The English Influence on the Japanese Language - Borrowing as a Trend

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

50 Pages, Grade: 1




Languages have always been in contact with other languages. Much has been written about language contact among Indo-European languages. Thus, this paper aims to shed some light in the direction of a so-called exotic language: Japanese. For many it is still a language considered to be unaffected by outer influences due to its grammatical complexity and geographical origin. But quite the opposite is the case. Japanese culture and language comprise an abundance of English or foreign expressions respectively which gives rise to take a closer look, first of all what borrowing means in theory, and then how this can be applied on the subject of Japanese borrowings in particular, in terms of how much is borrowed, especially from the English language, and how the borrowings are integrated into the native Japanese language system.

Chapter I – Introduction to Borrowing

Nowadays and throughout history languages have always had contact with other languages. The degree and type of contact among the languages may vary, however. Winford (2003) sees three broad kinds of contact situations: language maintenance, language shift and creation of new contact languages. Assigning a contact situation to one or the other type is difficult because every contact situation is different.

Language maintenance means the preservation by a speech community of its native language from generation to generation, and the influence on the lexicon and structure of a group's native language from external language with which it is in contact is referred to as 'borrowing' (Winford 2003:12). The term 'borrowing', however, is misleading, because the borrowed terms are not literally borrowed, since the words stay with and belong to the vocabulary of the donor language. Moreover, the language borrowing the words does not give back the 'borrowed' items, it is not intended at least, although by sheer coincidence words may return - even in a different shape - to the donor language, as it occurred to the word 'sport', that came into French via English, which had taken the ancestor of the word from French (Hock 1996:254). The agents of change are the language's native speakers, in which case the borrowing language is the recipient language and the donor language is the source language. The borrowing process may vary in degree and kind from heavy to lexical borrowing, from slight to more or less significant incorporation of structural features as well. Lexical borrowing, that means borrowing of content morphemes like nouns or verbs, is extremely common. Structural borrowings on the other hand, that means borrowing features in phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics are rarer, though can be found as well (Winford 2003:12). Borrowing mostly takes place in situation of structural convergence. That often happens where languages are spoken in close geographical proximity, like border areas or communities characterized by a high degree of multilingualism. A good example for that are 'Sprachbünde', like the Balkan Sprachbund, where a significant diffusion of structural features of Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek and Macedonien for instance is prevalent (Winford 2003:13). Code-switching situations are also part of the language maintenance situations. These involve alternate use of two languages within the same stretch of speech and often even within the same sentence.

(1) Hey Lolita, but the Skylab, the Skylab no se cayó pa (-ra) que se acabe el mundo. (Winford 2003:14).

Language shift may take place between different linguistic groups, mostly when these groups encounter in a permanent contact situation. In such a case, one of the group's native languages will partially or even totally be abandoned in favour for another, as it predominantly happens to immigration groups coming to the United States, which by the third generation succeed in achieving native proficiency in American English (Winford 2003:15). The third kind of contact settings are dealing with bilingual mixed languages, often referred to as pidgins or creoles. These contact situations often have extreme outcomes, since they, put simplistically, take the vocabulary of one source and fuse it with the grammar of the other source. An example for that is the Media Lengua of Ecuador, a language which incorporates Spanish lexicon into a virtually unchanged Quechua grammatical framework (Winford 2003:19).

There are different factors that determine the varied outcomes of languages in contact. Up till now, only structural linguistic constraints have been mentioned as primary determinants of contact-induced change. There are extralinguistic factors like social contexts, however, that make it possible that virtually any linguistic feature can be transferred from one language to another – if the social circumstances are right. Winford (2003:26) discusses a spectrum introduced by Loveday, that sees a relatively homogeneous community of monolinguists on one end of the spectrum, most of whom have little or no contact with a foreign language, like the Japanese or the Russian. Borrowing in that case is mostly reduced to lexical borrowings that enter the receiving language via the mass media or travelling individuals for instance. In the middle of the spectrum we find situations involving varying degrees of bi- or multi-lingualism within the community. The Basques in southern France are an example of that, preserving their language for a long time and isolating it from the dominant language, although shift to the dominant language may eventually take place (Winford 2003:27). At the extreme end of the spectrum we find highly heterogeneous communities that can be characterized by high degrees of individual multilingualism, where the "fluidity of their social boundaries is matched by the fluidity of their linguistic practices" (Winford 2003:27).

