Language | BILINGUAL

When does one's native language stop being native?

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

A 71-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture made headlines recently when he attempted to initiate a lawsuit against broadcaster NHK. Through its excessive use of foreign derived words, the man claimed, NHK had caused him 精神的苦痛 (seishinteki kutsū, psychological pain). He demanded ¥1.41 million in 慰謝料 (isharyō, damages).

The local court refused to hear the case. But Nikkan Gendai newspaper (July 5) rose to the man’s defense, saying その気持ち、よく分かる (sono kimochi, yoku wakaru, that feeling is well understood), adding 政治もビジネスも、今やカタカナ語だらけ (seiji mo bijinesu mo ima ya katakana-go darake, now more than ever, politics and business are full of katakana loanwords).

だらけ(darake) is a useful descriptive suffix implying, negatively, that something is full of, or crawling with, whatever.

The term カタカナ語 (katakana-go) is used alternatively with 外来語 (gairaigo, words that come from outside, i.e., of foreign origin), but differentiates such words specifically as being written using the katakana syllabary, as opposed to borrowings from Chinese written in kanji.

Nikkan Gendai’s writer recalls that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first-term inaugural speech back in 2006, had used such awkward expressions as イノベーションの創造 (inobēshon no sōzō, creation of innovation) and テレワーク人口の倍増 (terewāku jinkō no baizō, doubling the number of teleworkers, i.e., telecommuters). These terms, said the writer, resulted in 多くの国民がチンプンカンプンだった (ōku no kokumin ga chinpun-kanpun datta, came across as gibberish to many citizens). チンプンカンプン (chinpun-kanpun, gibberish) is of indeterminate origin, although its close resemblance to the Mandarin Chinese phrase 聽不懂,看不懂 ting bu dong, kan bu dong, (literally “hear-not-understand, see-not-understand”) has not escaped notice.

While Abe appears to be making greater efforts to reduce use of katakana-go, plenty of other public figures continue to sprinkle their speech with unfamiliar word imports. The article singled out Keio University professor and economic pundit Heizo Takenaka as particularly notorious, citing such examples as 新たなフロンティアを作り出す (arata na furontia wo tsukuri dasu, to carve out new frontiers); 多様なリスクテイク (tayō na risuku teiku, diverse risk taking) and 営農者をスティミュレイトするのか (einōsha wo sutimyureito suru no ka, will this stimulate agribusiness operators?).

All three of the above, the article points out, have perfectly good ways to express the same thing using Japanese. Frontiers is 開拓地 (kaitakuchi); risk taking is 危険な受け入れ (kiken na ukeire); and stimulate is 刺激する (shigeki suru).

Kenji Uchida of the Hanashikata Kenkyujo (Way of Speaking Institute) advises when making business presentations, 先ずはできるだけ日本語に直して使うこと (Mazu wa dekirudake nihongo ni naoshite tsukau koto, the first thing is to revise it to use Japanese to the greatest extent possible). He added, カタカナ語を使ったら、<すなわち>や<つまり>で意味を説明するのもマナーです (Katakana-go wo tsukattara, “sunawachi” ya “tsumari” de imi wo setsumei suru no mo manā desu, If katakana-go are to be used, it is good manners to follow them with sunawachi or tsumari [both of which mean “in other words”] and explain their meaning).

To demonstrate how bad things have become, Nikkan Gendai points to such extreme cases as シルバーエイジの、アメニティーライフをサポートします (shirubā eiji no, amenitī raifu wo sapōto shimasu, to support an amenity-filled lifestyle for [people of] “silver age”).

Returning to the lawsuit, it occurred to me that the 71-year-old litigant, as a product of the postwar education system, would have been exposed to a huge number of foreign words during his lifetime. Take 1989, the year he turned 47, and also the year the Asahi Shimbun published a book titled カタカナ仕事 (katakana shigoto, katakana occupations) devoted entirely to occupations whose names were written in katakana. They included リフォーマー (reformer, a person who does clothing alterations); メーキャッパー (mēkyappā, make upper or makeup artist); ヒーブ (hību or HEIB, an acronym for home economist in business); フードスタイリスト (fūdo sutairisuto, food stylist); グリーンコーディネーター (gurīn kōdinētā, green coordinator or horticulturalist); イベントプランナー (ibento purannā, event planner); and PAミキサー (PA mikisā, a person who controls the audio for the public address system at concerts and other performances). With examples like the above, I wonder: why did he wait until now to sue someone for all those years of “suffering”?