English loanwords in Japanese are often a source of amusement for native speakers of English learning Japanese as a second language. There’s so many of them, it seems like if you don’t know a word in Japanese, you can just guess by taking the word in English, pronouncing it with Japanese sounds, and half of the time you’ll be right! How convenient! It’s true that there are a lot of English loanwords in Japanese, but the language has also absorbed vocabulary from plenty of other languages before English became all that and a bag of chips.
Just like most other languages (except maybe Klingon), Japanese is constantly in flux, slowly becoming a bigger and bigger amalgamation of several outside languages over time. Think Katamari Damacy: bits and pieces from other languages stick to the base language forming a giant mass of mis-matched BLAH (and yet, humans manage to communicate with each other).
la laaaaa la la la la la la la la Katamari Damacy
But patterns of borrowing are not random. A language’s vocabulary is the reflection of the culture and history of its speakers, and Japanese is no exception. The distribution of foreign vocabulary is often concentrated in different fields, pointing to the significance of the relationship between the two nations (just as the borrowing of チーズバーガー shows the cultural significance of cheeseburgers in the relationship between the US and Japan). We can also observe changes in borrowing that have occurred through history.
Languages in Japanese
The Japanese language has come from many different sources in the past, and we can categorize Japanese words into three groups according to their origin: wago 和語, kango 漢語, and gairaigo 外来語. Wago are native Japanese words, while kango refers to Chinese loanwords and gairaigo to words borrowed from foreign countries other than China.
As stated above, the distribution of foreign vocabulary is often concentrated in different fields of interest. Looking at the relationships between Japan other countries through history can help us understand said focuses. But first, let’s take a closer look at the Japanese language before it became inundated with foreign vocabulary.
Japanese: weather, fish, feelings, rice (lacking: body parts, domesticated animals, actions)
The term wago 和語, or Yamato-kotoba, refers to native Japanese words passed on from Old Japanese. Although wago did not come from abroad, it too reflects the cultural interests of its speakers, the Japanese.
Traditional Japanese society focused a lot of energy on farming and fishing, and the native vocabulary shows evidence of this fact. Have you ever wondered why there are so many words for weather in Japanese when all are you want to say is “there is water falling from the sky”? The native vocabulary is teeming with words related to weather, especially rain and water (this comes in handy in the Northwest), because it was important for rice farmers to know this stuff if they wanted to have successful crops and eat buckets of rice! There are also many expressions related to nature, crops, fish, rice, bodies of water, and senses/feelings. Take a look:
Wago Words for Rice
|rice plant||稲 いね ine|
|raw rice||米 こめ kome|
|cooked rice; meal||ご飯 ごはん gohan|
|cooked rice; meal||飯 めし meshi|
Wago Words for Rain
|spring rain||春雨 はるさめ harusame|
|autumn rain||秋雨 あきさめ akisame|
|May Rain||五月雨 さみだれ samidare|
|rain during the rainy season||梅雨 つゆ tsuyu|
|evening rain||夕立 ゆうだいち yuudachi|
|light rian||霧雨 きりさめ kirisame|
|passing shower; streaks of pouring rain||雨脚 あまあし amaashi|
|taking shelter from rain||雨宿り あまやどり amayadori|
|rain cloud||雨雲 あまぐも amagumo|
Wago Words for Yellowtail (Fish)
|yellowtail less than 6-9 cm||あぶこ abuko|
|yellowtail less than 6-9 cm||つばす tsubasu|
|yellowtail less than 6-9 cm||わかなご wakanago|
|yellowtail around 15 cm||やす yasu|
|yellowtail around 15 cm||わかし wakashi|
|yellowtail around 36-60 cm||わらさ warasa|
|yellowtail around 36-60 cm||いなだ inada|
|yellowtail around 36-60 cm||せぐろ seguro|
|yellowtail around 45-90 cm||はまち hamachi|
|yellowtail over 1 m||鰤 ぶり buri|
|yellowtail caught during the cold season||寒鰤 かんぶり kanburi|
|large, purplish yellowtail||環八 かんぱちkanpachi|
And this is just the start… There are many, many, MANY more words in Old Japanese related to these topics; I haven’t even scratched the surface here. This just emphasizes how important agriculture was in traditional Japanese society. If you want to know more about Yamato-kotoba, I recommend reading Koichi’s article on the topic. Or, if you just really love rain, this article on Japanese rain words is really fun.
