On Loan Words, Replacement Words, and Pronunciations

Having lived in Japan for a few years, and being a teacher of English to speakers of a foreign language, I have formed a few opinions on loan words and pronunciations. A loan word is a word that has its origin in another language. For example, fiancé is a loan word from French and kimono is a loan word from Japanese. Since, I have more experience with Japanese, those are the loan words that I will be focusing on. Take this as an opinion piece, I know others disagree with me.

Point One: Keep Pronunciations as Close as Possible
I feel like to respect the word being used and the culture it comes from, you should keep the pronunciation as close to the original. Japanese has a system called katakana (カタカナ) which is syllabary (in layman’s terms: alphabet) which is reserved for only foreign words. This alone is fine, but I strongly despise katakana, because katakana is used for foreign words, but doesn’t include many foreign sounds… both R + L sounds are classified as the same letter (i.e. ラ is both ‘ra’ and ‘la’), letters at the end of words are often omitted (i.e. fighter would be ファイター, which sounds like ‘fighta’) or changed to include extra letters (i.e. fast would be ファスト which sounds like ‘fasto’), F + H are occasionally classified as the same letter, V is often spoken as a B (i.e. love is ラブ which sounds like “rabu”). My point is words get drastically different from what they are supposed to sound like to the point where a Japanese person hearing the English word “computer” without an English background wouldn’t recognize it the same Japanese “English loan word”; コンピューター (konpyutaa), just as if an American heard “konpyutaa”, without context they probably wouldn’t understand what it is. These two words are supposed to be the same word, but Japan doesn’t enforce the pronunciation.

All Japanese students are required to study English grammar for years and in general it would seem that Japan wants to learn English from all of the English conversation schools, English tests, English teachers in schools, but how things are set up encourages failure. They spend so much time on grammar without the context and the correct pronunciation that it all is just pointless. I’ve spoken to people who have studied English for five or six years who can’t speak a word of it because of this terrible system. Compared to other countries, Japanese who learned English struggle much more with pronunciation and I think katakana is the reason for this. I work at an English kindergarten and even here my kids are subjected to the horrors of katakana English, the kids were using woodblocks and the music teacher insisted the kids speak the Japanese way ウッドブロック (uddoburokku), I interrupted her and said “woodblock” in English a few times to make sure the kids at least understood that this wasn’t the native way to say it. Its not that the Japanese had a word already, they wanted the English word for it and then bastardized it so that it isn’t recognizable to native speakers which to me defeats the purpose of borrowing a word, Japan could easily make up its own word for it (木箱 (もくばこ) = wooden box, I just made this up using pre-existing Japanese words). I feel like カタカナ should either be updated with additional sounds present in foreign languages or dropped entirely in favor of the Roman alphabet which most Japanese already can read for the most part.

I don’t think it only applies for languages borrowing from English, I feel similarly about words we borrow from the Japanese. There are words such as karaoke, sake, and karate which have been changed quite a bit (karaoke should be “ka-ra-okay” not “carry oki”, sake should be “saw-kay” not “saw-key”, karate should be “ka-raw-tay” not “ka-raw-tea”), it’s not that we can’t pronounce these words with ease, its just that it was popularized and then the true pronunciation fell into ignorance. Even a little bit with words such as ninja, we could change the sound a little bit to make it more authentic (ninja is technically pronounced “neen-juh” not “nihn-juh”). Along with this, I think words originating in Japanese shouldn’t have an ‘S’ added in the plural because the idea of ‘s’ plurals doesn’t exist in Japanese, if deer doesn’t change to deers, then ninja shouldn’t become ninjas and geisha shouldn’t become geishas, and God forbid sushi ever become sushies. I think this pronunciation rule should primarily be for nouns only though, nouns are names and names should be maintained, however if verbs are borrowed, I don’t feel like it is as important to maintain the pronunciation. For example Japanese has a verb サボる (‘saboru’, to skip work/school) which comes from the French word sabotage, I feel like its okay to be changed a little bit because the verb needs to be able to conform to Japanese grammar rules. I also feel like if something is too difficult for natives to learn then it may not need to be changed, for example words borrowed from Chinese should be as close to the original sound, but English speakers should be expected to say ‘chau meing’ for chow mein, but it would be ridiculous to expect non-Chinese natives to get the tones or intonations correct.

Point Two: Don’t Create Replacement Words
Before my current kindergarten job, I worked at an eikaiwa (英会話/English conversation school). I would so often get asked “How do you say… onigiri, mochi, yakitori, tanuki, shinkansen, senbei, nashi, etc. in English?”. This question infuriates with me and I would answer with… “Rice ball, rice cake, fried chicken, raccoon dog, bullet train, rice crackers, Asian pear” respectively, but I would follow with “but really you should just say that word as it is”. To me… things that are uniquely or mostly Japanese should use the Japanese word for it. I don’t know about other people, but prior to arriving in Japan, had I heard rice cake or rice cracker or rice ball, I wouldn’t think of mochi or senbei or onigiri, I would think of rice with frosting around it for rice cake, I would think about western style rice crackers (think like the healthy versions of rice krispy treats), or I would think of a ball of just rice, not rolled up in seaweed with fish or chicken inside. The truth of a matter is, I think most foreigners won’t exactly get it whether someone uses the word rice cake or mochi, some explanation is going to be required either way, so use the original word and then explain what it is. We don’t eat mochi in America, so while there is an English word option, I feel like the word mochi should be used instead. Same thing goes for the tanuki, the tanuki is a Japanese (or at least it is to say an East Asian) member of the canine family that resembles a raccoon, so someone came up with the word raccoon dog, but that is misleading as it is not exactly a dog and it definitely isn’t a raccoon, and if you said raccoon dog to someone in America they’d either have no idea what you were talking about or think a raccoon and a dog had a baby such as a liger (a lion and a tiger offspring) or a mule (donkey and horse), to me it just makes more sense to use the world tanuki, because that’s what it is called where it is actually from, which is why I was happy this morning when I read an article that used the word tanuki over the misleading name “raccoon dog”. Asian Pears are a somewhat descriptive way to refer to nashi, however Asian pears to me taste closer to apples than they do to pears and they definite have a different shape and size, not to mention in a few American supermarkets I have actually seen them referred to as… *drum roll please* NASHI, but I don’t understand why Japanese English schools are taught to teach the English alternatives rather than the local terms. Yakitori is grilled chicken, but it is Japanese style and grilled chicken doesn’t do its description justice, use the original Japanese! The Shinkansen is a bullet train, but it is the original bullet train, it is a SYSTEM used in Japan and its experience is unlike what it would be like in other countries, when referring to the Japanese bullet train, please call it a Shinkansen, what it is, don’t called it a bullet train… I could go on. My point is don’t make up new words to replace a solid local alternative.

And those are my opinions on loan words.