Motivations for Lexical Borrowing

The most apparent presumption about motivation for borrowing is need.

"If the speakers of a given language take over new cultural items, new technical, religious concepts, or references to foreign locations, fauna, flora, there obviously is a need for vocabulary to express these concepts or references" (Hock 1996:271).

All speech communities want to keep their vocabulary up to date to compete in developments in science and technology. This, for instance, is what motivated much of the borrowings from Chinese into Japanese in the Middle Ages. Other borrowings may be motivated by prestige or fashion. The spread of English loanwords into many languages around the world may have attributed to these two factors. Although, in bilingual contact situations the reasons for borrowing are not as easy to determine, because the motivations are based on a complex mixture of notions related to 'intensity of contact', 'cultural pressure' and 'language attitude' (Winford 2003:38). Once again, mostly borrowing takes place from a more prestigious into a socially subordinate language, since the borrowed words from the higher esteemed language carry the notion of social and economic advancement, employment or educational opportunities. As it comes to Japanese, the motive for the immense amount of borrowings is that English words seem to have a more sophisticated air to them, especially the English loanwords in Japanese advertising. The borrowed words display the products in a new light that appeals to the customers.

However, the above mentioned terms 'notion' and 'prestige' must clearly be understood in relation to the social aspects of the contact situation, "particularly the kinds of culture contact and social interaction that characterize the relationships between the groups involved" (Winford 2003:39).

Considering that the English vocabulary has a sufficient number of entries with which any matter can be explained in detail one wonders why there was need to borrow 'beef', 'veal' and 'pork'. The reason is prestige. For the term 'beef' alone English can provide three equivalents, namely 'cow', 'bull' or 'ox', but there is a semantic difference between the three aforementioned terms and the term 'beef' borrowed from French. Whereas the three English terms are lexical items to describe living animals, the French word 'beef' includes all three English words but on a more abstract basis. 'Beef' only refers to a meal prepared with or including the flesh of the respective animal. This semantic differentiation, however, developed later. When the French culture and prestige dominated after the conquest of England in 1066 it was a matter of 'prestige', since the English terms belonged to social spheres of raising and herding animals. "If something is PRESTIGIOUS, we may feel a NEED to imitate or borrow it" (Hock 1996:272).

Another aspect of 'prestige' is linguistic nationalism. In a great number of languages the speakers wish to keep their language as 'pure' – that means with as little foreign influence – as possible, commonly referred to as linguistic nationalism or linguistic purism. Here social motivation to accept adopted words in their language stands in stark contrast to the ideal of 'prestige'. Mostly it is deemed more prestigious of the speakers of a language to adapt foreign words. However, in many cases, adoption and adaptation are both used to bring a foreign word into the vocabulary. German for example offers more than one choice to express one and the same thing. 'Radio' and 'Rundfunk' are two versions for 'radio', the first one being the adoption and the second one an adaptation used almost exclusively as official expression. Even the French, who put their language under strict scrutiny by the Académie Francaise, could not prevent the usage of English expressions like 'le week-end' or 'le hamburger' for example, which have found wide acceptance. "In most societies, linguistic nationalism provides an important counterbalance to the prestige of foreign culture and vocabulary" (Hock 1996:282). Thus, the two most decisive factors determining if a word enters the native vocabulary are the socially based notions of prestige and linguistic nationalism.

Another motivation for the usage of Anglicisms is linguistic precision. A term can often be expressed – especially in technical terminology – more precisely with a borrowed word than with its respective translation or with a loan translation, because the semantic field of the borrowed word is clearly defined and does not have confusing second meanings. The borrowed words, moreover, can fill gaps of designation and meaning and differentiate the expression from words with similar semantics, setting them apart more precisely (Rinner-Kawai 1991:352).

