The Power of Katakana

Japanese language has a great capacity for absorbing foreign words. We simply imitate the original pronunciation of a foreign word by means of Katakana and utilize it as if it had been a Japanese word from the beginning. For example, the English word "card" is adopted as ka-do and pronounced "kâdo" ("^" indicates a long vowel sound). This way, we have imported many words from various languages. This is one of the reasons Japanese is considered to be a language with a very rich and diverse vocabulary.

   Interestingly, Japanese has borrowed "card" from other languages, too. karuta (karuta), the name of a Japanese card game was coined from the Portuguese word "carta", which simply means "card". Even Kanji characters karuta are assigned to this word. If one says karute(karute), it refers to a card on which doctors write down patients' pathology. This word is from the equivalent German word "Karte". Many other medical terms in Japanese are borrowed from German. The French word "carte" is also used in the phrase a ra karuto(a ra karuto = à la carte).

   Even one word from the same language can be two words in Japanese. The English word "strike" is one such example. sutoraiki(sutoraiki) means an industrial action, whereas sutoraiku (sutoraiku) is a baseball term. Such a pair of words is called a doublet in linguistic parlance, like the words "hostel" and "hotel" in English, both of which are from the single French word "hôtel".

   The word "driver" is even more amazing. The corresponding Japanese word doraiba- (doraibâ) means either a screwdriver or a person who drives a car, depending whether it is pronounced as "dorai" or "doRAibâ" (with accents on the capitalized parts). This distinction was probably caused by the fact that screwdrivers were intruduced to Japan when the English accent was not familiar to people. Be careful, though. If you ask someone to pass you a sukuryu- doraiba-(sukuryû doraibâ), a cocktail will be served :-)

This ariticle is written for the KonJa newsletter (winter '99).
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