Imported Words – Gairaigo (外来語)

Though Japanese can seem daunting at first, most English-speaking learners of Japanese may take solace in the fact that they can cheat.  Yes, I’m talking about the Japanese vocabulary we anglophones didn’t know we had:  Gairaigo (外来語).

Gairaigo is Japanese for “loan word” or “borrowed word”, and indicates a transliteration (or “transvocalization”) into Japanese.  According to this wikipedia entry: Most, but not all, modern gairaigo are derived from English, particularly in the post-World War II era (after 1945). Words are taken from English for concepts that do not exist in Japanese, but also for other reasons, such as a preference for English terms or fashionability – many gairaigo have Japanese synonyms.  Click on the Youtube link below for a quick overview of the concept of gairaigo.

For the most part, English-speakers can pretty much guess (sometimes after saying the word out loud a number of times) what the meaning of the word is because of its phonetic resemblance to its English counterpart.  Some examples are: アイスクリーム (ice cream) or アルコール (alcohol).

Other words are less intuitive, and resemble a truncation of the “original” English word, like , アパート (apartment) or デパート (department store).

Moving further away from 1:1 resemblance are the wonderful family of gairaigo that are based on English words, but that’s where the similarity stops.  I’m thinking here of ドンマイ (“donmai”, which is short for “don’t worry about it”), ファミコン (“family computer”, i.e., video game system), ゲーセン (“game centre”, i.e., video arcade), or my personal favourite, タイムスリップ (“time slip”, i.e., time travel).  Most English-speakers have been befuddled when a native Japanese speaker has used one of these gems thinking (quite reasonably) that the word is English.

Then, there are the non-English based loan words, which may lead to confusion.  Few English speakers will know what バイト (“baito”, short for “arubaito” or part-time job), ブランコ (“blanco”, Portuguese for “swing”), ゴム (“gom”, Dutch for “rubber”, but also meaning eraser in Japanese), トナカイ (“deer” in Ainu) or the ubiquitous パン (“pan”, which is Portuguese for bread) mean.

Rather than being a burden, however, I see these loan words as artefacts in the wonderful history of Japanese.  It’s also a reminder of the fact that most languages cross-pollinate.  For a more robust list of gairaigo, click here.


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