Borrowing Scale

It has been said that there is a range from relatively slight lexical borrowing under casual contact to extreme structural borrowing under very intense contact. On that basis Thomason & Kaufman (1988:74-76) developed a borrowing probability scale (see Appendix 1). The scale comprises five stages representing increasing intensity of contact, and increasing typological distance. Features at the top of the list are borrowed first and the presence of borrowed features lower on the scale implies presence of features placed higher. Winford (2003:30), however, is not sure if structural borrowing can be accounted for as borrowing at all. He argues that, even though there is sufficient proof for structural interference between languages, there is no need to borrow structural features into one's native language, since equivalent features exist.

The majority of lexical borrowings result from only marginal contact (or casual contact, with Thomason & Kaufman's terminology) with other languages, that could almost said to be distant contact, since it stems from contact via the mass media or nowadays especially the internet. The internet in particular has been strong and pervasive in spreading American English vocabulary (Winford 2003:31). In unequal bilinguism chances are even greater that lexical and other forms are borrowed, because two or more languages are prevalent within the same region. This situation occurs after invasion, conquest or special contacts for trade purposes, for instance. It ensues that the language of the minority group is somehow isolated or segregated within the surrounding of another dominant language. Therefore, the minority group's language is particularly susceptible to lexical borrowing and will eventually either become bilingual or shift to the host language. It all depends on the symmetry of power and prestige of the languages involved, and normally but not always borrowing takes place in the direction of the subordinate language (Winford 2003:34).

The Borrowing Process

The process of borrowing can be very selective. To make it clear from the beginning, many so-called borrowings are not a result of a direct or unchanged adoption of the foreign item with both form and meaning as in the donor language. Borrowings can adopt the foreign form and assign a new meaning to it (Japanese ' sumato'"slim, slender"< English smart), or they adopt a foreign meaning and assign it to a native form (Japanese ' sara', extended to include Western-style 'plate'). Moreover, many borrowings are creations that have no equivalent in the donor language, although material from the donor language may be used (Japanese ' wan-man-ka'"bus without a conductor"<English one+man+car). Other creations consist of only native material, others again are blends of native and foreign material. Winford (2003:43) classifies lexical contact phenomena in two broad categories (lexical borrowing and creations), where lexical borrowings can be subdivided into two subcategories, namely loanwords and loanshifts. Loanshifts change the meaning of an existing word from the native vocabulary to accommodate the meaning of a foreign word, foreign semantic is combined with native linguistic form (Hock 1996:263). A process that can be situated between adoption and loan shifts are loan translations. They do not introduce foreign or unknown elements but new forms. The English term 'world view' comes from German 'Weltanschauung', of which it is a loan translation. In contrast to the borrowed item 'weltanschauung' , the former is composed of native elements only. Occasionally the loan translations are not exact translations of the foreign word – for instance German 'Wolkenkratzer' and English 'skyscraper' (Hock 1996:264). Again, loanwords can be subdivided into pure loanwords and loanblends. For the means of a better overview see Appendix 2 as presented by Winford (2003:45) based on Haugen.


Lexical borrowings tend to be adapted in terms of phonology and morphology of the recipient language and soon become indistinguishable from the native elements. At least this is true in cases of light to moderate borrowings. The process, often referred to as nativization, most probably happens during all borrowing processes in order to integrate the borrowing more firmly into the new structure so that the new words can be pronounced. Sounds that are unavailable must be substituted by the most similar native sound, as in Bach, where most English people substitute [k] for [x] because the latter one is not included in the English set of sounds (Hock 1996:260). English loanwords in Japanese must be adapted to Japanese pronunciation as well as its preferred CV structure. This is accomplished by various means. Japanese makes use of epenthesis (e.g., baseball > besuboru), cluster simplification (sweater > seta), and syllabification of glides (quiz > kuizu) (Winford 2003:47).

Loanwords as such do not pose a problem in terms of syntactic adaptation, since they behave like their counterparts of a different syntactic category in the recipient language. Morphological adaptation, however, is more difficult, depending on the complexity of the recipient language's grammar. Mostly, the borrowed item is treated as a native stem which then follows the rules of morphology according to the class it is assigned to (Winford 2003:48).

