Friday, October 5, 2007

Meaning well

Most languages borrow words from other languages, right?

As new things are discovered, new ideas are introduced or new concepts adopted, the first task is inevitably deciding what handle should be applied to this new whatchamacallit. Often the easiest way to do this is to simply steal the word from whatever culture it comes from. Hence in English we call a canoe a canoe, a banana a banana, a tattoo a tattoo, and a clock a clock etc etc. Kind of like inter-linguistic file sharing! One of my favourites is the old `legend` of the Europeans asking the Aboriginals of Australia what the hell that strange hopping creature was they kept seeing everywhere, to which the aboriginals replied `I don`t know` which in their language is pronounced `Kan Ga Roo`. Highly unlikely, but a good yarn anyway.

Since living in Japan It has dawned on me how many Japanese words we actually use in day to day English, and it is more than you might think! Think about it and you`ll probably conjure up a dozen or so Japanese words that exist in your vernacular, (car makers and electrical appliance companies aside!).

But of course English isn`t the only poacher and pilferer of words. Japanese owes its origins to Chinese, and a lot of their words stem from that language. Japanese is a prolific `borrower` of words from other languages too, in fact they invented `KATAKANA`, another entire alphabet system solely for foreign words! (Or so they say, I`m sure they did it just to confuse foreigners even more! And really, whats another 60 characters when you have over 10,000 in your language anyway, right?) This alphabet was first needed when Japan opened its gates to foreign trade and other influences during the early part of the Heian Period (794 - 1195). Since then KATAKANA has been used to transform countless words from their mundane existence as an English word into something zanily Japanese! Take these examples and see if you can work out their English originals:
Got `em?
I have stood in front of signs and read menus, staring long and hard, sounding out each syllable slowly, gradually gathering speed until suddenly, seemingly from nowhere a familiar word has jumped out at me.
Its like those magic eye puzzles, if you stare at them long enough you`ll eventually see something, (either that or give up, exclaim `KANGAROO!`and ask for the English menu.)