August 28th, 2015

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Japanese Diary 26: Yes we katakana

It's a long time since I wrote an entry on my Japanese studies, but that doesn't mean they haven't been proceeding. Recently I joined italki.com, in part to get through the summer break in my Japanese classes without losing momentum, but it's proving so helpful that I'm sure I'll carry on with it anyway. It's primarily meant to be a way of getting an online teacher, I think, but so far I've only used it to talk to native Japanese speakers who want to improve their English and are prepared to help me with my Japanese in exchange. This is very useful for me, because although I'm making some progress with grammar, vocabulary and even the kanji, tuning my ear into spoken Japanese is proving very hard, so real-time practice is invaluable. And besides, I've had conversations with some really lovely people. On the basis of my brief experience at least, I highly recommend checking out italki.com if you're learning a language.

I keep being struck by what a Procrustean language Japanese is, from the point of view of the pronunciation of loanwords. All languages adapt imported words to native habits of pronunciation to an extent, but Japanese doesn't even try to meet them halfway - it simply forces foreign words into its limited phonemic/syllabic range. Thus "hamburg steak" becomes "ハンバーグ", or "hanbaagu", because Japanese doesn't allow for "m" or "g" sounds that aren't followed by a vowel ("n" is the only consonant that doesn't need a following vowel, in fact). I'm guessing that the person who introduced the Hamburg steak to Japan didn't have a strong retroflex "r" in their accentual repertoire, or the Japanese might easily have been ""ハンバルグ" ("hanbarugu").

It's hard to see any pattern to the way that the names of European countries find their way into Japanese. In some cases they are approximations (with allowances for the Procrustean processes described above) to the native names: Germany is ドイツ (doitsu), Italy is イタリア (itaria). But in other cases the English word seems to have been used as the basis: スペイン (spein) is much closer to "Spain" than to "España", which would be more nearly rendered as エスパーニャ. As for Britain (イギリス - igirisu), it appears to be a bastardized version of the word "English", which is a little problematic... I imagine this piecemeal approach reflects the piecemeal nature of the cultural contacts between Japan and the various countries involved - but I don't know.

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