How Japanese English works

By Alex Case

For many people Japlish (Japanese English) is just something amusing, an annoying source of student errors, or an easy way into understanding Japanese menus that later becomes one of the biggest difficulties with using the language as a Japanese person would. There are then, of course, the much larger group of people who have never heard the expression “Japanese English” or on hearing it have had their curiosity totally unpricked. I believe, however, that it is a topic well worth some more examination by people with all those attitudes. For one thing, the way that the Japanese have borrowed and adapted English is both systematic and creative, and people whose only connection to Japan is their Toyota car often find “made in Japan” expressions amusing, interesting and/ or impressive. More seriously, for those of us who do have contact with Japan and the Japanese, a little time spent looking at Japanese English can help you understand the language and your students.

Looking at Japanese English can also help all of us understand the use of English all over the world. Not only are many Japanese English expressions used in Korean, but the way you can classify the words and expressions makes for a fascinating prism to see how English is changing and will continue developing as native speakers lose all control of it. This article is intended as an overview, and will be followed with individual articles on many of the points below looking at them in more detail.

An overview of how English words and expressions change in Japanese

Most English words in Japanese have more or less the same meaning and use as in British and/ or American English. That is something worth pointing out to students who think of Japlish only as a source of errors, but for the rest of us it is the ones that are somehow different which are of more interest. The ten major ways in which English words and expressions are adapted as they come into Japanese are:

1. The word or expression is abbreviated in a way that is not common in English.

2. Words and expressions are entirely ‘made in Japan’ from English words

3. The meaning is extended or changed from that of the original word

4. The pronunciation changes (sometimes so much as to be almost unrecognisable)

5. The English grammar changes or is ‘stripped’ from the word

6. The meaning in Japanese is more restricted than in English

7. Japanese English words become part of worldwide English, but with a more restricted meaning

8. The word comes from a brand name that is unknown in most countries

9. The word or expression is no longer used in most forms of English, e.g. because it isn’t politically correct

10. The word or expression is correct in (some form of) English, but is used much more in Japanese

All of these have at least some impact on how Japanese speakers learn and use English, and the list above is approximately organised by how much difficulty non-Japanese speakers would have in understanding such Japanese English, and therefore by how much those points might need to be dealt with in class. First of all, though, the main confusion when students try to talk about ‘a pan’ in English has nothing to do with English at all, but is because the Japanese treat all Katakana words (those borrowed from languages other than Chinese) as if they come from English, as indeed the vast majority do. In fact, the Japanese word ‘pan’ comes from Portuguese and means bread. So, I’ve decided to deal with this part of “Japanese English” first, even though it isn’t strictly English at all (and so doesn’t get a number):

In all the sections below, the examples are listed with a spelling representing the English or other source first, with an attempt at the Japanese pronunciation in brackets afterwards. The system I have used for the Japanese pronunciation is basically to transcribe the katakana, so for example ‘oo’ is a long o sound (and so not the /u:/ sound in the English word boot), making it similar to the O in note. In the same way, ee is like a long version of the vowel in ‘pet’, and so similar to the vowel in ‘gate’ (and not to the ee in sheet). The main exception to just transcribing katakana is shi, which in Japanese could be written as si but sounds closer to the English sh that I’ve used below. An e at the end of a word is always pronounced, as in sake (Japanese rice wine).

Words have been brought into Japanese from other languages, but are often thought to be English by Japanese speakers

This is perhaps the greatest cause of blank incomprehension when a Japanese person is sure they are speaking English but the person listening is beginning to doubt that they are, e.g. when a Japanese person uses the Dutch word gom (gomu – rubber). This is mainly because the vast majority of non-Chinese words in Japanese do in fact come from English, and words from other languages like German and French are written in the same katakana script as that vast body of English words and expressions (other scripts being used for Japanese and Chinese words).

