Daigaku Z: Borrowed Trouble

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

As the second semester of my language study begins, I’m reminded of a rather interesting incident that happened during the very first time I studied any language. This would be from high school, when I went into learning French under the tutelage of the eminently capable Mme. Blair. Being fourteen years old, naturally I gravitated towards certain words more steadily than the ones that, necessarily, I would have had I been in any amount more mature than I was. The most infamous of those was vomir, which as you can expect means exactly what it sounds like.

This leads us to the French word demander, which similarly appears to be analogous to the English word “demand”, but in fact carries a very different connotation. I imagine that you are demanding an explanation as you read this, but je vous demande a little patience– that is, I politely ask for a little patience from you, even as you aggressively assert your requirement. While the words come from a similar linguistic root– the Latin cognate– they are what’s known in linguistic circles as “false friends”, or words that appear identical but carry diverging meanings in different languages. Odds are that you’ve run into this situation in a cursory study of Japanese yourself: the gerund form shite (to do) looks remarkably similar to an English word that I don’t think needs any further introduction.

In Latinate or Germanic languages, this kind of drift is understandable if somewhat strange. But in the case of certain other coincidences– such as the English “name” being similar to the Japanese nominal namae, which means the same thing– it can border on the baffling. These situations are instead known as “false cognates”, where two words in two unconnected languages are similar. That’s all fine and good when discussing relatively mundane words, but Japanese makes things much more interesting in many more interesting ways.

Recall that during the last semester, we discovered that Japanese society as a general rule is synthetic– not in the sense of being artificial, but rather in the sense of being synthesized from its own history combining with the customs and traditions of its neighbors here on Earth. This goes double for the language, as well. While we like to think of English as the reigning champion of taking loanwords from other languages with reckless abandon, Japanese takes it two steps further by not only appropriating words, but abbreviating them and then giving sometimes wildly new definitions to the abbreviations.

Take that most ubiquitous of Japanese shopping staples, the convenience store. Known over there as a konbini, they’re slightly more involved than your basic 7-11 in America; they are clean, well-stocked stores where most everything that could be needed at a moment’s notice is available. Certainly not what your average American thinks of when hearing the full expansion of the phrase. But then you get into places like soaplands, which are about as far from squeaky-clean as my imagination is willing to take this sentence; these serve as areas where one can receive “service” from particular types of ladies. Hell, even the word service means a vendor or provider going the extra mile to earn your custom.

It’s not all seedy bathhouses and microwaved noodles. Likewise, the false friends aren’t limited to English loanwords. The sentence particle de in Japanese is used to mark an adverb-like modifier of a verb; for example, densha de itte! means (roughly) “Let’s go by train!”. In French, and in fact a lot of Latin languages, de is a possessive marker– directly translating in English to “of”. That linguistic function is served, in Japanese, by the word no. Which, of course, in English is a response indicating a negative.

If anything, the whole mess has done one good thing for me. It’s taught me that the Great Engineer of the Universe put the French and the Japanese on opposite sides of the planet for a very good reason.