JIN-341 -- The NIJLA's 4th Midterm Report

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 341
Saturday October 15, 2005 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: The NIJLA's 4th Midterm Report
1. The "Devil's Language"
2. Culling Japanese of Incomprehensible Loan Words

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+++ VIEWPOINT: The NIJLA's 4th Midterm Report
1. The "Devil's Language"

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) famously described Japanese
as the "devil's language." For the student of Japanese,
the language can at times seem like a circle of Dante's
inferno, with a grammar sans number, case, and gender, and
sentences often without subjects and ending with the verb.
So "I love you" becomes in Japanese "ai shite iru"--simply "love."

It is true that Japanese resists description in the terms of
Western grammar. That does not make the language inherently difficult, but
does highlight its difference from the Romance languages. In fact, far
from being difficult, a language that dispenses with so much grammar and
relies on inferred meanings can be described as downright simple.

But that epithet can't be applied to the Japanese
writing system. Japanese is written in three scripts--Chinese
characters and the hiragana and katakana phonetic syllabaries,
with occasional resort to a fourth, romaji, or transliteration
in roman letters. Chinese characters were simplified by government
decree after the war, but today the government targets
proliferating loan words, for which the katakana syllabary
is reserved.

While the Japanese writing system is notoriously difficult,
katakana allows for the rendering of any foreign word or term
in a way that is pronounceable at first sight. It is a perfect
vehicle for borrowing words and the eagerness with which this occurs makes
the process seem like theft. So many words are being transfigured into
katakana that the Japanese have trouble keeping up with the bewildering
stew of neologisms, and the process hampers communication rather than
enriches the language.

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2. Culling Japanese of Incomprehensible Loan Words

Enter the National Institute for Japanese Language (NIJLA).
The institute published last week its fourth midterm report on
"translation words"--Japanese words to replace
unfamiliar loan words. The NIJLA proposed 35 translation words.
So, for example, "work sharing," written in katakana, would be
replaced by "shigoto no wakachiai," written in a combination of
Chinese characters and hiragana script. The words, of course,
mean the same thing. Translation words have been proposed for
kasutamumedo, conposuto, wansutoppu, and negurekuto,* among
others that, according to an NIJLA survey, are understood by fewer
than one in four Japanese. (*custom-made, compost,one-stop, neglect)

The NIJLA will be canvassing for opinions of its list of
candidate words (http://www.kokken.go.jp/) until November 7.
The definitive list will be published in January of next year.

Heretofore the NIJLA has consisted of approximately 20
linguists and writers--specialists in the use of words. From
next year, however, experts from other fields, including
information technology and the environment, will join the
institute for consideration of words from their respective
lexicons. "Having experts in the fields using the loan words
helps us come up with more appropriate translations," commented
an NIJLA spokesperson. It is assumed that welfare, as well as
IT and environment, will be a field culled of unfamiliar words.

Words that were candidates for replacement but for which no
good Japanese equivalents have been found are "ubiquitous" and
"domestic violence." The coining of native substitutes for these
words will be entrusted to the specialist subcommittees to
be formed.

On the same day as the release of the midterm report the
NIJLA released the results of a nationwide survey asking
municipalities to evaluate past proposals for "translation
words." Ninety-seven percent of the approximately 1,800 municipalities who
responded said the proposals served as a useful reference. However, only
26% of the municipalities were dealing with the targeted loan words on a
systematic basis--and that figure includes local governments only
reviewing replacement.

Which suggests municipalities are paying lip service to
NIJLA recommendations, and that the Japanese will continue to
swipe words for convenience, the cachet of their foreignness,
or the satisfaction of befuddling non-insiders.

Beri intaresuteingu!

--Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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