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Friday, Feb. 23, 2001


Choberigu -- foreign loan words in Japanese


The translator's mind is constantly at work, traveling between two languages and two cultures. Some even say that bilingual people find it difficult to think solely in one language. The cross-breeding of languages and ideas is a natural progression in the evolutionary process of a translator's life.

However, translators must be able to clearly delineate the differences between languages in their brain and try their best to keep each language separate, clean and untouched. At the same time, they are expected to be aware of new developments in both languages, in order to keep track of new expressions and words.

Many gairaigo (imported words) have entered the Japanese language, and katakana is used to write them. Most of these imports into Japanese originated in English and other European languages. Anyone familiar with Japanese, for example, knows some English words that have been adopted and incorporated into the Japanese language. Two current examples are the expressions "corporate restructuring" and "sexual harassment," respectively shortened into the media-friendly risutora and sekuhara. One of my favorites in the last couple of years is mobariman: it combines the "mobile" from "mobile phone" and part of the word "salaryman" to create a word that connotes a businessperson on the move.

Japanese youth display great inventiveness and creative flare when it comes to language and expression, constantly shortening or combining words to create new ones. Some might recall the rampant usage not so long ago of words like choberiba and choberigu. Cho means "very much" or "hyper" (it's also the "sur-" in "surrealism") and "beri" is the Japanese pronunciation of "very." Ba is a shortened version of "bad," while gu is an abbreviation of "good."

The nuances of Japanese are difficult enough for nonnative speakers to grasp even without these kind of peculiar inventions. But translators must keep abreast of these new words; they must keep them tucked safely in their memory drawer, as the words will eventually, no doubt, sneak their way into a text for translation.

When a foreign word is imported into Japanese, its meaning may change, or it may be used in ways which sound grammatically odd to the non-Japanese ear. In the latter case, the words sound odd because we might expect loan words to bring their grammar rules as well as their meanings to the new language. But of course, loan words become Japanese words and have to obey Japanese, not English, grammar.

(The effect of the above can often be humorous, of course: for some entertaining examples of the use of English words in Japanese, see the Web site www.engrish.com )

Thinking about loan words and grammar, I flipped through the reference book "Gendai Yogo no Kihon Chishiki (Basic Knowledge of Contemporary Japanese Terminology)." Besides providing basic world almanac-like information, this book details new words and expressions from the past year, clearly separated by theme: environment, politics, science, health, technology, industry, art, sports and fads. It is a wonderful reference book for translators. You can find, for example, what the word "laser" stands for ("light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation"), and also discover who exactly Bura-Pi is (Brad Pitt) -- all in the same book!

As the communications revolution continues and as the world gets smaller, I can only imagine language crossbreeding and evolving faster. "Japlish" is but one of the many hybrid languages out there. "Spanglish" (Spanish + English) is probably the most popular of those used in the United States. But it's Internet lingo, no doubt, that's developing the fastest. For all these hybrid languages, there are reference books that detail the origin and meaning of the cross-bred words. A quick Internet search came up with a Spanglish Dictionary online as well as a Web site -- www.netlingo.com -- that offered a glossary of terms from online culture.

Anybody interested in creating a Japlish dictionary?

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