Although Japanese is overflowing with words on these topics, the language also had some pretty major holes in it before all of this globalization mishy-mashy cultural mixing started happening. This included body parts (ashi means foot and leg?), names for domesticated animals, and action words. But sooner or later, (dun dun DUN!) the foreigners arrived, and those gaps were slowly filled.
Chinese: abstract concepts and academia
“And then I said to that turtle, I’ll defeat you next time!”
Chinese has been such a huge influence on the Japanese language in past that it deserves its own classification. It’s believed that Japan was first introduced to Chinese words around the first century A.D. when Korean scholars brought Chinese books to Japan. That’s a long time ago! At first, Chinese was used mainly as a means of documentation and for academic writing, but eventually it became part of everyday Japanese lingo.
Kango makes up as much as 60% of the Japanese language. Because the source of some words isn’t so clear, even words that didn’t originate in China but are written with Chinese characters or use the Chinese reading are referred to as kango. In many ways, kango can be seen as a parallel to Latinate words in English. To this day, kango is mainly used for academic words and abstract concepts. So, these are the words you’ll be seeing a lot of in textbooks and scientific readings, and of course they are mostly written in kanji (Chinese characters)! Everyone’s favorite! Though, of course, there are many casually used kango as well. The differences between kango and and wago can be seen when compared side-by-side:
|English||Wago 和語||Kango 漢語|
|yesterday||昨日 きのう kinou||昨日 さくじつ sakujitsu|
|language||言葉 ことば kotoba||言語 げんご gengo|
|play (fun)||遊び あそび asobi||遊戯 ゆうぎ yuugi|
Kango are a lot more literary and academic, so you won’t be learning a whole lot of them in your Japanese 101 class or using them in conversation (unless you really want to sound sophisticated, or perhaps just snobbish?). However, this is a really interesting point that I feel many classes fail to point out. The status of wago and kango in Japanese is very similar to Latin and German in English. Check it out:
These days, words borrowed from Chinese (and Korean) mainly fall under the categories of culturally specific items such as food. The majority of loanwords, however, come from English. What a change!
Loan words coming from countries other than China are classified as gairaigo. More often than not, these words are written in katakana. These days, gairaigo are seen as stylish and cool, so you’re more likely to see them in something like Seventeen Magazine, rather than Popular Science.
Although foreign vocabulary is now dominated by English, there were times when this was not the case. Other countries, namely France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, and Spain, have claimed greater shares than English in the past, but I’ll only cover some of them here.
Note: Translations below are English translations of the Japanese terms, not of the native language in question.
Portuguese: Christianity, “modern” technology, and Portuguese products
Can I get off this boat yet, guys?
In 1542 the Portuguese became the first people to establish direct trade between Japan and Europe. Most Portuguese words entered Japanese through Jesuit priests who introduced the Japanese people to Christianity, Western science, and new products (like konpeito) throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Therefore, most of the Portuguese words in Japanese have to do with the products and customs of the Portuguese people. Here are some words you might already know or might want to remember:
ブランコ / baloiço / swing
イエス / Jesus / Jesus
イギリス / inglês / England
かるた / cartas / cards
コップ / copo / cup
パン / pão / bread
天麩羅 / tempero / tempura
タバコ / tabaco / tabaco
ボタン / botão / button
アルコール / álcool / alcohol
オランダ / Holanda / The Netherlands
Dutch: medicine, sailing, and astronomy (oh my!)
“shmoke and a pancake?”
Although the Dutch were not the first to make contact with Japan, they too had a huge impact on the Japanese language. In 1609, the Dutch East India Trading Company started trading with Japan, remaining the only Western country allowed to do so throughout Japan’s seclusion period (those lucky Dutch!). At one point, 3,000 Dutch words were commonly used in Japan (that’s more words than I know… in English), but that number has dwindled to 160 words used in the present day. Most Dutch loanwords are technical in nature, having to do with medical science and diseases (sharing is caring? I mean, oops.), astronomy, sailing, and beer! Yay, beer.
