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Anglicisms in Japanese

Anglicisms in Japanese



Anglicisms in Japanese

Thousands of languages are spoken around the world. All are constantly evolving, and most have been influenced in one way or another by other languages. It is certainly common for languages to feature words borrowed from other languages and Japanese is no exception.


Japanese now includes a raft of loanwords. This wasn’t always the case as outside influences came later to Japan than to most territories courtesy of the enforced isolation from the rest of the world during the Edo period (1603-1867).

When Japan began to open up, loanwords were principally derived from Portuguese initially as Portugal played a significant role in early Japanese interaction with the West. Words were also borrowed from French and German thanks to France and Germany’s cultural prominence. But these days, most loanwords come from English, reflecting its anglicisms and status as the dominant language across the world.


Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo

The Japanese term for words originating from or based on those from other languages is Gairaigo (外来語). In some cases, the original meanings of such words are retained or only minimally altered but often the meanings of words are completely changed. Regardless of the meanings that words acquire, their pronunciations are usually adapted in Japan. For instance, the Japanese word for taxi is takushi.


Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo

Gairaigo words include those known as wasei-eigo (和製英語).These are pseudo-anglicised words or terms which have been borrowed from other languages, but which are not used in the same way in Japanese. For example, the Japanese term tarento is derived from the English word talent but refers to celebrities who are merely famous for being famous rather than being celebrated for their talent! In addition, the term "Cerebu" is derived from the English word celebrity, but it refers to someone who is extremely wealthy rather than someone being a public figure.

The pronunciation of Gairaigo

Borrowed words can present difficulties when they include sounds (phonemes) that do not exist in the language into which the words have been absorbed. Their pronunciations are, therefore, adapted to fit the new language system. In Japan, most foreign words undergo phonetic changes when borrowed.

The Japanese language features roughly 50 syllables. All are consonant-vowel sounds except for five pure vowel sounds and the “n” sound. Words must end with a vowel sound or an “n” sound. There are no equivalents in Japanese for the English “l”, “v”, or “th” sounds.


English consonant sounds are broken up with vowels in Japanese pronunciations, for instance headphone has become heddohon. Certain sounds may exist in Japanese but cannot be used in combination in the same way as they are in English.

English words ending in consonants other than “n” are adapted to end in vowels, for example beddo (bed).

Where sounds do not exist in Japanese, the closest Japanese equivalents tend to be utilised. The “th” sound is usually replaced by an “s” or “z” sound as in mazaa (mother) and the “schwa” sound is replaced by a vowel sound. “l” becomes “r” as in rimujin (limousine) and “v” becomes “b” as in baiorin (violin).

New syllables in Japanese

New syllables in Japanese

In recent years a new development has seen something of a revolution in the Japanese pronunciation of borrowed words. New syllables are now being used to render pronunciations that are much closer to those in English. Those new syllables include “ti” as in tikappu (teacup), “ch” as in chin (chain) and “fa” as in fakkusu (fax). It is the younger generation that is starting to use new syllables while older people in Japan are largely resisting change.


Abbreviations and acronyms

The English terms that have been borrowed in Japanese include both abbreviations and acronyms. These are written in Roman script but are always expressed using the Japanese pronunciations of the letters. Thus, CD (compact disc) is pronounced “shidi”. GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) is pronounced “gatto”.


Abbreviation and blending

Where vowel sounds have been added to English words so that they can be accommodated into the syllabic structure of Japanese, those words can become excessively long. This has resulted in many words being abbreviated either when they first enter the Japanese language or sometime later. Such abbreviations are often made via backclipping, the practice of omitting the last part of a word or phrase. Examples of backclipping include masukomi (mass communication) and pansuto (panty stocking). While backclipping is common, it is rare to see the beginnings of words dropped in order to create an abbreviation.


Abbreviation and blending

Sometimes abbreviated words are combined or blended in Japanese to produce wasei-eigo terms, that do not exist in English. The Japanese word pureigaido is derived from the English words play and guide but means “ticket office” while wanpisu is derived from the words one and piece but means “dress”.


Blended words and phrases can include words derived from more than one language. English terms may be blended with Japanese expressions or those from other languages to create something new. For example, the term kafusu botan is derived from the English word cuffs and the Portuguese word botão (button). kafusu botan means “cufflinks”.


Semantic change

Borrowed words in any language rarely retain the exact nature of their original meanings. They will usually acquire culturally specific meanings to at least some degree, and this is certainly true of loanwords in Japanese. While many semantic changes are subtle, others result in entirely different meanings for words. The more dramatic semantic changes are often caused by words being borrowed separately and then being combined.


Semantic change

Borrowed words and terms tend to gain more specific meanings in Japanese rather than more generalised ones as with the word tsuna (tuna) or the alternate term, sea chicken which refers only to tinned tuna.


Words may be used to distinguish a Western version or style of something in Japan. The tendency for meanings to become more specific demonstrate that words are often borrowed when new products, systems or cultural practices are adopted, and so no appropriate or specific terminology for those things already exists in the language.

Anglicisms are everywhere

It is quite surprising how many anglicisms feature in Japanese. As so many borrowed words are pronounced differently, are blended with terms from other languages or have been abbreviated, it isn’t always obvious that they have been borrowed. But take a close look at Japanese and you will discover that anglicisms are everywhere.


Anglicisms are everywhere


James Myatt

4 min read

Feb 22

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