Words from various other languages have mainly come into Japanese while the influence of those countries on Japan have been the greatest, starting with Portuguese as boats from Macao and Catholic priests starting arriving in the fifteenth century. Words dating from this period include pao (pan- bread), veludo (biroodo- velvet) and piman (small green pepper). Some Spanish words also came into Japanese at the same time, the most commonly used being castella (kasutera- a kind of sponge cake). When those two nations were kicked out of Japan due to the meddlings of the aforesaid priests, the Dutch took over as the main foreign contact of the Japanese and also source of foreign words, including mormot (morumotto – Guinea pig), schop (sukoppu – shovel) and orgel (orugiooru – wind up music box).

When Japan was forced to open up in the 19th century, English joined other European languages in a flood of borrowed words that still shows no sign of stopping. In the Meiji period, English did not yet have its present dominance and had good competition from German and French. Particularly with German, you can also see that it is sometimes possible to see that words from particular fields quite often come from the same language, such as medical words like Rontgen (rentogen – X ray) and Karte (karute- medical records) coming from that language.

Many words or expressions from other languages show the same things that happen to English words as they are borrowed, e.g. the shortened form beit (baito, from German arbeit- temporary job), and the changed meaning of esthe (esute, from French esthetique- meaning plastic surgery).

1. The word or expression is abbreviated in a way that is not common in English.

A particular Japanese approach to pronouncing words from English that can make comprehension incredibly difficult for outsiders is their love of shortening words. This sometimes follows the English practice of pronouncing the first letter of each word, such as in DV (dii bii) for domestic violence and CM (shii emu, short for commercial message) for a radio ad. As Japanese is a syllabic language, however, they usually just take the first syllable or two from each word, as they would in words derived from Japanese or Chinese sources, such as infra (infura, short for infrastructure) and infla (infure, short for inflation). In many cases, the shortened form is the only way of saying it in conversational Japanese and so Japanese speakers might not even be aware of the longer versions. This can make understanding more difficult, but is very easy to turn into a useful and interesting lesson for Japanese students, as they will be learning about their own language at the same time as learning English.

As is the case with CM above, many of these are shortened forms of words that have already been changed somewhat from British or American English or totally created in Japan from English words. Other examples include BGM (bii jii emu, short for background music – kind of lift music/ easy listening) and cool biz (kuuru bizu, short for cool business- dressing down in offices to cut down on air conditioning energy consumption).

2. Words and expressions are entirely ‘made in Japan’ from English words

Expressions like baby car (beibi kaa – push chair or buggy) and back mirror (bakku miraa – rear view mirror) are at least easily comprehensible, but catch phone (catchi fon – call waiting) and sharp pen (shaa pen, short for sharp pencil – mechanical pencil) take some explaining. There are all sorts of explanations for why the Japanese use English to create these new expressions, but I absolutely love the results and think that expressions like paper driver (peipa duraiba – someone who has a licence but never drives) should join walkman and salaryman in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s also worth remembering that creating such expressions from English is not much different from how people used Latin and Greek words to create new expressions such as ‘telephone’ and ‘telegraph’.

Along with random but useful expressions like low teens (loo tiinzu – someone under 15) and doctor stop (dokutaa sutoppu – a doctor banning you from doing something like smoking and drinking), there are certain patterns to how the Japanese create these ‘English’ expressions. The first is the use of English colour words, with silver used as a polite euphemism for old, green having some connection with luxury, pink rather than blue as the colour of sex, and golden for ‘peak’ or ‘special’. Another major group of ‘made in Japan’ English expressions is made with prefixes such as one, J (for Japanese), no, and new.

3. The meaning is extended or changed from that of the original word

This is a universal of borrowing of words from other languages, and has also happened in the other direction. For example, the English word tycoon comes from a Japanese expression for the shogun, taikun. None of this makes it any easier to understand someone saying smart who really means slim, however. Some other common things that confuse Japanese learners learning English and English speakers learning Japanese include claim (kureimu- a complaint), hire (haiyaa- a limousine) and mansion (manshon- a condo).

