Loanwords: Words with a Japanese origin

Emoji, a Japanese word meaning literally “picture” and “writing”

Because I live in Japan, I’m interested in seeing aspects of Japanese culture and language make their way into American society. It’s fun and interesting to see how people react to, adopt, and make these new elements their own.

There have been many Japanese words that have gained popularity, acceptance, and hence usage in English. Some words I can think of have been in the American English lexicon longer than others. Some are newer and have been introduced more recently.

Karate, judo, typhoon, tsunami, karaoke, sushi, anime, sake, and emoji.

When I look at the list, I notice there are categories that these words fall into. Sports, weather, and food. The fact that those are words that have been adopted into English make sense because they represent concepts and cultural items that are unique to Japan.

What got me thinking about this topic was the pronunciation of these loanwords. Recently my sister visited me here in Japan. We had a lot of fun, but in conversation she used a couple of words that had a Japanese etymology- sake and karaoke namely.

Sake is a type of rice alcohol but closer to wine made from rice. In Japanese, it is pronounced /seɪk/ or /sakay/. I noticed many people who haven’t studied or are aware of the pronunciation of Japanese pronounce it /sakee/. It’s interesting how that word changed when it was adopted and used.

Sake or Japanese rice wine is enjoyed by people all over the world

If you change the Japanese sounds and characters to the alphabet what they call romaji, the word is written sake. You can see how someone who is reading that word in alphabet characters (with the final e) might decode it as /sakee/, instead of /sakay/ because in English we don’t often spell the /keɪ/ or /kay/ sound – ke.

Foreman & Foreman suggest for emergent bilinguals comparing spelling in the two languages to find similarities and differences (p. 149). But this comparison, Foreman & Foreman write works better for languages that are related like English, Spanish, and French. Japanese is not related to English, but I feel that a comparison of what letters make which sounds could be a valuable exercise.

On a related note, because I know how words like that are pronounced in Japanese and English, I noticed and feel this sort of tension between how to pronounce it depending on which group I’m with. When with Americans, I feel unsure how to pronounce it because of the difference. Should I pronounce it the American way or the Japanese way? To pick which one, sometimes you have to make certain assumptions about what the other person knows and understands.

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