In some parts of the world, language seems as tightly regulated as medicine — the government decides which words are and aren’t allowed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in Israel there is Academy of the Hebrew Language that regulates Hebrew. It makes sure that new words and concepts stay true to the cultural heritage of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture.
I’ve been reading a book about North Korea recently (Nothing to Envy), and have watched a few of the excellent Vice documentaries, and they all drive home the point that language is tightly controlled there in a very different way. The government punishes those that speak out against the state, and language is peppered with phrases praising the Kim family, the Communist Party, and North Korea itself.
Fortunately, Japanese is far from the censored language of North Korea. There isn’t any central authority that controls Japanese, so it’s changed and evolved very organically.
The only thing that could be considered even government control of language is the lists of common kanji that the government publishes like the jouyou kanji; but those reflect kanji’s actual usage more than the government’s desires to have people use them.
Instead, Japan swallows up foreign words indiscriminately. Obviously, that’s not unique; we forget that a lot of languages borrow heavily and shamelessly from other languages. You can see this both in English’s use of Japanese words that made it into English dictionaries (which Koichi covered a few years ago), to the incredible influence of Chinese on Japanese writing.
But to a lot of people, Japanese seems especially open-minded to outside influences. The number of loan words (外来語 or gairaigo) used in everyday Japanese can be pretty astounding, and takes from a ton of different languages.
For one, you have 和製英語, or “Japanese-made English.” These are words and phrases that don’t see a ton of usage in English-speaking countries, but are used fairly regularly in Japanese. Words like サラリーマン (salaryman), ガード マン (“guard man”), or スキンシップ (“skinship”) all are derived from English words, but wouldn’t strike many native English speakers as very natural-sounding or commonplace.
Japan’s loan words obviously aren’t limited to English; other languages pitch in a bunch too. The words イギリス (England), パン (bread) and even てんぷら (tempura) come from Portuguese words. (Believe it.) German helps out with アルバイト (part time job), which comes from the German word arbeit.
Why does this all happen? Most of it has to do with trade, harkening back to when Japan’s only exposure to the outside world was through a handful of designated trading ports.
I’ve also heard people talk a lot about how Japanese culture is really good at taking something foreign, changing it a bit, and turning it into something very Japanese. After all, if mayo is a normal topping for okonomiyaki, anything’s possible, right?