ビール / bier / beer
ドイツ / Duits / Germany
ドロンケン / dronken / drunk (not really used, but cute)
ゴム / gom / rubber
ハム / ham / ham
ハトロン / patroon / pattern
カミツレ / kamille / camomile
コーヒー / koffie / coffee
メス / mes / scalpel
モルモット / marmot / Guinea pig
お転婆 / ontembaar / tomboy
ペスト / pest black / death
オルゴール / orgel / music box
ピストル / pistool / pistol
ピント / punt / focus point
ピンセット / pincet / tweezers
アロエ / aloë / aloe
French: culture, diplomacy, and art
Yup, the first car in Japan was French.
In the late 1800’s, English replaced Dutch as the language of foreign relations. French was also studied heavily during this time due to its status as an international language in the fields of diplomacy and culture during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period. A lot of French words have to do with art and fashion, as you might expect (ooh la la!):
アベック / avec / romantic couple
アンケート / enquête / questionnaire; survey
アンニュイ / ennui / boredom
バイク / bike / motorcycle
バリカン / Bariquand & Marre / barber’s clippers
デッサン / dessin drawing / rough sketch
エスカレーター / escalator / escalator
コンクール / concours / a contest
コント / conte / a funny story
マロン / marron chestnut / brown eyes
マゾ / masochiste / masochist
ズボン / jupon / pants, trousers
ゼロ / zéro / zero
サボる / sabo(tage) + -ru (Japanese verb ending) / to skip class, to goof off
ルポ / repo(rtage) / reportage
ロマン / roman / novel, romance
レストラン / restaurant / restaurant
ピーマン / pīman / bell pepper
ピエロ / pierrot / clown
ペンション / pension / a resort hotel, cottage
German: medical science and sports
“Don’t look down zere, mister!”
French wasn’t the only language studied in Japan during the Meiji period. After Japan opened its doors to the West in 1868, many Germans moved to Japan in order to work in the new government as foreign advisers. During this time, the Germans contributed many terms to the fields of medical and military science. Japanese also absorbed many sports related words from German, many of them involving mountain climbing.
アイゼン / eisen / crampons, metal pins of climbing shoes
ピッケル / (eis)pickel / ice axe
ザイル / seil / climbing rope
アルバイト / arbeit / part-time job
エネルギッシュ / energisch / energetic
ガーゼ / gaze / gauze
ゲレンデ / gelände / ski slope
ギプス / gips / cast
ヒステリー / hysterie / loss of self control; hysteria
ホルモン / hormon / hormone
カルテ / karte / medical record
オペ / operation / surgical operation
レントゲン / röntgen / X-ray
リュックサック / rucksack / backpack
テーマ / thema / theme
Of course, loanwords have been taken from many other languages, too; these are some of the major ones. Other languages that have contributed substantially to Japanese include Ainu, Russian, Spanish, Korean, and Italian. Below I’ve listed a few more miscellaneous gairaigo, just for the fun of it.
イクラ / ikura / salmon roe (Russian)
ノルマ / norma / quota (Russian)
ラッコ / rakko / sea otter (Ainu)
トナカイ / tunakkay / reindeer (Ainu)
パンツ / pants / underwear (British English)
ロマンスグレー / romance grey / silver-grey hair (British English)
ウィンカー / winker / turning signal (British English)
アメリカンドッグ / American dog / corn dog (British English)
ライフライン / lifeline / infrastructure (British English)
パパ / papa / dad (Italian)
As you can see, the vocabulary of a given language is determined by the cultural interests of its speakers, and the loanwords a language absorbs depends strongly on the nature of the connections between the two communities involved. As globalization continues to happen, more and more words are being adopted and traded. Who knows what language we’ll be speaking tomorrow. I hope it’s Klingon.
Learning Japanese by source is not only fascinating, it can be a good way to form connections in your mind so you can remember words better! At least, that’s worked for me. If you know a word from a language that wasn’t mentioned here, or if you know any other cool gairaigo/kango/wago, let me know is the comments section below!
Read All the Posts in This Series:
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 1: Where the Japanese Language Came From
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 2: Twisting Words
Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 3: Why They Do It