Learn katakana properly or face full-frontal nudity


I have never understood why Japanese people generally assume that words in katakana, the angular syllabary, are easier for nonnative speakers to master than words in hiragana, the rounded syllabary.

Consider the five katakana phrases with suto: ensuto, hansuto, pansuto, zenesuto and zensuto. They are, in order: engine stop (stalling, as in motoring); hunger strike; panty stockings; general strike; and, with the zen part usually written in kanji, zenbu (all) sutorippu. You guessed it, or at least I hope you did. The last one is “full-frontal nudity.”

I advise you to get your katakana straight, lest you go off to the picket line and end up lap dancing in nothing more than a pair of hose.

Katakana words are as variegated as they are handy. Foreign words, place names and people’s names; scientific terms; trendy phenomena; many mimetic words; and modern substitutions for what were perfectly good Japanese words are just some of the things that are written in katakana.

The most obvious category is the foreign one. Names of countries were almost all incorporated into everyday Japanese in the modern era, and they usually remain close to the pronunciation in the country itself. Doitsu (Germany) is a good example of this, although the katakana for Scandinavian countries mimics the English names.

Many food names are written in katakana, such as oribu (olive), reba (liver) and, from Dutch, biru (beer). When these are abbreviated, they may be hard to pick up at first, as we see in baga for (ham)burger and mikisuto sando (mixed sandwiches). If a Japanese person goes to Tuscany and says, “I want piza,” the natives might not be blamed for thinking he was a very rich real-estate broker making a grab for leaning towers rather than a tourist eager to chomp into a humble slice of roasted dough topped with tomato and cheese.

Katakana words are by no means all from English. Arubaito (part-time job) is from German, kohi is from Dutch, pan (bread) is from Portuguese and ikura (salmon roe) is from Russian.

Without katakana there would be no terebi (television), netto ([Inter]net) or interi (intellectuals). Don’t ask which of these contemporary Japanese would gladly give up first.

Two things make katakana words and phrases difficult for nonnatives. First, their pronunciation is tricky for the very reason that it is close to ours. A French person might have trouble saying their country in Japanese, Furansu, because the “f” and the “a” have different qualities in Japanese than in French. Native speakers of English may find themselves mispronouncing kyabetsu (cabbage) because of the first syllable.

Vowels may be the most different, particularly when lengthened. Non-Japanese often have serious trouble with the length of vowels in Japanese. If non-Japanese wonder why Japanese frequently mix up their r’s and their l’s, Japanese are nonplussed when foreigners say their child is going to a fuzoku gakko (sex school) instead of a fuzoku gakko, which is a school attached to a higher educational institution.

Another difficult katakana word to identify on first hearing it is asu. This is the word for “earth,” meaning a wire connecting something to the ground.

And would someone understand patoka on first hearing it? Or tsuru? The former is “patrol car”; the latter, “tool,” as used in computing.

Where would manga be without the hundreds of mimetic words written in katakana? They give an added zest to sounds. Two of these have even taken on a broader meaning: pinpon and bu.

Pinpon represents the sound of a small bell, and bu is that of a buzzer. But these are often used, particularly on television, to mean “You got it!” and “That’s wrong!,” respectively.

One use of pinpon, however, is definitely a no-no when it comes to maintaining harmony in the neighborhood. This is none other than that wonderful katakana phrase, pinpon dasshu. The dasshu is “dash.” Get it? If not, should I really be ijiwarui (a meanie) and make you wait till next week for the answer? But what if someone did a pinpon dasshu on you in the meantime? I’d never forgive myself.

Pinpon dasshu is when kids (and I hope it’s only kids) ring your doorbell and then head for the hills. If it does happen to you, at least you now know what to call it.

Well . . . bai for now.