Blast from the past: Loanwords

Originally posted June 16, 2013

Teaching business English to Japanese students in Shanghai has reminded me of one thing that I miss about South Korea, where I used to live: English loanwords. A loanword is a word from one language that gets adopted by another language. Modern-day Korean is littered with English loanwords, which often makes for curious listening; a foreigner who doesn’t understand Korean, listening to a Korean conversation, will hear a stream of completely unintelligible speech punctuated now and then by strangely pronounced English words such as “shopping” or “condition.”

As I discovered in my classes with Japanese students, the Japanese also borrow an enormous number of words from English, ranging from everyday items (konpyuuta for “computer”) to abstract concepts (moraru for “moral”). This provides Japanese ESL students with a large “built-in lexicon” of English words that they already know because they are commonly used in Japan.

In one class, I was amused to hear a student refer to a car horn as kurakushon, which I took to be a borrowing of the English word “correction” – quite an evocative way to describe a blaring horn. In fact, as I later learned, kurakushon comes from “klaxon,” the name for the electric horn that makes the classic ah-OO-gah sound of early cars and submarines.

Japanese and Koreans love to use English loanwords. But Chinese rarely use them, because the Chinese language is extremely loanword-resistant. Sometimes, in a relatively upscale venue such as Starbucks or a nice restaurant, I will hear people dropping English words, usually in a context where the speakers are working together or talking about work or business. As English is the default language of international business, its not surprising to hear actual English terms like “city manager” or “enterprise software” bandied about in China. But I generally don’t hear English loanwords at all.

Consider that in Japanese, “table” is teburu, “ice cream” is aisu kurimu, and “cheerleader” is chiagaru (“cheer girl”). In Korean, those words are rendered as te-i-beul, a-i-seu keu-rim, and chi-eo ri-deo, respectively.

In China you call them zhuozi, bingqilin, and lala duizhang – there is no borrowing from English at all.

By and large, the Chinese adopt foreign words by translating them semantically rather than transliterating them – that is, transferring the semantic information (meaning) rather than the phonetic information (sound). Thus, the Chinese word for “computer” is diannao, meaning literally, “electronic brain.” (Again, the Japanese word for “computer” is konpyuuta – a transliteration.) “Democracy” is minzhu, meaning “people rule.”

Some more examples:

  • hedonism: xiangle zhuyi (literally: “to seek pleasure” + “ideology”)
  • jeans: niuzai ku (lit: “cowboy trousers”)
  • mainstream: zhuliu (lit: “main” + “stream”)

These and similar modern coinages are fun to learn. Unlike the bland phonetic borrowings in Japanese and Korean, they are vivid, meaningful and organic expressions of the Chinese language, using native Chinese words to express new and/or foreign concepts.

But I have to say that there is something pleasing to me, as a native English speaker, about the abundance of English loanwords in Japanese and Korean. Above all, I miss the craziness of Konglish (Korean English), with its distorted borrowings of English words and phrases. Besides the simple transliterations mentioned earlier, such as shopping and ice cream, Korean also has a quirky lexicon of English loanwords with altered meanings and English words combined to form novel phrases. For instance, Koreans will routinely and unselfconsciously use expressions like these:

  • a-i syo-ping (“eye shopping”) = window shopping
  • geul-lae-meo (“glamour”) = voluptuous woman
  • mi-ting (“meeting”) = blind date
  • sa-i-deo (“cider”) = soft drink such as Coke or Pepsi
  • sel-peu kae-me-ra (“self camera”) = home/amateur video

I have also heard this one in Korea:

  • syeo-teo-maen (“shutter man”) = man who is financially dependent on his wife – thus his main job is to open and close the rolling steel door (shutter) of his wife’s shop every day

Chinglish, unfortunately, is no match for the glories of Konglish.

Update: On a related note, this is just funny.

“I’m gonna do…”

Barbaric

I’m hearing this all the time now, from people of all ages and stations in life:

Customer: “Yeah, uhmmmm…. I’m gonna do a 6-inch meatball sub.”

Sandwich Artist®: “And what would you like to drink, sir?”

Customer: “Yeah, I’m gonna do a Coke.”

Where does this horrible locution come from? What is its etymology? Are linguists looking into this? Google is drawing a blank.

“Can I get…” is bad enough – a shameful mutation of the traditional “May I please have…” or the more up-to-date, but still polite “Can I have… please” / “I’ll have… please.” Apparently, we’ve reached another milestone in the descent into cultural barbarism. The next stage will be to jab your finger at the thing you want while grunting ferociously.

Jeez, people. Nobody expects you to talk like the host of Masterpiece Theater… but may you please try not to sound like an absolute moron? Thanks.