Odd use of foreign loan words a sign of the times


Heed this safety warning: “Caution! Don’t lean on the gate. The gate would fall down when lean on it. It occurs you trouble.” Having eluded the gate, then follow this health instruction: “The Italian word pomodoro means golden fruit. Tomatoes have vitamin, carotene, potash, pectene, and is good for blood pressure, liver disease and constipation.” Having escaped constipation, relax with this philosophical pearl of wisdom: “Cross linking artists and material drive for art of polymerzaion and grow together.”

Rule-governed mistakes

These are but a few examples of English seen on commercial signs around Shibuya Station. They may be funny, annoying, simply incomprehensible, or all three. But upon closer inspection there is some method to the madness of confused English seen in signs in Japan.

The most conspicuous peculiarity is the high frequency of misspellings. When eating and drinking, for instance, you might come across “cacktails” (which caused cackles near Ebisu Station), “side ordar” and “chickin” (both Gotanda).

Boutiques and salons dealing in fashion and beauty write terms like “Accessary” (which forced a double take in Harajuku), “Inport shoes” (Shibuya), and “Parm” (Meguro) on their signs. These terms lead a second life as well-established Japanese borrowings, adapted to the phonemic structure of Japanese and usually written in the katakana script which is used for foreign loan words. When the terms above are transliterated back into Roman script on public signs, they often fail to fully shake off the katakana influence.

“Cacktails” is based on the katakana kakuteru, which for some reason prefers “a” over “o” as its first vowel. Similarly, the second “i” in “chickin” is reminiscent of the “i” in the corresponding katakana term. “Parm,” finally, has nothing to do with Italian ham or cheese but is supposed to mean “perm.” The “a” is a leftover from the term’s offspring pamu. These mistakes are rule-governed.

Confusing collocations

As eye-catching as misspellings are unusual collocations that do not read well together. Some examples aimed at athletic types that were found recently in Tokyo are “Meet together and enjoy our golf-style” (which caused befuddlement in Okachimachi) or “Serious Fitness for every body” (Harajuku).

Many such expressions that appear strange to a foreign passerby are perfectly comprehensible when read as Japanese borrowings, as katakana words once introduced into Japanese quickly become independent of the original foreign word, developing a life of their own.

One example is “snack,” as in the combination “Pub & Snack.” The mismatch between the two words is only perceived as such by native English speakers. In Japanese, where sunakku is a special (indeed, very special) type of bar, the combination poses no problems.

“Menu” is frequently found on top of signs listing the prices of services available at beauty parlors. Again, this is a specifically Japanese usage, where menyu can refer to a selection of products and services unrelated to eating and drinking.

Similarly the word “make,” in the sense of “makeup.” Knowing that the Japanese katakana term meku is a well-established cosmetics term, signs reading “Hair & Make” (Osaki) will appear much less idiosyncratic. Such English expressions in Japan that only make sense when read in katakana are common.

Though the script and spelling are correct English, their usage is clearly based on some invisible katakana doppelganger.

When katakana words such as menyu and meku are re-Romanized, their spelling is based on the English original, while the meaning comes from the katakana version. But though “Menu” and “Make” are frequent sights in Tokyo, no one expects to see “Menyu” or “Meku” on signs.

By and for Japanese

Including English expressions on commercial signs is seemingly mandatory nowadays. But most of these signs are written mainly by — and for — the Japanese population. Foreigners reading their way through Tokyo and other Japanese cities may find this English puzzling, but it is not entirely without logic.