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War of the Words

rant.jpg (22929 bytes)

Illustration by Dot

I find it quite ironic that so many foreigners here take a critical view of the Japanese for borrowing many words from English. I wonder if these traditionalists have had the opportunity to investigate the etymology of many words that they use every day in their own language - English.

With the Norman invasion of England in 1066, there was an enormous infusion of French words into the English language - 10,000 of them, in fact, by the time of the great poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Although the English were governed by a French-speaking aristocracy for centuries and may have adopted these words as a result of subjugation, borrowing from French has often occurred since those times for reasons of pure fashion. Since the late 17th century, words like police, cigarette, picnic, liaison, menu, morale, massage, souvenir, rapport, na´ve, and prairie have all been a part of the English sponging from the French.

I've watched native English speakers cringe at the Japanese katakana-like pronunciation of borrowed English words. Likewise, I'm curious if the French cringe at the English pronunciation of glacier (GLAYsherr). Even prior to this amendment of original (and I use the term loosely) English, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon speaking tribes were borrowing everyday words from the Romans. Without this Latin influence we would not have words for butter, wine, or anchors that have remained in our lexicon since those early times - or would we?

I've also witnessed exasperation regarding the reason why the Japanese, at times, choose a foreign word when there is a "perfectly good Japanese equivalent." How would these purists feel if I asked them if they like to eat wastems; or that I wished I lived in a sibbly world; or that my favorite time of year is when the bleads bloom in the spring. These words, of course, are the modern versions of the original Old English words for fruit, peaceful and flowers respectively. And why does everyone back at home say karaoke, pronounced kearioki, instead of sing-a-long or some other equivalent? Why has it become more fashionable to say tsunami in many places in America instead of tidal wave? If not for loanwords from French, Latin, Greek, Celtic, Scandinavian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Dravidian, Chinese, and a plethora of other languages including Japanese, English would appear quite different indeed!

So, I suggest that before anyone condemns the Japanese for borrowing words from other languages, they should take a course in Old English from Dr Kenneth Schaefer at Temple University and learn the original English words for the tainted vocabulary that they now possess - or better yet, pick up a dictionary and discover the origins of a large part of their vocabulary on their own. Likewise, when referring to soy sauce over lunch, I also suggest that they discover a pure English word for it, since soy is an English loanword borrowed from Japanese.

Many thanks to reader Stephen Perras for this Rant.

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