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Katakana Usage?

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I've been learning Japanese for a little while now and I'm still baffled by when to use katakana. All descriptions tell me it's used for foreign words, names, and words borrowed from other languages. But how am I meant to tell what the foreign words are? For example, banana uses katakana, but I could easily write it in hiragana. Am I meant to look up where the word banana came from just to know which way to write it? Same with other words. Guree (gray), pinku (pink) and orenji (orange) all are written with katakana in my textbook. How am I meant to tell that those three are foreign words, but not aka (red) or ao (blue)? I've even seen whole sentences in katakana, or words (though I can't remember which) that seem to be comprised of all both hiragana and katakana in the same word, switching between the two. How? Why? Please someone answer this for me, how to know when to use katakana. Because I can't recognise which words are considered 'foreign' words or words not native to Japan. It's the only thing I can't get the hang of. Thank you!
 

Toritoribe

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Katakana - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

See the similarity in the pronunciation; "Guree vs gray", "pinku vs pink", or "orenji vs orange". These words are from transliteration of English words, i.e., borrow words. However "aka vs red" or "ao vs blue" are completely different.
The most common way is to look the word up in the dictionary, I believe.
 

Mike Cash

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If the word sounds remarkably like a word you already know in English, then the chances are it was borrowed from English. It ain't that hard to figure out. You seriously don't know that gray, pink, and orange are English words?
 
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But how am I meant to tell what the foreign words are?
Japanese and English have no common origins at all. So, whenever you come across a "Japanese" word that sounds the same as an English word of the same meaning, it is pretty much bound to be a loanword, except in a few cases of pure coincidence.
 
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It ain't that hard to figure out.
I'm only guessing, but it may be that DigitalAlice does not realise that English and Japanese are totally unconnected. For example, if you come across a word in French that is very like an English word, then it is perfectly likely that the word is also native French. This never happens with Japanese.
 
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Mike Cash: I'm aware that orange is an English word, but I'm not writing 'orange', I'm writing 'orenji'. Orenji may sound similar but it isn't English. So I don't understand, I'm sorry if it's irritating to you that although it "ain't that hard" to figure out, I'm struggling. I figured if you write "Orange" you would write it in Katakana because it's an English word. But Orenji is Japanese, so I don't get why it's written in katakana. Maybe it's just me, I guess.
 
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I think what I'm trying to say it that I don't understand how it's selected. I know that Orange and Pink are English words (and their translation, Orenji and Pinku, for me are Japanese), but Red and Blue are also English words to me (with Aka and Ao being Japanese). So I don't get why Orange and Pink are written in katakana but Red and Blue are not. Each word has an English version and a Japanese translation. I don't understand why some are considered foreign words.
 

Mike Cash

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You will sometimes see レッド and ブルー for "red" and "blue". But there are more commonly used native Japanese words for those: "aka" and "ao".

The usage of English loan words in Japanese can be one of the most frustrating and maddening parts of learning Japanese as a foreigner, as they are often used with a different meaning than you're used to.

You do realize they're talking about "foreign words" from the perspective of Japanese speakers, right?
 
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For example, why is haburashi (meaning toothbrush) written in katakana? They sound nothing alike; I have no way to tell that haburashi is a foreign word. :/
 

Mike Cash

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For example, why is haburashi (meaning toothbrush) written in katakana? They sound nothing alike; I have no way to tell that haburashi is a foreign word. :/
歯ブラシ

The "brush" part is ブラシ. The Japanese for "tooth" is "ha" and is written in kanji.

You're just going to have to get used to a whole lot of rote memorization, frustration, and being mystified and befuddled along at first. It goes with the territory. It isn't just you; it happens to most people. You eventually get past it.
 
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Some more examples of loanwords:
  • Pace -> ペース (note that transliteration is done by English pronunciation, not by spelling: パセ is not valid)
  • Goods -> グッズ
  • American football -> アメフト (shortened from the unwieldy アメリカンフットボール)
  • Dutch "pomp" (pump) -> ポンプ
  • German "Arbeit" (work) -> アルバイト (part-time job!)
  • Mansion -> マンション (apartment building!)
  • Camping car -> キャンピングカー (mobile home). But wait, "camping car" is not a word in English; it's made up by the Japanese.
As you can see: not all loanwords come from English; some are barely recognizable anymore after transliteration (especially when shortened); sometimes the meaning is changed; and sometimes it doesn't even exist in the origin language.

