As native speakers mingle with foreigners and in turn, gain exposure to foreign ideas, objects and expressions, it is not surprising that such neologisms begin their foray into the native speakers’ world. Very often, these neologisms undergo very minimal change and in the case of the Japanese language, they are usually represented by katakana. Let’s take a look at some of the loanwords in Japanese:

Loanword Katakana
piano ピアノ piano
computer コンピュータ konpyuta
album アルバム arubamu
very delicious バリうま bariuma (bari is the intensifier – “very”)
arbeit (German – “work”) アルバイト arubaito (“part-time job”)

As we can observe from the above table, apart from a phonological change, loanwords in Japanese may also diverge from their original meaning. Taking arbeit into account, the meaning has undergone a shift – referring to a part-time job instead. With trade relations reviving between Japan and the foreigners especially after the 19th century, Japan’s contact with the outside world grew and so did its vocabulary. Before the 19th century – probably between the 16th to 17th century, Japan limited trading opportunities to the West due to the infiltration of Catholicism and the persistence of converting the locals into Catholics.

During the 5th century, Chinese loanwords were initially written in kanji (Chinese characters). However, as Japan opened herself up to other foreign traders, other loanwords soon began their foray into Japanese. For example, loanwords would come from Dutch and German (medicine) as well as French and Italian (music and food). Generally, loanwords that do not come from the West are written in katakana. Loanwords are Japanized in Japanese as they end up taking on a Japanese pronunciation feature. Two interesting examples of Japanized loanwords occur when Japanese speakers abbreviate new borrowings or create new expressions (coinage) from foreign loanwords.

Loanword Abbreviated
supermarket スーパー supa
departmental store デパート depato
Loanwords Coinage
salary, man サラリーマン salaryman “employee”

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