English Loanwords in Japanese: How Japanese Has a Bunch of Vocab You Already Know

What are Loanwords and How Katakana is Used in Japanese

When learning a new language, discovering familiar words can be a pleasant surprise. Japanese, like many other languages, has borrowed a significant number of words from English, resulting in a linguistic blend that bridges the gap between the two cultures. These borrowed words are known as “loanwords,” and they are commonly written in katakana, one of the three scripts used in the Japanese writing system.

Katakana is primarily used for foreign words and names, making it the perfect script to represent English loanwords. While the idea of using English words might seem straightforward, their adaptation and pronunciation in Japanese can often lead to interesting and sometimes amusing results. Let’s look at a few examples of loanwords in katakana:

テーブル – teeburu – table

コーヒー – koohii – coffee

カレンダー – karendaa – calendar

ホテル – hoteru

As you can see the above words are written in the katakana script, and pronounced very close to their English equivalents. Essentially, if you hear these words, you might be able to guess the English meaning!

How to Use English Loanwords in a Sentence

Using English loanwords in Japanese is relatively simple, as they retain their original meanings. Whether you’re talking about technology, fashion, or food, you’ll likely come across numerous English loanwords in everyday conversations. Here are some examples of English loanwords; try reading the Japanese and guessing the word before looking at the English translation. 

  • コンピューターを使っています。 I am using the computer.
  • テレビでスポーツを見ます。 I watch sports on TV.
  • タクシーで空港に行きます。 I will go to the airport by taxi.
  • レストランでピザを注文しました。 I ordered pizza at the restaurant.

Shortened or Combined Loanwords

Japanese has a penchant for shortening words and combining them to create new terms. This aspect extends to loanwords as well. Often, English loanwords undergo abbreviations to better suit the Japanese linguistic style. Take a look at some examples below:

  • パソコン – pasokon – personal computer
  • ワープロ – waapuro – word processor
  • アメフト – amefuto – American football
  • コンビニ – konbini – convenience store
  • エアコン – eakon – air conditioning

Exceptions to the Rules – Wasei Eigo

While most English loanwords fit comfortably into the Japanese language with minor adaptations, there exists a fascinating category of loanwords called “Wasei Eigo.” These are words that may sound English but are actually created in Japan and have unique meanings that might differ from their original English counterparts.

Wasei Eigo words are essentially Japan-made English-sounding words. For instance, “salaryman” refers to a male office worker, “OL” (Office Lady) describes a female office worker, and “mansion” means an apartment or condominium.

While these words might sound familiar to English speakers, their usage and meaning are distinct in Japanese culture, illustrating how language evolves to adapt to its environment.

Here are a few more examples:

  • パンツ (pantsu) – In Japanese, “パンツ” refers to underwear, specifically panties for women or briefs for men.
  • シャープペンシル (shāpu penshiru) – In Japanese, “シャープペンシル” means mechanical pencil, often referred to as “shāpupen” for short.
  • カンニング (kanningu) – In Japanese, “カンニング” refers to cheating on an exam, whereas in English, “cunning” means being sly or crafty.

Japanese has embraced English loanwords, enriching its vocabulary and allowing for more efficient communication across cultures. Through the use of katakana, borrowed words can be integrated into the language. Whether shortened, combined, or transformed into Wasei Eigo, these loanwords have become an integral part of daily Japanese conversation. So, next time you encounter a Japanese word that sounds familiar, you might just be recognizing an English loanword in action!

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