Don’t Be Tricked by Katakana Words

Japanese borrows a lot of words from English. I have heard some Japanese learners lamenting the fact that new katakana versions of English words are replacing perfectly good pre-existing Japanese words.

The influx of too many new foreign words in Japanese makes the language more difficult to understand, less precise, and it may take away some of the charm of Japanese. This problem is acknowledged by the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology). They have a document on their website talking about the state of the Japanese language with respect to international society.

Here is my translation of a small portion of the document.

外来語・外国語は以下のような機能を担って日本語の中で使用されており、既に日本語として定着している外来語も多く存在する。

Foreign loan words and foreign language used in Japanese carry out the functions listed below, and many foreign loan words already exist as Japanese words.

  1. それまで日本になかった事物や新概念を表す
    例:ラジオ、キムチ、アンコール
  2. 専門用語として取り入れる
    例:オゾン、インフレーション
  3. その語に伴うイメージを活用する
    例:「職業婦人」を「キャリアウーマン」と言い換えて新しいイメージを出す
  1. Expressing things and concepts that didn’t yet exist in Japan
    1. Examples: Radio, Kimchi, Encore
  2. Adopting technical terms into japanese
    1. Examples: Ozone, Inflation
  3. Making use of an image associated with a word
    1. Example: Saying Career Woman instead of “shokugyoufunin” conveys a modern image

しかし、近年では、外国との間の人・物・情報の交流の増大や、諸分野における国際化の進展等に伴い、日本語の中での外来語・外国語の使用が目立って増大しており、一般の人々にとって覚え切れないほどに新しい語が次々に出現する、専門領域で使われていた語がそのまま一般社会に流出する、白書・広報紙等の公的な文書や多くの人を対象とする新聞・放送等にも目新しい外来語・外国語が出現する等のことが問題となっている。

However, recently, along with things like the increase in exchange of people, things, and information between foreign countries and the the advancement globalization of various fields, the use of foreign loan words and foreign language has increased dramatically. More words than the average person can memorize have appeared one after the other. Technical language has been transferred into general usage while still in a foreign language. Brand new foreign loan words and foreign language frequently appearing has even become a problem in documents targeted to the public such as white papers and press releases, and things like widely read newspapers and broadcasts.

また、外来語・外国語の安易な使用は和語・漢語の軽視につながり、歴史の中で築かれ磨かれてきた日本語の機能や美しさが損なわれ、伝統的な日本語の良さが見失われるおそれもあると言える。社会的なコミュニケーションや国際化時代の日本語の在り方から見た外来語・外国語増加に伴う問題点としては、以下のようなものが挙げられる。

Also, being quick to use foreign loan words and foreign language is connected with the  neglect of words with Japanese and Chinese origin. The function and beauty of Japanese, which has be been built and polished through history is damaged, and  you could say we’re in danger of losing sight of the good qualities of traditional Japanese. Below are some of the problem points that come along with the use of foreign loan words and foreign language from the perspective of social communication and the state of Japanese in the age of globalization.

  1. 日本語によるコミュニケーションを阻害し、社会的な情報の共有を妨げるおそれがある…外来語・外国語が理解できないため、情報を受け取れない人が生じる。
  2. Raises concern of impeding communication in Japanese, and hindering sharing of social information…Instances of people who cannot consume information appear, due to their lack of understanding of foreign loan words and foreign language
  3. 世代間コミュニケーションの障害となる…特に高齢者にとって、外来語・外国語の意味が分からなくて困ることが多い。
  4. Becomes an inter-generational communication failure… Instances of anxiety due to not understanding the meaning of foreign loan words and foreign language is common, especially among older people
  5. 日本語の表現をあいまいにする…表意文字の漢字で書かれた漢語と違って概念がつかみにくい。また、意味のあいまいな語の使用により、全体が明快で論理的な表現にならなくなる。
  6. Makes Japanese expression more vague…Unlike Kanji, where the characters express meaning, it’s hard to grasp a concept. Also, as a result of the use of a vague word, the clarity and logic of the whole expression is compromised.
  7. 外国人の日本語理解の障害となる…外国人にとって片仮名語は分かりにくい。
  8. Impairs the understanding of Japanese for foreigners…Katakana words are hard for foreigners to understand.
  9. 日本人の外国語習得の障害となる…原語の意味から外れた外来語や和製語は、外国語としては通用しない。以上を考え合わせると、外来語・外国語は固有の機能や魅力を持ち、各分野で使われているが、その急速な増加及び一般の社会生活における過度の使用は、社会的なコミュニケーションを阻害し、ひいては日本語が有する伝達機能そのものを弱め、日本語の価値を損なう危険性をも有していると言えよう。
  10. Impairs foreign language acquisition for Japanese people…Foreign loan words and “made in Japan English” words with meanings that deviate from their words of origin, will not be valid in the foreign language. Taking the above as a whole, social communication is inhibited, and more than that, the Japanese Language’s ability to transfer information itself is weakened, and we could say that we are in danger of damaging the value of Japanese as a language.

