Japanese, The Borrower Language Part 1: Where The Japanese Language Came From

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.

Wago 和語

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

English Wago 和語
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

English Wago 和語
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)

English Wago 和語
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.

Kango 漢語

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:

Germanic Latinate
help aid
hide conceal
deep profound

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!

Gairaigo 外来語

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!


The Languages of Japan

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

  • Johnny

    Great article, but is gohan (御飯)wago (和語) ?
    “Go” is the onyomi of 御 and “han” is the onyomi of 飯。
    “Meshi” is the kunyomi of 飯 so it should be wago.

  • echo

    Such a cute article <3 I will be working on gairaigo phonology in cognitive linguistics this year, so I had a lot of fun reading the cultural parts :) Only little thing : chili pepper is spelled "piment" in French ^_^

  • Kanrei

    About foot and leg meaning the same, we have that too in some swiss dialect, that they use the swiss german word leg for both leg and foot. How irritating was that, when someone talked about leg and means foot.

  • Kenate

    In this list only 1st are japanese words right? balaico is romaji for ブランコ and swing translation or ,,ブランコ” means both balaico and swing?

    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

  • James A

    イギリス actually refers to the United Kingdom. England is イングランド. There is a huge difference between England and the United Kingdom.