Caution: The カタカナ language
When learning Japanese, one will come across カタカナ at some stage. This is a writing system with the sole purpose of identifying foreign words. Or at least, that is what it was supposed to be. However, as time went by, a wind of change came with it. Nowadays, カタカナ has turned into its own language. Yes, it really has. It has changed from チョコレート to リモコン to フリーター, and finally to ホワイト. Some words originally came from overseas; some words have been chopped short to simplify pronunciation; some words have been created by the Japanese society to represent foreign words; and some have been modified to better suit the Japanese way of pronunciation.
When learning Japanese, I want you to keep an eye out for the カタカナ words/language so that your learning experience will be as smooth and pleasant as possible. Let us take a look at the various types of words カタカナ has created.
Simple foreign words
This is the easiest and the most obvious type of カタカナ。
- アルコール (alcohol)
- コップ (cup)
- ショッピング (shopping)
- ビデオ (video)
Take note that the pronunciation can be different at times. When you say コップ in Japanese, the pronunciation is more of a ko sound rather than the ka sound. Also note the the ho sound is missing in アルコール. Another thing to note is the ending; it always ends with a vowel. Since Japanese alphabets always end with a vowel, it goes without saying for words as well.
Taking note of such subtle yet detectable differences is a step closer to understanding the Japanese カタカナ, which will be very helpful to you, as it has a large impact on our daily lives.
Shortened foreign words
These are hard to understand, and they can be alien to us unless we directly gain exposure to it.
- リモートコントロール ＝ リモコン (Remote Control)
- ママ、リモコンはどこ? (Hey Mom, where’s the remote?)
- ナビゲーション ＝ ナビ (Navigation)
- 最近のカーナビはとても便利だね！！(The car navigation systems are pretty handy nowadays!!)
- パーソナルコンピューター ＝ パソコン (Personal Computer = PC)
- パソコンでゲームしようぜ! (Let us play games on the computer!)
- スターバックス ＝ スタバ (Starbucks)
- スタバに行かない? (Why don’t we go to Starbucks?)
- スマートフォン ＝ スマホ (Smartphone)
- 新しいスマホを買ったんだ。(I bought a new smartphone you know)
As you can see, there are some shortened words that are used in English like the PC. However, when we get into territories of スタバ、, this can become a nightmare. The problem is not about the shortening of words, rather it is about what it could represent depending on the type of people you hang out with. Many Japanese people tend to chop down English words (even Japanese words) to convey thoughts quickly.
If you are affiliated with sports, you may hear a lot of スタメン スターティングメンバー (starting member). It could also mean スタミナメンテナンス (stamina maintenance). So please be careful.
Japan-made foreign words
Is such a thing possible!? Foreign words made in Japan? Yes, exactly, and it did not come from overseas. It is made to look and sound like a foreign word exclusively in Japan so it only has meanings in Japan. Let us take a look at some examples:
- アイス (It means ice cream, even though it is read as ice)
- 今日は暑いからアイス食べよう！(I will have an ice cream since it is so hot!)
- フリーター (This denotes a person who makes a living through part-time jobs)
- フリーターも歓迎です。(We also welcome unemployed personnel)
- ジーパン (This means Jeans (US) or Pants (UK), and as you can see, it is a hybridised word)
- そろそろ新しいジーパンを買わなきゃ。(I should get some new jeans/pants soon)
Sometimes foreign words can be written slightly differently, which means that there may be a slight variation when you read it. It sounds almost the same, however, and one may be preferred to the other depending on the person using it. I will highlight the ones I frequently use. But please feel free to use whichever suits you. Let us take a look at some examples.
- サンドイッチ = サンドウィッチ (Sandwich)
- このサンドイッチは美味しい！！(This sandwich is good!!)
- ダイアモンド = ダイヤモンド (Diamond)
- このダイヤ（ダイヤモンド）は美しい。(This diamond is gorgeous)
- ホワイト = ワイト (White)
- ホワイトチョコを作りたいな。(I want to make white chocolates)
- バイオリン = ブァイオリン (Violin)
- このバイオリンは古いです。(This violin is old)
- ペルシャ = ペルシヤ (Persia)
- ペルシア戦争はいつ起きましたか？(When did the Persian war take place?)
To conclude, Japanese people have been importing many foreign words since the Meiji era (before the 1900s). Some have remained similar while others have evolved over time. Overall, they sound different because the imported words have been forced to fit into the Japanese language. This has made it difficult for language learners to master the カタカナ language.
The best way to get used to this is to immerse yourself in the language. Note down the ways カタカナ can be used and keep an eye out for such uses. Gradually, you will start to understand how to utilize the カタカナ language.
Hero Image by author