4. The pronunciation changes

If your Japanese students or friends have ever tried to tell you which American hamburger chain they went to in order to cure their hangover on Sunday morning, you can see how the pron gets changed as words are taken into Japanese. In fact, MacDonald’s apparently decided to leave off the s in the Japanese version of its name as Makudonarudo (6 syllables) was enough of a mouthful as it was. This is due to the fact that all Japanese syllables must end in either a vowel or /n/. This makes it impossible for many Japanese speakers to pronounce words with consonant clusters like ‘spring’ in any less than four syllables. Other extreme examples include attractive (atorakutibu, 6 syllables) and grapefruit (gureipufuruutsu- 6 syllables).

Japanese speakers are by no means alone in having problems with English consonant clusters, of course, and the same is true for sounds that do not exist in Japanese such as th and the smooth j sound from the middle of television and leisure. The syllabic structure of Japanese again complicates things, with a Japanese sa, se, so and su sounding much like the same syllables in English, but si sounding much more like shi. The same thing is true with tu (usually more like tsu), ti (more like chi) and hu (more like fu).

This is complicated even further by some of the distinctions being writeable in katakana, so that tea sounds much like that (tii- black tea) but anti changes to a much more Japanese pronunciation (anchi). The same is true of some sounds that don’t traditionally exist in Japanese, such as v.

5. The English grammar changes or is ‘stripped’ from the word.

As Japanese grammar is nothing like English grammar, it is not surprising that the grammar of words and expressions changes as English words are borrowed into Japanese. For example, plurals are rarely used in Japanese and so one feet (fiito), two feet, three feet seems like a much more sensible way to measure out lengths than one foot, two feet, three feet. Unfortunately, some students who know that the feet on your body have an irregular plural in English might still make that mistake with measurements, due to the influence of Japanese English. The same is true of –ed adjectives with old fashion (oorudo fasshon- old fashioned) and several other common grammar points.

6. The meaning in Japanese is more restricted than in English

Usually, a word ‘borrowed’ from English does not still have the full range of meanings of the original word. For example, if you ask students about their daily diet they will probably assume you are talking about their efforts at slimming, with the obvious dangers of causing offence. If students are convinced they know what you mean but reply in a way unconnected to the question, this is often the cause. Other examples include dumping (dampingu – only used with the business pricing meaning), crawl (kurooru- only used about swimming, not babies) and canvas (kanbasu- just connected to paintings, not the material more generally).

7. Japanese English words become part of world-wide English, but with a more restricted meaning

Japanese English expressions such as walkman and karaoke have recycled back from Japanese English to become part of the language worldwide. The only problem in class can be that again the meaning sometimes changes as it moves between countries. The most common example of possible misunderstandings is when the word is only used in British or American English to refer to things in Japan, but is used by the Japanese more generally. Common examples include anime and salaryman. Cosplay (kosupurei, short for costume play) is similar, because in English it is only used to refer to dressing up as anime characters but in Japanese it is basically a direct translation of dressing up.

8. The word comes from a brand name that is unknown in most countries

Most Japanese speakers are unlikely to understand you if you mention a hoover, a biro, or Tippex. Ditto most English speakers when hearing mention of hotchkiss (hotchikisu, formerly a brand of stapler) and barriquand (barikan, formerly a brand of hair clippers).

9. The word or expression is no longer used in most forms of English, e.g. because it isn’t politically correct

One example of this is Indian, which in Japanese has yet to be replaced by American Indian, let alone Native American (Indian Indian being indojin). The use of half (haafu) for someone who is half-Japanese is also considered offensive by many, but is still the standard expression in Japanese.

10. The word or expression is correct in (some form of) English, but is used much more in Japanese

One category is things that are only used by experts or in technical descriptions in English but are standard conversational Japanese, e.g. PET bottle (petto botteru- plastic bottle). Another is words which are old fashioned or dialectal in English but standard in Japanese, such as muffler (mafuraa- winter scarf). The third category, words like merit which are much more common in Japanese than in English, could be considered an example of the extended meanings that are mentioned in the section on that topic above.

Although it is not strictly Japanese English in the way I have defined it in this article, there is also a whole category of words in Japanese which are usually translated into words which are almost unknown in English. These include prefecture for a county-sized administrative division of Japan, and Diet for the parliament.

Written by Alex Case for September 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


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