The governments of France, Germany, Russia and Iran have all tried to eradicate the English borrowings so common in their languages, but they havent had much success banning popular English words and expressions and replacing them with awkward native alternatives. Thats because most citizens ignore their governments language prescriptions even more than they ignore its speed limits.
Now, according to the Japan Times, nativists in Japan want to purify their language of gairaigo – that’s Japanese for borrowed words – especially the English ones which proliferate on signs, product labels, and t-shirts, and which pop up more and more in Japanese speech and writing too. They haven’t had much luck so far.
Japanese has always been a borrowing language. It began importing kanji, the Japanese word for ‘Chinese characters,’ over a thousand years ago, and since World War II speakers of Japanese have been stockpiling English words like they’re going out of style. But Japan has also had a love-hate relationship with the West, and sometimes with the East as well. In the 19th century, and again in the lead-up to the war, nationalist movements sought to cleanse Japanese of its foreign words, along with other foreign influences.
But the inoculations against English didn’t take, and once again the Japanese government is worried that a juggernaut of Americanisms threatens Japanese culture. Critics of global English aren’t reassured by the fact that English still suffers from a negative balance of trade, borrowing even more words than it exports – juggernaut, for example, actually comes from Hindi.
Those English exports have led Yamada Yuichiro, who teaches language policy at Hiroshima Shudo University, to suggest that more and more Japanese are using English gairaigo with less and less understanding.
Japan’s government supports America’s military presence in Iraq, but it agrees that American words are entering Japanese so fast and furiously that they’re causing mass confusion. To fight this trend, Japan’s Ministry of Education’s National Institute for the Japanese Language has come up with a list of the 450 most-inscrutable gairaigo. Topping the list is rodo puraishingu, ‘road-pricing,’ the practice of charging tolls for cars entering heavily-congested areas of town, followed by paburikku inborubument, ‘public involvement,’ a bit of government jargon referring to the participation of citizens like Yamada-san in official policy-making.
A survey conducted by the Language Institute revealed that more than half of the Japanese paburikku wanted to get rid of the English that’s popping up in politics, medicine, and business, but Yamada doesn’t think that the list of native Japanese replacements proposed by the Institute will fly. So important is injecting a soupçon of English into the food, fashion, sports, and music of Japan that over 90 percent wanted to keep the Japlish blend of Japanese with English that is associated with these activities.
The website www.engrish.com shows thousands of pictures of English used, and misused, in Japan. Unlike the sign above, many of the examples are not suitable for a family blog.
Purification projects may work well for water, but when it comes to language, most fail miserably. Languages seem impure by nature: unless they are completely isolated, people will be influenced by the other languages they come in contact with.
Extremists are quick to label this influence as contamination diluting the cultural essence and sapping the genius of the tongue, but it turns out that the true genius of language is the ability of its speakers to glom onto what they find useful or attractive and blithely ignore the yammerings of lawgivers and rule-mongers. Language purism turns out to be a mug’s game, and most efforts to deport foreign words don’t work.
English certainly has had no success expelling its own lexical interlopers. In the 16th century Ralph Lever, so English he all but painted himself blue to fight the Roman word invaders, tried to rid English of French and Latin words by writing a book on logic, which he insisted on calling witcraft. The 19th century eccentric, William Barnes, wrote poetry in the French-free dialect of the peasants of his native Dorset, whom he insisted on calling landfolk, and put out a grammar – Barnes called it speechcraft – where he renamed vowels breath-sounds and rechristened the accusative, the whereunto case.
One reason that such replacements fail is that the native coinages often sound more foreign than the foreign words they’re intended to replace. A mid-century magazine contest seeking English terms to replace imports brought an entry turning escalator into upgangflow, a suggestion which went nowhere. The attempt by Americans to rename sauerkraut liberty cabbage during World War I proved distasteful, as did the freedom fries protesting the refusal of France to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Subtler yet more familiar English vocabulary reforms include the often-repeated advice of the Fowler brothers always to prefer the native word to the foreign one (The King’s English ), which sometimes gets translated, “choose short words instead of long ones,” since native English words tend to take up less space than their sesquipedalian Latinate synonyms (William Barnes called synonyms likemeaning words).
The Japan Times illustrates the worrisome encroachment of English on Japanese with a news headline which proclaims, “Manga Creating a Worldwide Sensation,” where the Japanese word manga is printed in English and the rest of the sentence is kanji. But the Japanese shouldn’t be surprised at the Englishing of their traditional cartoon literature. After all, manga are now so much a part of American culture that Border’s has a whole section with nothing but manga. And Merriam-Webster made manga an official new English word in 2006. So far as writing manga in English in a Japanese newspaper goes, all that's happening is that America’s good neighbor, Japan, is simply reborrowing a word they originally lent us to begin with.
Some illustrations of the English borrowings, including MANGA, ipod, and WEB, that pervade contemporary written Japanese, from the Japan Times.