattering grannies.
ピカピカ – Shiny and sparkly. Most likely where the yellow poke-rat got his name.
パンパン – A bloated full stomach. Go figure.
コグコグ – To drink in gulps and gulps.
ニコニコ – *Grin*
ペラペラ – (Italian Voice) I’m-a so pera-pera. Means fluent!
フワフワ – Floaty-light or airy. Also used to describe sickness when you feel faint or drunk.
プンプン – Ever seen those cute Japanese girls that fail trying to look angry by puffing their cheeks out? Yup, that’s pun-pun. Anger.
ブツブツ – Mumble-mumble-mumble. Sources say Koichi does this a lot.
ドンドン – Rapidly. We’ve gotta get going! Up the pace!
ゲロゲロ – Ribbit-ribbit. I love frogs. Anyone know if there are any frogs that are bioluminescent?
パクパク – Chomp-chomp. Munch-much.

Well, how are you doing back there? There are some pretty tricky words here, but don’t let them faze you if you are having trouble keeping up! When you’re ready for more, head on over to Gakuranman.com for the continuation and find out splendid words like ‘a flash of pants’, ‘handsome middle-aged man’, ‘close physical contact’ and the euphemism for being fired!

But that’s not all! The second part to this Katakana Special can be found here on Gakuranman.com: Unusual Katakana Words

Michael is the author of a fantastic blog called Gakuranman (schoolboy coat man), who writes about Japan, bioluminescence, and how to learn Japanese. Of course, when he isn’t looking at colorful sea creatures, you can even find him on hanging out with neon birds on Twitter. If you missed our fantastic live class, be sure to catch us next time by signing up at eduFire!

  • WOTDsctoo

    I should have taken this class. XDDD Katakan ftw forevverrr. <3

    Haha, my teacher always used to say ドンドン太っちゃった・・・

    Off to read part 2!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    noooo don't leave!

    jk – enjoy Michael's blog!

  • Maciel

    hahaha the ending is funny, its like those ads that say u will find something amazing about yourself, and u fill in a survey and take a quiz or something, and your all psyched about what the computer is gonna tell you, but at the end it says
    “Final step! purchase 2 out of these 50 items and know what ur amazing secret is!”
    and your disappointed

    idk it just reminded me of that….except it didnt get me dissapointed, it got me happy ^_^ a new site to look at um posts to help us out in our japanese =D thank you

  • http://yungibear.deviantart.com Meeeeelly

    the sound katakana are so cute. C: Some of them remind me of the sounds my mom makes with cantonese. like ドンドン

  • Ank

    Most words are English, but I also detect some German, French and Dutch ones.
    But I'm too lazy to list them all xD

    My favourite onomatopeia in katakana is 'to microwave' – チングする
    :3

  • http://twitter.com/_syrup16g 世羅海流

    I don't think チョウ is the best example of a katakana word because it's actually a kanji (超), and as a katakan word it's written as チョー.

    You might want to also talk about the difference between 擬声語 and 擬音語 in another post.. if you think the people here are that into onomatopoeia.

  • http://scalesoflibra.wordpress.com/ scalesoflibra

    I recognized ピエロ and アンケート from French (pierrot and enquête), yay! It's interesting to see what words come from what language. What's really funny (and a bit frustrating) to me is that some Spanish words/names have gone into Japanese through English, so Japanese pronounce them all shades of wrong when, since Spanish and Japanese have almost all the same sounds, they could actually be pronouncing them correctly! Why say メキシコ, which sounds wrong and is long, when メヒコ is the correct pronunciation and easier to say?! *sigh*

  • http://headingforjapan.wordpress.com/ Will

    great, definitely gonna study those, one that wasn't in there is マスコミ、which means mass communication, like the media.

  • Thomas

    Romaji is the “English Alphabet” ? Or do you mean to say “the alphabet used to transcribe the English language” (and dozens of other languages for that matter) ?

    Don't you think it's sometimes annoying to see 英字 instead of ローマ字 ?

  • http://divita.eu/ seifip

    An X-Ray is called “rentgen” in most languages with the notable exception of English. This word refers to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, German physicist who invented X-Rays.

  • David

    アルバイト – German (arbeit)
    ウイルス – German >.> I think (because Germans can't pronounce V)
    I guess most of the others are of English origin

  • GJB995

    saw your flickr.

    It rocked

  • Mike

    Germans can pronounce V's!

  • Kohaku

    トランプ is from portuguese. thanks for the lesson!

  • caughtredhanded

    The trials and tribulations of katakana are certainly getting to me too at the moment (http://bit.ly/KIyCs). Thanks for this post though, only too sorry that I missed the actual lesson..

  • Gutsy Boo

    I love the old style of the slides. It looks so classy. I was reading the katakana and trying to figure out how they got the meaning for that. I guess it makes sense that words came from languages other than English. Is piero French or Italian for clown?

  • http://headingforjapan.wordpress.com/ Will

    バウバウ - bark
    ミャウミャウ – meow
    チュンチュン – cheep cheep
    カーカー – like a crow going “kahh kahh”
    キン.コン.カン.コン – and of course, japanese school bell

    (my source, a real Japanese person ) :D

  • http://michaeldowney.net Michael

    Enjoy part twoooo!

  • http://gakuranman.com Gakuranman

    Hope you enjoy my site! ^_^

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    ドンドン 日本語を習ってくださいね!

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Nice example! I should add it to my list for a future katakana lesson!

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Well observed! Katakana is usually written with elongated vowels using the line. Cho is an example of katakana emphasising, which can use pretty much any word in Japanese at all.

