Aug 22, 2008

Words on Loan

My ketai died a bit over a week ago, and I had to get a new one.

Certainly, referring to it as a "cell phone" would be the proper, English way to say it, but since I've been living in Japan the word "ketai" has primacy in my mind. "Cell phone" is a sort of vague, secondary syllable. Granted, I most often refer to it simply as a "phone." But the two word term "cell phone" still seems strange. This may very well be because I didn't own such an object before I came to Japan. Since I've owned one, it has always been a "phone" or "ketai." "Cell phones" remain something else, conceptually, for me.

Life here has affected my language. That I use several Japanese terms in casual, otherwise English, conversation is simply the most obvious. I often buy onigiri (rice balls) or tea at a konbini (convenience store), a few weeks ago I rode on the Shinkansen (bullet train), I drink nama biru (beer on tap) and order nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) when out with friends, fret over the logistics at work of students with kyufukin (government sponsered) contracts, read emails from the kaicho's (the CEO's) office, and I've got nothing but sympathy for my kids who have to attend not only eikaiwa (english conversation schools), but also juku (cram schools).

And so on.

For the most part, this list only includes nouns, and that seems logical. When introduced to another culture, one can find a lot more in the way of objects and phenomena, but probably very little in the way of new verbs or adjectives. (Though there are few of those. Almost every expat living here will know kawaii, cute, and baka, stupid.) When presented with a new concept or phenomena, it's perfectly natural to use the native term for it, rather than contriving a new word in your native language.

Take for example the word "onigiri." Onigiri are rice balls often wrapped in seaweed and filled with tasty things such as fish and vegetables. I've eaten these things at a pretty steady rate since I've gotten here, and they seem to be a universally favored snack thing. Last weekend, out on my bike with Kori, had one in my backpack and mentioned that I was hungry and wanted to stop to "drink some water and eat my rice ball." I used the English term.

As soon as I said it I thought to myself "Why the hell did I call it a 'rice ball?'" It was as if I used some weird, foreign term for it, like instead of saying "cheese" I refered to the stuff as "fromage." I think I felt this way because these things have always been simply "onigiri" to me. When I first asked "What's this?" when I first ate one my companion said "It's an onigiri." They're labeled as such in stores, Japanese people obviously use the Japanese term, and they're not really shaped like balls anyway, given that they're often triangular.

It's remarkable to see how a well-established linguistic phenomenon, that of loan words, has so quickly played out in my own vocabulary and social environment. Thinking about it also offers a bit of perspective on the Japanese language's sizable collection of English loan words. Katakana words can occasionally be maddening (i.e., "mansion" means "apartment building" rather than "big, expensive house.") and there is, every so often the urge to say "Stop! You're doing it wrong! It's not a 'handle,' it's a 'steering wheel!' Get it right!" Such urges are not only impossible to satisfy, but also display a misunderstanding of how people adopt new words and concepts. I'm not going to go so far as to advocate "Engrish" as an English dialect, but I given my own borrowing and probable mispronunciation and misuse of Japanese terms, I can summon up a bit of tolerance for it.

As a practical matter for me, it is sometimes difficult to maintain "pure" English when I'm teaching in the classroom. A big part of my job is that I'm a native speaker, I'm not Japanese, and students are hoping that the English they're learning is authentic. I know that I've used several of the abovementioned terms at work, and when I do catch myself using such words, I worry about the level of authenticity that I'm providing my students. Granted, I like to think of myself as fairly good at my job, but I do have to sometimes conciously keep my vocabulary "natural."

Oh, the joys of language...


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

I've heard the phenomenon referred to as "pidgin" but when I looked it up, I'm not accurate.

I remember the section in River Town when they talk about the same thing.

Sydney said...

Haha, I took a whole class on pidgins and creoles in graduate school and yet I didn't even think about it in this context. But this seems likely where pidgin would start, if there were two communities in exchange. What's really neat to me is how many concepts exist only in one language. Like home. There are so few languages with a concept of home separate from place where I live. And in French, the difference between amener (to bring something) and emmener (to bring someone). I know, those translations are very French 101, but that's how I first learned about them and I thought it was very striking that you would ever have to differentiate them. What I really wish English had was a way to distinguish between we/us inclusive and exclusive. "We, us and you, are going to the store. Then we, us but not you, are going home." I think there are some languages that do that morphologically. I think that's so cool! Really, I think I'd like to take a linguistics class in "neat things that exist in the world." It would just be all anecdotes all the time. Like a Bill Bryson book, am I right? ::sigh:: sorry...

Sydney said...

Also, sorry for writing "I think" like twenty times in that comment.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

Japanese has "kaeru" to go home and "modoru" to go back (somewhere not home). So going home for Christmas and then coming back home to Japan gets a little tricky in my head of what to say...

Japanese also has three "to be/to have" verbs
one for things There is a pen.
one for people He is in the classroom.
one for description It is cold.

At first is was confusing but then I thought how crude English is that we "have" a boyfriend the same what we "have a pen.

Sydney said...

Italian and Spanish both have to "to be" verbs - one for general use, and one for all the "how are you" questions. What is that? Personal states? In Italian, "How is s/he?" is "Come sta?" (verb: stare) and "Is s/he tired?" is "E stanco?"(verb: essere). What's really interesting (I've just learned) is that although "essere" is the usual auxiliary verb, stare can sometimes be used as the auxiliary. You can use either copula for a location. The example is "The butter is on the table" and the two translations are "Il burro è sul tavolo" and "Il burro sta sul tavolo." Stare as an auxiliary appears to be used for progressive constructions (she is eating / lei sta mangiando). Fascinating! And to think what I could have learned if I'd done more than just first year Italian!

Copulas ("to be" verbs) are really interesting. I think it's fascinating that there are zero-copula languages, like Russian. How do you say, "To be or not to be?" or "I think, therefore I am." Not that Western literature/philosopher quotes are the most important thing... but it would never have occurred to me before I took whatever class it was where I learned that such a thing existed that the subtlety in Hamlet's question is completely lost when you don't have a verb for being. To exist or not to exist? To breathe or not to breathe? To kill myself or not to kill myself?

According to some forum thread, the former translates to "to beat (up) or not to beat (up)" [бить или не бить]. A Russian-English internet dictionary translates бить as "chastise, lambaste" but not "beat up." I think the pronunciation would be "beet eelee nye beet," so maybe they went for something that sounded phonetically similar. Does "to chastise or not to chastise" even make sense in that scene? I assume it must as it is (according to the forum) a Pasternak translation. Still, it's not at all what I expected.