Also, katakana is not restricted to loanwords. Sometimes it's also used with native words: バレる, サボる, イケメン etc.

So how can you tell whether a word should be written in katakana? As already mentioned, when it sounds like an English word it's probably a loanword and should use katakana. Outside of that it's mostly experience.
 
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Toritoribe

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I think what I'm trying to say it that I don't understand how it's selected. I know that Orange and Pink are English words (and their translation, Orenji and Pinku, for me are Japanese), but Red and Blue are also English words to me (with Aka and Ao being Japanese). So I don't get why Orange and Pink are written in katakana but Red and Blue are not. Each word has an English version and a Japanese translation. I don't understand why some are considered foreign words.
gray:
灰色 haiiro (Japanese origin word, usually written in kanji or hiragana)
グレー guree (loanword, English origin, usually written in katakana)

pink:
桃色 momoiro
ピンク pinku

orange:
橙色 daidaiiro
オレンジ orenji

red:
赤 aka
レッド reddo

blue:
青 ao
ブルー buruu

Loanwords and Japanese origin words are both used. Which one, loanword or Japanese origin word, is more commonly used is different depending on the color, though.
 

mdchachi

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And Mike & others said, it comes down to memorization. Out of all the things that requires memorization in Japanese, though, I think this is one of the easiest (if you're a native English speaker). As a native speaker of English you have an advantage since most of the "loan words" are from English. Over time you'll naturally understand how to katakana-cize English words. And it can help you communicate because given that Japanese have all studied English to some extent, you can frequently substitute English words in conversation when you don't know the appropriate Japanese words.

I think what I'm trying to say it that I don't understand how it's selected. I know that Orange and Pink are English words (and their translation, Orenji and Pinku, for me are Japanese), but Red and Blue are also English words to me (with Aka and Ao being Japanese). So I don't get why Orange and Pink are written in katakana but Red and Blue are not. Each word has an English version and a Japanese translation. I don't understand why some are considered foreign words.
It comes down to the origin of the Japanese word. Yes, オレンジ is a "Japanese word" now however it's etymology is the reason why it's written in katakana. (Note, you will see examples where this rule is not followed as a stylistic choice. You may very well see おれんじ written somewhere. This is more common with some words than others.).
 

mdchachi

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The "brush" part is ブラシ. The Japanese for "tooth" is "ha" and is written in kanji.
I have a funny story tangentially related to this. The first time my now-wife stayed over night, the next morning she said she wanted to go out and buy a 歯ブラシ. I was puzzled and said, you can just use mine. So of course she was shocked. :eek: Most people don't share toothbrushes. But I had thought that she had said ヘアブラシ. :laugh:
 

Mike Cash

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I have the exact opposite opinion on borrowed English words in Japanese. In my experience nothing is a more certain way of introducing confusion and misunderstanding into a conversation than relying on them. I hate them with a passion.
 

mdchachi

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I have the exact opposite opinion on borrowed English words in Japanese. In my experience nothing is a more certain way of introducing confusion and misunderstanding into a conversation than relying on them. I hate them with a passion.
You're not referring to 外来語, right? As the OP said, those words such as オレンジ & ピンクare essentially Japanese now for better or worse. I assume you're referring to words that haven't been adopted as the primary word. In a simple example, if a home-stay exchange kid in Japan is trying to show his host family his family pictures, he'll have a lot better understanding if he can say "this is my ブラザー and シスター" rather than using his native speaker pronunciation of "this is my brother and sister." Of course these days, he'll probably just type the English into Google translate and let his iPhone speak for him. In my day, I had my paper dictionaries and my host-dad had a very early Casio Wordtank. Still had some great conversations though.