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Thanks for your input! I learn new things every day ^^

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    マスコミ is written in part 2 over on http://gakuranman.com/unusual-katakana-words

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Thanks for the correction! It is probably more correct to say that English is the alphabet used the transcribe the English language ^^;

    These days I appreciate kanji much more and hate romaji like the plague though :p

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Thanks! Interesting point about x-rays, that :)

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    How about Bs? :p

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Cheers!

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Thanks for the comment! Maybe you can make one of our future lessons in late July! :p

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Thanks ^^. I had fun designing the vintage-style presentation. Look out for more vintage fugu and schoolboy coatman in the future!

  • http://gakuranman.com Michael

    Haha, really? I thought cats go ニャンニャン and dogs go ワンワン in Japanese :p (source, mangy cats and wild dogs).

  • http://divita.eu/ seifip

    Same here… as one learns more and starts using Japanese the order of preference generally quickly changes from “romaji > kana > kanji” to kanji > kana > romaji”. IMHO romaji should be avoided at all costs and the first thing a student should learn is hiragana/katakana (http://nihongoup.com/ ^^). As for kana-only text – it's extremely hard to read, especially if it's written without spaces and is more advanced in content.

  • caughtredhanded

    Yea, when are they?

  • http://gakuranman.com/ Michael

    Keep your eyes on Twitter and Edufire between 5th-29th July! :p

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    Wow I love the styling and formatting of that language chart. Do you think we could get larger high res versions of that Chart and a Hiragana one?

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  • http://twitter.com/untmdsprt Jenny

    Most Japanese think all katakana words came from English to begin with. I did a class of “katakana is NOT English” and purposely didn't put any English words on the board. I even threw in “made in Japan” katakana words. Needless to say it was a real eye opener for my students, and for the Japanese teacher I worked with.

    The new one I had to learn was パティシエ(pâtissier). Students get all upset because I have no clue as what it is because they think it's English. >_<

  • Pingback: Unusual Katakana Words – Gakuranman.com()

  • Ellydishes

    This is really fun, although I wish more of the actual origins of the words was explained. It helps me remember 外来語 much easier. Anyway, for those interested here are a couple explanations:

    ズボン – I've been told this is from the French word jupon, bizarrely meaning petticoat
    マント – This is from an English word “mantle,” which refers to a heavy cloak worn a long time ago
    ホッチキス- From the company Hotchkiss, which makes staplers.

  • Ellydishes

    This is really fun, although I wish more of the actual origins of the words was explained. It helps me remember 外来語 much easier. Anyway, for those interested here are a couple explanations:

    ズボン – I've been told this is from the French word jupon, bizarrely meaning petticoat
    マント – This is from an English word “mantle,” which refers to a heavy cloak worn a long time ago
    ホッチキス- From the company Hotchkiss, which makes staplers.

  • http://www.handbags-club.com/ Designerhandbags

    Haha, my teacher always used to say ドンドン太っちゃった・・・

  • http://hi.baidu.com/yishiym123 TwoBlue

    Enjoy part twoooo!

  • http://www.handbags-club.com/ Designerhandbags

    Haha, my teacher always used to say ドンドン太っちゃった・・・

  • http://hi.baidu.com/yishiym123 TwoBlue

    Enjoy part twoooo!

  • nagz

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  • Pingback: Four Japanese Words For Summer (And Gifts From The Venerable Gakuranman)()

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com/ Jonadab the Unsightly One

    Interesting. I wonder how old the word マンション is. Depending on when it came over, the meaning might make more sense than you think. (The English word mansion has shifted meaning significantly over the last several hundred years. It used to refer to any place where somebody lived.)

  • Pingback: Four Japanese Words For Summer (And Gifts From The Venerable Gakuranman) | Tokyo Traveler()

  • Pingback: Japanese Words That Make It Into English Dictionaries()

  • Pingback: Japanese Words That Make It Into English Dictionaries | Tokyo Traveler()

  • http://threadpiece.blogspot.com gec

    More interesting: what languages and words do the words come from (i.e. zubon is obviously not English). Check out the origin of カチューシャ (alice band) for kicks.

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  • http://www.acasa.ws/ dating parents

    I am interested in it for a long time! I was reading the katakana and trying to figure out how they got the meaning for that. I guess it makes sense that words came from languages other than English. Is piero French or Italian for clown?

  • http://forum.mapmonde.org/ world travel forum

    I am interested in it for a long time! English words on the board. I even threw in “made in Japan” katakana words. Needless to say it was a real eye opener for my students, and for the Japanese teacher I worked with.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IUC25BDY77ZOFTQ3Q5VPSHYBDA Rorobeautiful Sunshine

    um wow so im a beginner at this nd im totaly confussed is there a video of this cuz i learn by sight

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IUC25BDY77ZOFTQ3Q5VPSHYBDA Rorobeautiful Sunshine

    um wow so im a beginner at this nd im totaly confussed is there a video of this cuz i learn by sight

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IUC25BDY77ZOFTQ3Q5VPSHYBDA Rorobeautiful Sunshine

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  • Jtiger87

    Just have to correct you here. ローマ字 is the “latin alphabet” .  Or is often called the “Roman alphabet”…  and English happen to be one of the languages who elvolved from it. =) (But I guess you know this by now, since it’s 2 years ago since you wrote this. lol) Never seen it called 英字 though.. 

  • Anonymous

    Strange Katakana Words OH! it’s very hard for me to learn japanese..!!

  • Sergiu

    I was looking for some katakana words and I found you… again… :-))

    Great article, Michael! Thanks! ;-)

  • http://www.jlist.com Peter Payne

    Excellent post, will tweet.

  • http://twitter.com/ironbrooklyn akinyele brandley

    Katakana sucks!!!!!