November 20, 2014

Loan to own

Over the past fifty years, foreign "loan words" found in unabridged Japanese dictionaries have grown from 3.5 percent of entries to 10 percent. The number of loan words in everyday usage (prevalent in technical fields) exceeds 50,000.

South Koreans are no less reluctant to mine English for new terminology, which has led to a growing linguistic divide between North and South.

North Korean defectors such as Park Kun-ha, who fled in 2005, say the prevalence of English loanwords is a major obstacle to adapting to life in the South. "It's incredibly frustrating. They are everywhere, and it's essentially like learning a foreign language."

These loan words and "loan institutions" so quickly shed their foreign roots that some, like McDonalds, are often assumed to be native products of Japan (as explained here, the Mac computer is a foreign product, the PC not necessarily).

Over the past 1000 years, English speakers have proved themselves no less enthusiastic practitioners of "loan-to-own" linguistics. Kate points me to Paul Johnson's observation that

Chaucer saw French and Italian poetry not so much as models to imitate but as verbal shop windows from which he could steal words that as yet had no English equivalents.

Or as James Nicoll rephrased it:

We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Which sums up the Japanese attitude towards lexicography as well. Unlike the French, Japanese don't fear a tide of foreign culture sweeping across their shores because they know that in a few years they'll make it indistinguishably Japanese.

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