Anyway now that I know this is a pet peeve of yours I will try to introduce random words with more regularity. :D
 

Mike Cash

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You're not referring to 外来語, right?
That is exactly what I am referring to. There is no larger false friend than gairaigo. I would rather encounter a Japanese word I know I don't know than an "English" word I'm certain I know...only to discover it is used with a sufficiently different meaning in Japanese that we've been standing there talking past each other instead of to each other.
 

mdchachi

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That is exactly what I am referring to. There is no larger false friend than gairaigo. I would rather encounter a Japanese word I know I don't know than an "English" word I'm certain I know...only to discover it is used with a sufficiently different meaning in Japanese that we've been standing there talking past each other instead of to each other.
Oh ok. Well that falls under the 仕方がない category. :meh:
 
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Mike Cash: I'm aware that orange is an English word, but I'm not writing 'orange', I'm writing 'orenji'. Orenji may sound similar but it isn't English. So I don't understand, I'm sorry if it's irritating to you that although it "ain't that hard" to figure out, I'm struggling. I figured if you write "Orange" you would write it in Katakana because it's an English word. But Orenji is Japanese, so I don't get why it's written in katakana. Maybe it's just me, I guess.
Hi Alice,

One thing to remember is that English has a lot more sounds than Japanese, and that these sounds can also be used differently.

Let's take ピンク. You might think it doesn't sound like English because of that 'u' sound at the end, but you have to realize that the only final consonant in Japanese (of which I'm aware, and let's ignore things like す having the う component unvoiced, it's a red herring) is 'n.' So there is no way to write, and often Japanese native speakers are unable to say, the final 'k' in 'pink.' Therefore pink turns into pinku or ピンク.

Think of it this way: You have to fit a bunch of round pegs into square holes. You can make small enough round pegs fit through the holes, but you can never make them match perfectly because they will always be round and not square. It's the same. Japanese has a bunch of round sounds and with katakana we try to fit them into the square holes of English words. We can make them fit well enough to get the point across, but they won't match perfectly.

Add to this the confusion of English's inconsistent vowel use, whereby English uses the same symbol (let's say 'i') for a variety of sounds. Japanese uses 'i' or イ for one sound: い So when they write Godiva, which I pronounce ゴダイヴァ, they write ゴヂバ. Godeeba. Does it sound like the English pronunciation? Nope, but the round sounds fit well enough into the square holes that most people (eventually) figure it out. I admittedly constantly get confused by this when I encounter a new one, though as soon as I find out what it is I just file it away in my brain. I've noticed that the more I read and listen the better I get at figuring it out.

The things which really screw with me, though, are katakana like this: タマネギ which means onion, but is in no way I can figure an English loan word. Yet, it is written in katakana.

Side note: I spent over an hour wandering around a station asking shopkeepers where the Godiva chocolate store was because I was supposed to meet someone there. I finally pulled up a picture on my phone and showed it to a clerk after being told over and over by uncounted clerks at stores that they had no idea what I was talking about. Sometimes it just needs to click.
 

mdchachi

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Side note: I spent over an hour wandering around a station asking shopkeepers where the Godiva chocolate store was because I was supposed to meet someone there. I finally pulled up a picture on my phone and showed it to a clerk after being told over and over by uncounted clerks at stores that they had no idea what I was talking about. Sometimes it just needs to click.
If you were in Tokyo they probably thought you were talking about Odaiba.

they write ゴヂバ. Godeeba.
ゴディバ

タマネギ is from 玉ねぎ but I have no idea why katakana is frequently used. It's a good example.
 

Toritoribe

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ハクサイ(白菜), ダイコン(大根), リンゴ(林檎), ミカン(蜜柑), イワシ(鰯), マグロ(鮪), ブタ肉(豚肉), トリ肉(鶏肉), タマゴ(卵/玉子), ゴマ油(胡麻油),,,

The names of vegetables, fruit, fish, meat or like that are also often written in katakana. It might be the similar reason as below.
Technical and scientific terms, such as the names of animal and plant species and minerals, are also commonly written in katakana. Homo sapiens (ホモ・サピエンス Homo sapiensu), as a species, is written ヒト (hito), rather than its kanji 人.
Katakana - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 

Toritoribe

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If I am not mistaken, katakana was used for official writing up untill the end of second world war.
Yes, as in the wiki page I linked in my previous post.
Usage
Pre-World War II official documents mix katakana and kanji in the same way that hiragana and kanji are mixed in modern Japanese texts, that is, katakana were used for okurigana and particles such as wa or o.
Katakana - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 
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