Mar 13, 2007

In Which I am Fascinated by an Angular Syllabic Alphabet


English, right?
Well, sort of. The above are examples of "katakana eigo," English words that have been rewritten in katakana. Regrattably, since I'm using an American computer, I can only type the syllables, not the characters themselves. Katakana, I think, is fascinating and amusing, as it is a system of writing that most oftem simulates my own speech, and spits it back out at me.
Katakana is one of the three ways that Japanese is written. Most famously, there are the Chinese pictograph, kanji (a Japanese word that literally means "Han characters") and two phonetic alphabets, hirigana and katakana. All three of these styles are combined together in Japanese writing.
Writing in katakana can be sort of likened to writing in italics or boldface in English. Most often, it's used to write foreign words, but its also used for onomotopeia, emphasis, sound effects, and sometimes humerous effects. For example, a robot character in a manga might speak entirely in katakana, or someone shouting incoherently would likewise be written in katakana.
But, mostly, it's used for foreign words. Most of them ex-English words.
English words that have been put through the blender of Japanese spelling and pronunciation, and sometimes bear little resemblance to their western originals. Sure, most are straightforward, like "cado" for "card" or "isucuremu" for "ice cream," but there are also some tricky ones like "furunto gurasso." That means windshield. Get it? "Front glass."
Anyway, it's weird to see my own culture and language getting borrowed and used by another culture and language. Being from the U.S., one often gets the (mistaken) impression that America is an empty, cultureless, shell. Time and time again (often in political science classes) I've heard people say, "America has no culture." Usually this contention is filled out with a bit of exposition about how we have to "steal" things from other cultures- stuff like Pizza and English.
I find this argument to be totally fatuous. Of course the U.S. has a culture. And it's more than just pop culture. Oftentimes, liberals (and I bear that label proudly, I'd like to add) are quick to point out how other cultures are multifaceted, complex, and interesting. But, they (we) seem to miss the fact that the U.S. is no exception- it, too, is multifaceted, complex interesting.
And all of this is brought starkly to light by being surrounded by katakana.
As I said, I think there's a prevailing assumption that the U.S. borrows but is not borrowed from. We take from other cultures to fill a percieved vacuity, but only consume.
To entirely change the subject (this will be relevant, I swear): Pizza. Pizza is an American food. Is it from Italy? Yes, of course. But it's different in Italy. I know all about American pizza and its various subgenres, but have never had Italian pizza. Or, as some people would call it, "real" pizza. But, American pizza is "real" pizza- it's simply a different kind of real pizza. It's not meant to be a simulation of Italian pizza, it's meant to be a thing in and of itself.
Now, katakana. Like I said earlier, it's used to spell out foreign words.
Are they foreign words anymore? Many foreigners think so, and I've heard complaints as to how Japanese people mispronouce English when they use katakana. And, many conservative Japanese people think so, complaining about the incursion of foreign words into their vocabulary, and the tide of new katakana words that comes every year.
But, an entire generation of people here has grown up in a world where katakana words have been the norm. Are they speaking English? No, certainly not. I don't think "furunto gurasso" could be considered English by any stretch of the imagination. Is it a simulation or emulation of English? Well, maybe it was at the start. But, katakana words use Japanese syllabaries and pronunciation, are used with Japanese grammar, and used by Japanese people.
So, just as pizza is in fact an American food, katakana "English" is in fact Japanese.
Here's another example- the word "biology." English, right? Of course. When one pronounces the term "biology," it is not as if one has suddenly shifted to Greek. One's words remain English from the first plosive to that last back-of-the-throat "ee." So, it's not like Japanese people are phasing in and out from Japanese to English- It seems more like the Japanese language is changing just like other languages evolve. And, just like other evolving languages, Japanese is freely borrowing from other cultures. In this case, us. The only difference here, though, is that new stuff has its own alphabet.

By the way...


Edit: Kori oh-so-nicely furnished me with these pictures. It's odd to see how from even a young age katakana both elucidates and obscures English, all the while being something else entirely.


Sam said...

After studying Japanese for so long, I both love and hate katakana. To me it is more like putting a word all in caps. Also, it's not restricted to English; Katakana also includes French, Italian, Spanish and some (very few) German words (I'm sure that there are more languages shoved in there too, in an effort to make western civilizations many languages into one language...). I also often see Japanese words in Katakana as attention getters.

aaand hi from Sam! >_>; I'll go hide in my corner now.

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