JIN-444 -- Katakana Times

The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 444 Wednesday December 12, 2007, Tokyo

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Katakana Times

If, as Wittgenstein suggested, the limits of our language are
the limits of our world, on reflection, our world has some
very volatile and dynamic borders. For example, look up the
etymology of any English word, such as 'magazine,' and it will
take you on a magical mystery tour of time and place. 'Magazine'
comes to English from the Italian 'magazzino,' which is itself
probably derived from the Arabic 'makhazin', meaning
'storehouses.' Its first usage in English was to refer to
ammunition stores, as it still does in the context of guns, and
it wasn't until 1731 when it officially became the word for a
periodical—coined in the title of 'Gentlemen's Magazine'
published that year. The trickier part is tracing how and why
it evolved in the way that it did. However, the point here is
that language tells us a great deal about the moment in which
it exists—allbeit that the past is forever being kicked up the
backside by the future.

In Japanese, in the last two centuries, one of the key areas of
linguistic change relates to katakana, the phonetic script used
to represent words from the 'outside.' Katakana is thus the most
common way of writing foreign words that the language has
absorbed, from 'pan' (bread) to 'furaipan' (frying pan).

[Article continues below...]

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[...Article continues]

The 46 character script of katakana was apparently devised by a
9th century monk named Kukai, later known as Kobo Daishi,
drawing inspiration from his knowledge of Sanskrit. In the Meiji
era, as Japan began to interact with the wider world, after
centuries of relative isolation, katakana became the standard
form of dealing with not only new words, but also of new
concepts—or at least ones that were deemed to be from the
outside world. Marking words as 'inside' or 'outside' is not
common, or at least in such a visible manner, in other languages
and thus academics have often sought, over the years, to draw
meaningful conclusions from this relationship between language
and international interaction in Japanese. For example, in an
article written 20 years ago for the journal 'World Englishes,'
Phillip R Murrow observes that katakana English words are often
related to 'sex or bodily functions' and from this, he
identifies two dynamics:

'First, loanwords allow speakers to speak indirectly or
euphemistically, about topics which, traditionally, are somewhat
taboo. Second, the use of loanwords implies a modern, liberated
outlook which is attractive to many speakers.'

On the other hand, many Japanese commentators tend to worry
that imported words are a kind of corruption or that they
somehow impose a particular worldview on Japanese people.

Both of these arguments have merit in that katakana words are
regularly 'modern', relating to technology or imported goods as
much sexual taboos,and often refer to something 'Western.'
However, katakana words are also by their nature 'Japanese,' and
only modern in the same way as other new words written in kanji
are modern. Additionally, there are katakana words that have
ballooned away from the meaning that the word had in its
language of origin. For example, 'arubaito,' from the German
word for work, has a very particular meaning in Japanese—a
part-time job. It is hard then to make a moral argument about
what katakana has contributed to, or upset in, Japanese society.
It is clearly an organic feature of the language, which while it
may be influenced by foreign languages, evolves quite
chaotically, in harmony with Japanese society.

[Article continues below...]

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[...Article continues]

It seems then that katakana is a puzzle however it is looked at.
Some media regularly point out that many Japanese people do not
understand a large volume of katakana words among themselves
(http://tinyurl.com/2bmbxg). However, this overlooks the factors
of generational and regional difference, not to mention urban
atomisation, that have probably affected mutual understand of
'regular' words as well. After all, in the English language, an
octogenarian from Scotland and a teenager from Manhattan might
not necessarily recognize each other as speakers of the same
tongue.

Phonetic script is also a hot topic for those attempting to
teach foreign languages in Japan. Many teachers despair the
use of katakana (or 'katakana effect' http://tinyurl.com/3av4m7)
in teaching the reading and speaking of foreign tongues. They
argue that it is a serious hindrance resulting in poor
communicative ability. For example, Japanese learners using the
katakana pronunciation when asking for a KitKat could well get
a blank look when they ask for a 'kitto katto.' Incidentally,
this particular phonetic rendering proved a massive marketing
success for KitKat in Japan as 'kitto katto' has a resonance
with the Japanese for 'certain victory', thus making it a
popular snack for those doing exams or entering sports
contests. Nonetheless, it is probably the case that katakana
is best kept out of the foreign language classroom where
pronunciation is concerned.

By Peter Harris
Chief Editor

++SPECIAL NOTICE - IMMIGRATION PROCEDURES
WILL YOU BE LEAVING JAPAN OVER THE HOLIDAYS?
If so, you may be interested in finding out how to register for
the new automated gate system at immigration, brought in to
facilitate compliance with the new regulations that require
foreigners to be finger-printed. Download the information from:
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++CORRECTIONS
Last week we reported that Australia was Japan's third largest
export market. We are grateful to one reader who pointed out
that this is an error, it is more like Japan's tenth largest.
Japan is however Australia's third largest source of imports.

If you would like to comment on this article please post your
remarks below or, email them directly to the writer: peter.harris@japaninc.com

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