Monday, October 5, 2009

What's the point of other Englishes?

I am currently studying Japanese using textbooks and some online resources and wondering again about all the English that has gotten into the Japanese. In fact, a few nights ago on T.V., I watched a news clip about Japan's interest in 'gureen enerugii' (グリイーン エネルギー) - that is, 'green energy.'

The absolute worst words for me to say in Japanese are the words that are 'English' words, but are transliterated into Japanese, like アイスクリーム (aisu kureemu), アメリカン(amerikan), or コーヒー (kouhi) - ice cream, American, or coffee. These words are the dead giveaways that I am definitely NOT Japanese (even though my bloodline is '100パーセント' (100%) Japanese. That's a topic for another day!)

For a quick overview of loanwords in Japanese, I found this link to be instructive and fascinating. Of course, vocabulary has moved in the other direction too. Wikipedia contains a list of Japanese words that have found their way into the English dictionary.

Exploring my roots in anthropology, I recently read an article on 'karuchua' (culture) and how Japanese primatologists adopted that word to describe behavioral patterns observed in monkeys (i.e., the famous potato-washing monkeys). Here it seems that 'カルチャー' was chosen to distinguish it from human culture (bunka 文化). In addition, Michio Kawamura, the author of a recent article entitled 'Interaction Studies in Japanese Primatology' (Primates 50:142-152, 2009), wrote that "as a native Japanese speaker, I am aware that papers written only in Japanese or papers that can only be expressed in Japanese contain unique ideas and important observations. I will not be able to introduce all the ideas that even their original authors could not express in English."

To answer my own question, perhaps the point of 'Japanese English' is to be able to use some items or concepts (using Japanese transliterations of English words) for which there doesn't seem to be a Japanese equivalent. On the other hand, Professor Sharon Traweek (personal communication) mentioned years ago that in her field of comparative science studies, Japanese physicists often spent time creating new combinations of kanji to create a Japanese word for a thing that already had an English label. Similarly, the French avoided transliteration of the word 'computer' by coming up with their own term, 'l'ordinateur', which you're expected to use when speaking French and doing business in France (M.B. Vineberg, pers. comm.).

As English continues to spread around the world, there has been a lot of transliteration going on. Some words or concepts are easily adopted, but others seem resistant to this process. Now that, to me, is fascinating!


Alex Case said...

Japanese English is my all time favourite subject. I've been working on an A-Z like the one I did for Konglish on my blog, but it's simply too long for me to be able get it into manageable form. Let me know if you'd like me to email you the messy unfinished version. Otherwise, the best sources are still offline:

Evelyn said...

Hi Alex,
Thanks very much for your comment and offer to share your 'dictionary' of Japanese English. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the reasons for some vocabulary making it into 'katakana' (loanword form) and others being translated into kanji (Chinese characters).
Best wishes in all your endeavors.