Point three in the reasons katakana is causing trouble, is something I have noticed. I actually prefer reading Japanese books to English because I enjoy that the Kanji expresses meaning in many cases rather than just a sound. Also, the variety of characters makes it easier to distinguish words. I find that when I’m tired, it is easier for me to look at a page with a variety of characters, than a page full of different combinations of the same 26 characters with no meaning attached to the characters themselves. Of course, the difficulty of the content has more effect on the difficulty than the characters, so often it is still easier for me to read something in English.

I can see point four being true for foreigners as a whole. However, I think for native English speakers trying to learn Japanese, having English words in katakana that work in Japanese actually makes Japanese easier to understand, since there is a connection to a language we already know.

Many times when you want to know how to say something in Japanese, you’ll luck out finding an understandable word by trying to translate it into katakana. However, there are a few things to watch out for when using this strategy.

When reading Hakugin Jack (白銀ジャック) by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾), I found that this strategy may not serve you very well at a ski slope. A lot of the words associated with skiing actually come from German. In the table below are the words I came across, and what I may have guessed if I hasn’t learned them explicitly.

Ski Related English Word My Wrong Guess Real Japanese Word German Origin
Ski Slope スキースロープ ゲレンデ Gelände
Ski Pole スキーポール ストック Stock
Tracks トラック シュプール Spur
Snow Groomer スノーグルーマー ピステン Pisten Bully

Words coming from different languages are just one thing that you need to watch out for with katakana words. “Made in Japan English” or wasei eigo is also a potential source of problems. Some English words are used in Japanese, but have completely different meanings. A couple examples are カンニング, from “cunning”. It means to cheat, like cheating on a test. Another example is that テンション(tension), which can mean mood or feeling.

Another challenge with interpreting katakana, that is less common, is the use of katakana to replace kanji that are not used very often, such as in the word for apple. A search in yourei.jp gives 2,482 appearances of 林檎 and 3,319 appearances of リンゴ. It seems like katakana is used more often than kanji for this word. This phenomenon seems to show up the most for living things like fruits and animals.

Finally, one more thing to look out for when using katakana words is pronunciation. It can be tempting to bend the vowel sounds and consonant sounds towards the English pronunciation if you are trying to use a familiar word. It’s important to pronounce the katakana as is, because even though it may seem that these are just mispronounced English words, they are actually Japanese words.

Getting the accent and intonation right can be tricky as well. With a word like カンガルー (kangaroo), you may want to put the accent on the “roo”, as if you were speaking English. But the Japanese word is pronounced as in standard japanese (標準語), as can bee seen on OJAD, which is on online Japanese dictionary for foreign Japanese learners provided by Tokyo University. This shows that the ka is lower, the “nga” is higher, and it drops for the “roo”. It’s hard for me to understand this theoretically, so if I want to know how a word is pronounced I try to find someone saying it on Youtube.

It may be a problem in some ways that English is creeping into Japanese, but I like to accept it for what it is. I would suggest not thinking about new katakana words you run into as being the same as their English origins, but enjoy learning them as brand new Japanese words. Enjoy the fact that you have a little boost when learning Japanese from already knowing English (it doesn’t help near as much as knowing a couple of other languages), and have fun.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Be Tricked by Katakana Words”

    1. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you two enjoyed it. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      I’m planning to make more articles like this, instead of just basic novel reviews, so that they will be useful for more people. It takes me a lot longer, so I don’t plan to update as often.

  1. Great article and interesting choice of subject matter to translate!

    Though I have written my own articles about how some words are hard to understand, in general I am not sure if I agree with #4 (“Katakana words are hard for foreigners to understand”). If I had to guess, I’d say that over half of the words are close enough to their original meaning so that when foreigners hear them, they have at least a vague idea what is going on, whereas for Japanese words they are hearing for the first time, they are lost (except for the case where you can guess what Kanji the word is made from, but that is an advanced skill).

    Just because there are some words with super confusing (different) meanings doesn’t mean that overall Katakana is a detriment to learning.

    Also, while I appreciate the Japanese government taking steps to bring this matter up, I am not sure how they will be able to stem the growth of new Katakana words (:

    1. Note, that my 2nd paragraph above only applies when the person learning Japanese knows the word in question, i.e. their native language is the one the word originates from.

      1. Now that I think of it, native Chinese speaker learners get a much bigger advantage in knowing the language that a word originates from, even if there are different meanings. If the Japanese government tries to transfer a lot of the katana words to kanji compounds, native English speakers will lose some of their relatively small batch of words they have some familiarity with. However, I think most native English speakers I have met who are learning Japanese seriously are not afraid of a challenge (:

  2. I went through some of the translation and one thing caught me off guard: the translation of “困る” as “anxiety” in #2. This word is really hard to translate and I think you almost have it, but maybe something like “troubled” or “difficulties” would be better.

    I guess to me “anxiety” is more vague and weak, whereas “troubled” is more like the person would have a significant negative effect from something.

    What do you think?

    The passage for reference:

    世代間コミュニケーションの障害となる…特に高齢者にとって、外来語・外国語の意味が分からなくて困ることが多い。
    Becomes an inter-generational communication failure… Instances of anxiety due to not understanding the meaning of foreign loan words and foreign language is common, especially among older people

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *