Wasei Eigo – Ross investigates a very Japanese use of English loan words
Romance languages can be strikingly similar or sometimes even identical. For example, ‘beer’, ‘football’ and ‘sport’ have near identical spelling and pronunciation in English and French. However, the same is also true to a much smaller extent with English and Japanese. Western culture infiltrated Japan at the outset of the 20th century, resulting in western vocabulary (although mostly English) becoming part of everyday Japanese. When I first went to Japan bursting with eagerness to become linguistically competent I could not help but feel pangs of disappointment upon learning that ‘beer’, ‘cable car’, ‘bus’, ‘coffee’, ‘pint’ and ‘infrastructure’ where all essentially English words spoken with Japanese pronunciation – ‘biiru’ ‘keburu ka-’ ‘basu’ ‘kohii’ ‘pa-i-n-to’ ‘infurasutorakuchua’. Rather than adapt foreign words, or ‘loan words’ into Japanese however; it does make sense just to leave them unchanged. Japanese is one of the few languages which has a syllabary for the transcription of loan words; known as ‘katakana’
Japanese goes one step further in that occasionally it even changes the meaning of loan words. Said words are known as ‘wasei eigo’ (Japanese-made English). Allow me to highlight just what I mean with a few examples.
Pronounced baikingu using the katakana syllabary this loan word does not refer to a Norse warrior like one would first think but rather an all-you-can-eat menu at a restaurant; what we know as a buffet. Quite often Italian restaurants in Japan will offer baikingu menus, regardless of the lack of longboats, halberds, and beards.
Pronounced sa-bisu this word seems to vaguely suggest some kind of service, or perhaps the mere fact that you will be served in a restaurant, but in reality what the Japanese mean by this is ‘free of charge’. Quite often in cafés or restaurants you find the word sa-bisu next to the dish your ordering which earns you a free coffee (kohii), salad (sarada) or perhaps a drink (dorinku). The restaurant is not advertising their willingness to serve you food since the majority of service is excellent nationwide they have no need to do so.
Pronounced panku and sounding very similar to the word punk, this loan word in Japanese does not refer to the yobs who may be responsible for slashing your car tyres but the flat tyre itself; meaning puncture. It is likely that the word ‘puncture’ was abbreviated to ‘punk’. Abbreviation is a prevalent trend in Japan. Other examples of this include ame futto, ‘American football’, infura, ‘infrastructure’ and conbini, ‘convenience store’.
Most Japanese people will at some stage in their lives take part in what they refer to as a marason. On the first day I moved into the dorm I lived in during my year of study in Tokyo I was told that the following day everyone in the dorm would be participating in a marason, which to ignorant me was most perturbing news. However, it turns out that in Japanese marason simply means ‘race’, usually only several kilometres. Still, it was several too many at 6 in the morning I can assure you.