January 31, 2011

Japanese hybrid

Language is a good measure of cultural influence. English, for example, has the Norman Conquest (plus Latin and the Vulgate) to thank for all the high-brow French cluttering up the low-brow Anglo Saxon, which is Germanic in origin.

A thousand years ago, Japan saw itself in the mirror of China, which unfortunately resulted in the adoption of kanji, even though the languages have nothing in common. A hundred years ago, it patterned its social institutions after Europe. Now it sees itself in the mirror of the United States.

As was recently pointed out on NHK's Nihon-GO! pop-linguistics program, based on a sample of unabridged dictionaries, over the past fifty years, the number of foreign cognates in Japanese--mostly from English--has risen from a few hundred to over ten thousand.

Even I find myself saying at times, "There's a perfectly good Japanese word for that." Although on the aforementioned show, 70 percent of those polled concluded it wasn't worth trying to come up with a substitute for "hybrid [car]" (ハイブリッド), despite not knowing what "hybrid" meant. How many people know what "MP3" stands for?

Then a few days later, NHK's version of Nightline did a show on the "Tsuittaa (ツイッター) Revolution." Sound it out! In the Twitter glossary here, only three terms ("Trending Topics," "Favorites," "Via") contain any native Japanese.

Unlike the French, while professional worriers may wring their hands about it, and now and then an indignant politician demands to know why a political platform is called a "manifesto," once a word comes into vogue, most Japanese don't care to inconvenience themselves enough to get rid of them.

A big reason for this is that katakana works like a kind of cryptographic hash function. Even words that make it through unscathed phonologically, like "manifesto," are still rendered indecipherable to most foreigners (マニフェスト), making them unmistakably Japanese.

Even so, especially in academic contexts, these English cognates have gained the kind of intellectual panache that French once had, setting up a tension represented by the two phonetic scripts, katakana (used to write cognates) and hiragana (used to write native Japanese).

Recently on the serial drama Teppan, Akari was getting advice about how to run her restaurant from a young MBA-type, who peppered her lecture with confusing (to Akari) English business terms until Akari's grandmother snapped, "Quit talking in katakana! You're Japanese! Speak in hiragana!"

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