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Is Japanese going to way of the dodo?


22 Apr 2003
... or are we witnessing the first stages of the birth of a new language?

Why, will you say, do you ask? Simply because a comment from one of my Japanese coworkers got me to thinking. The comment went something along the lines of him reading an article about a hi-tech product in development and not understanding the article because of all the katakana words in it. As we deal with hi-tech Japanese everyday in our jobs, needless to say that his comment surprised me very much. So I stopped myself to think about all the people who may not be up to date on all the GAIRAIGO (foreign words incorporated to Japanese) who read the news, watch the news, or simply watch TV or read ads for brand name products. How well do they understand all this GAIRAIGO mumbo-jumbo? Personally, I have trouble keeping up despite the fact that I can guess the meaning of the GAIRAIGO by "translating" it back to its original language in most cases.

Which leads me back to the point of my post. Is Japanese evolving into a hybrid language of Japanized foreign words or is it dying?
Isn't that happening to every language?
Especially when there's technological lingo involved. This is usually due to the fact that nobody thought up an original translation for those words.
There should actually be some sort of language-board that thinks up new words for new products. :)
Only speaking about the other two languages I know thoroughly, French and English, not so. Most neologisms usually find their roots in the preexisting pool of vocabulary. Take the word "semiconductor" that appeared in 1838, it is composed of the prefix "semi-" and the word "conductor" that appeared in the 15th century. Granted that some hi-tech words like "robot" derived from the Czeck "robota" meaning "compulsory labor" also exist, but most are formed from preexisting words. Cellular, computer, television, wavelength, etc. are all compounds of preexisting words. I will not deny the occasional borrowing of words, but it seems to me less generalized than in Japanese.

Just as a daily example, why is the English word MIRUKU (milk) used over the perfectly good and valid word GYUNYU (cow's milk)? Or MIRION to mean an album that sold a million copies when HYAKU MAN MAI is just as accurate?

It also appears to be a fairly recent trend, as well. To go back to the semiconductor example cited above, the word in use (I checked) is HANDOUTAI, not SEMIKONDAKUTAA. Same goes for cellular phones. They're called KEITAI DENWA, not their GAIRAIGO equivalent. Until only a few years back (I've only been in Japan five years and noticed the change) there has been a significant increase in the use of GAIRAIGO by newscasters, usually noted for the precision of their language.

I find this trend really mistifying and scary considering that if Japanese disappears or becomes something else, an irreplaceable language will be lost, just as some Celtic languages are lost (despite their revival in recent years...).
While Peter is right about the fact that languages influence each other (I always wondered about the number of German words that found their way into English) Japanese language does not only seem to be extraordinarily prone to adopt foreign words, but also to create new ones. Recently, I have asked my language teacher about words like taoru, doraibo, miruku, nekutai etc., she said that such words are not perceived as foreign at all, as they are so "firmly incorporated" into Japanese. An interesting answer that shows that Japanese have a completely different linguistic approach compared to other cultures (just think of France where the government tried to regulate and restrict the use of foreign words).

I have posted an article about linguistic imports a while ago

=> http://forum.japanreference.com/showthread.php?s=&threadid=922
I missed that one about the Japanese Academie Francaise. Interesting. But the Academie Francaise or in Quebec the Office de la langue francaise's efforts are not as doomed as that I would say because French as a language has changed but very little in the past few centuries; except for neologisms, French has seen very few changes in grammar, syntax, and spelling. The terms imposed by the Academie and the Office are creeping into everyday French, slowly but surely supplanting their Engish counterparts... If the Japanese are as serious, this could actually have an impact...

Interesting also about your teacher's reaction to these words... I should do a check of my own...
If you just look at the changing of time over the centuries, languages and cultures change and sometimes grow. Now that technology is more advanced, as is the human mind, it is growing at a more exponential rate. Analyze what a small capacity humans had 2000 years ago. Compare that to 1500 years ago and you will see growth and progress. Simply look at 50 years ago and you have a substantial difference. Who knows where we may be in another 50 years.
Konnichiwa Minasan!

The words we use have lives of their own. And they evolve always, even just now.:D

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