When I was learning Japanese, I expected the easiest part of the process to be the loanwords – words that Japanese has borrowed from other languages – because in the case of English loanwords, they would just sound like English. As with most of my assumptions, I was wrong.
It turns out that not all loanwords’ meanings transfer over accurately (e.g. saakaru – circle – means ‘club’ in Japanese), and even when they do they don’t transfer the way you think they should. ‘Mass communication’, for example, becomes masukomi. That sounds a little like the English word, but still not quite right. So how do not-quite-right loanwords like masukomi come to be?
To answer this question, first we have to consider how the borrowing process works. To borrow a new word into a language, first, a speaker hears the foreign word and then starts to use that word to refer to something. For that to happen, that word needs to be made to fit into the language’s phonology, or sound system (see our post on Japanese phonology). In the case of English words borrowed into Japanese, well, the two languages’ syllable structures don’t match.
English syllables are kind of ‘anything goes’. That is to say, there can be any amount of consonants before and after the vowel. Compare these words, each are only one syllable:
- cat [k æ t] (1 consonant before and after vowel)
- strength [s t ɹ e ŋ k θ] (3 consonants before and after vowel)
Japanese, on the other hand, is far more restricted. It only allows consonant vowel sequences (and sometimes an ‘n’ and the end of syllables).
- hi.to (ɸ i . t o)
- gen.go (g e ŋ . g o)
So, for the English word ‘mass communication’ to be borrowed into Japanese, Japanese needs to make the English sounds fit in the Japanese syllable structure. To make those sequences of consonants legal in Japanese, vowels are inserted between the consonants (called an epenthetic vowel) to make everything a nice consonant-vowel sequence.
So, ‘mass communication’ becomes masucomyunikeeshon.
Great, so now we have the long form. How does that become masukomi? That’s due to truncation — the systematic shortening of words.
Some languages have a preferred word length. Japanese happens to favor three- and four-syllable words. To get to that four-syllable mark, truncation will take a word and cut it into up to four smaller chunks of consonant-vowel sequences. With this in mind, let’s apply this to masucomyunikeeshon:
Now we have the four syllables from masukomi! Err, well, sort of. Really, we’re left with ‘masukomyu‘, not ‘masukomi‘. The myu becomes mi because of some phonetic rules we won’t get into in this post – we’ll leave that for another blog! Other than this though, we’re done: ‘Mass communication’ is now ‘masukomi’.
This shortening process is used everywhere in Japanese, so I encourage you to try it out sometime! Just don’t be surprised if you try it with a loanword and it ends up meaning something entirely different.