The complaint is a familiar one: English is putting the squeeze on other languages and those who are getting squeezed don’t like it. Up till now, this has been most noticeably a grievance of the French and the Germans. Three years ago, the French Finance Ministry even went so far as to issue government employees with a list of mandatory alternatives to common business- and technology-related Anglicisms. “Ordinateur,” you may remember, was to do duty for “computer,” “jeune pousse” (a young plant shoot) for “startup.” No reports are available on whether this effort to stem the tide of English has succeeded. (Interpretation: It probably hasn’t.)
What we also recall is that, at the time, Japan appeared less ruffled than Europe by its own English-language invasion; in fact, a government panel had actually recommended making English the country’s official second language. Even though that proposal went nowhere, it didn’t cause much of a public stir. Far from wanting to erect a wall to keep English out, Japanese seemed more concerned with finding ways to both teach and learn it better.
Lately, though, there has been a shift of emphasis, and it is largely attributable to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Last May, the prime minister reportedly erupted in irritation after listening to a presentation from his telecommunications minister that was so stuffed with English loanwords as to be almost incomprehensible — or so Mr. Koizumi said. The word “back-office” drew his particular ire. “What does ‘back-office’ mean?” he wanted to know. “If I don’t understand it, how will ordinary people?”
In response, the National Institute for Japanese Language began searching for native Japanese words to replace some of these offensive loanwords. By last month, it had come up with 63 equivalents. For example, we are advised to say goodbye to “baria-furi” (barrier-free) and hello to “shoheki jokyo,” but apparently there is just no way to say “kyapitaru gein” (capital gain) or “eizu” (AIDS) in real Japanese. The institute plans to add up to 100 more substitutes every six months.
But here’s the rub. Reading that May news item, we found we didn’t know what “back-office” meant, either. It turns out that it’s not what we guessed — a narrow, windowless cell where you put a new or under-performing employee — but a computer-age term for software that helps companies manage their paperwork. (We think. We could be wrong on the details.) The point is, it’s not because the word is English that it’s incomprehensible; it’s because it’s a new word, even in English, for a brand-new concept.
To varying degrees, that is true for most of these words that have older Japanese, in particular, up in arms. Could it be the “older” rather then the “Japanese” that is the real hindrance to understanding? When young people talk about a “deji kame,” some grandparents think they mean a kind of turtle, not a digital camera. “Seku hara,” to take an earlier example, became the accepted term for sexual harassment at the same time that the concept itself gained currency. The phrase and the idea came to Japan as a package. To create a Japanese equivalent would, in a sense, be to rob the phrase of its history.
Certainly, Mr. Koizumi is right that there has been a flood of loanwords into Japanese in recent decades. In 1967, Kadokawa Shoten’s Dictionary of Foreign Words listed 25,000 loanwords. By 2000, according to Sanseido’s dictionary, there were over 45,000, and 90 percent of them came from English.
Does it matter? On the contrary, it’s arguably a good thing. English itself is overflowing with words borrowed from many languages, including Japanese. But English-speakers tend to think of the process as one of enrichment, not watering-down. The reason for this is something that Japanese teenagers and advertisers seem to have grasped instinctively. Loanwords do not, in most instances, have exact equivalents in the language that absorbs them. They come with nuance. An advertiser will say “kicchin” rather than “daidokoro,” to suggest the kind of kitchen he is trying to sell: modern, spacious, Westernized. One study found that Japanese students responded differently to native and borrowed words for colors. For example, “Kiiro,” the Japanese word for yellow, made respondents feel uneasy, while “iero,” its English-derived counterpart, was associated with brightness and prettiness. The loanword, in short, was a different word, well able to coexist with the old.
More important, it would make no difference if it couldn’t. As linguists well know, there is no stopping the evolution of a language. Words find favor as they answer to needs, and no amount of legislation or urging will alter that fact, Mr. Koizumi’s wishes and the institute’s lists notwithstanding.
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