Especially Japanese comprises a very creative process of adaptation when it comes to the integration of loan items into the morphological system. When Japanese takes English loans, for instance, they are treated like uninflected nouns which can be converted to other speech classes by the help of adding suffixes or a helping verb (Loveday 1996:118). Thus, borrowed nouns can easily be converted to adjectives by attaching the suffix –na, e.g. ' romanchikku-na'"romantic" or into adverbs by attaching the suffix –ni, e.g. ' romanchikku-ni'"romantically"[1]. Borrowed nouns can also be converted to be used as verbs in Japanese, with the help of the verb ' suru' which means 'to do' or 'to make'. Therefore, combinations like ' sain suru'"to sign" or ' enjoi suru'"enjoy" are possible in Japanese and go conform with its derivation patterns (Winford 2003:50). "Even the 'clipping' of loan items common in Japanese (e.g ., han-suto<hanga-sutoraiki<hunger strike) is a way of making such importations conform more closely to native Japanese morpho-phonology" (Loveday 1996:118).


There are not only social factors which determine the degree and type of lexical borrowing. Even more important are structural constraints. "The most general constraint involves the well-known 'hierarchy of borrowability', according to which open-class content items like nouns and adjectives lend themselves most easily to borrowing, while closed-class function items like pronouns and conjunctions are least likely to be adopted. The most comprehensive [hierarchy] is the following, from Muysken: nouns > adjectives > verbs > prepositions > co-ordinating conjunctions > quantifiers > determiners > free pronouns > clitic pronouns > subordinating conjunctions" (Winford 2003:51). Thus, certain spheres of vocabulary are more easily borrowed than others, whereas some show great resistance to borrowing, especially basic vocabulary is not very susceptible to change. Basic vocabulary includes words that refer to the most basic human needs or activities ('eat', 'sleep', 'have', 'be') or essential words used to mark syntax like 'when', 'that' or 'if'. Under the right circumstances, however, even basic words may be borrowed, as it happened in the English language when they borrowed 'they', 'their' and 'them' from the so-called Danes. Words referring to technology are most susceptible to be borrowed because there are usually gaps for newly invented items or ideas so that borrowing will most probably take place if another language has already come up with a term for the given subject or object (Hock 1996: 258).

The reason for the increased borrowability for nouns and adjectives is that they less tightly integrated into the grammar's subsystem than function morphemes. Moreover, they do occur more freely in contexts where they can be isolated and extracted as loans. The feature of being open-ended word-classes in the recipient language makes them more receptive to new additions. Very structured items such as pronouns and prepositions for instance are hence a lot more resistant to borrowing. This is reflected in the borrowing probability scale introduced earlier where lexical borrowings are not as much constrained as structural borrowings (Winford 2003:519). Weinreich (in Winford 2003:52) argues that typological differences in word structure inhibit direct borrowing and promote the use of strategies like loanshifts or loan translations instead, taken the contact is sufficiently intense. He cites examples of Tibetan borrowing words directly from Chinese because of its similarity in word structure, whereas words from Sanskrit where taken over into Tibetan as loan translations due to the mismatch of their word structures.


[1] Actually, this example is not fully correct. Japanese borrowed the English word ‘romantic’ which already is an adjective, but yet has to be followed by –na to mark it as a Japanese adjective. The example would be correct if Japanese had borrowed the English noun ‘romance’ and had then attached the suffix –na. On the other hand, maybe Winford has got ‘a romantic’ (a person who is romantic) in mind.

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The English Influence on the Japanese Language - Borrowing as a Trend
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Historical Linguistics
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The coursework is written in English. Added at the end of the coursework you'll find the exam-prep material that is based on this cousework and was used just a few weeks ago to write a '1' in my final 4h written exam. Double spaced The exam-prep material is sorted in two sections, a general introductory part about borrowing in general, and a second section about the particularities of the borrowing process between Japanese and English.
English, Influence, Japanese, Language, Borrowing, Trend, Historical, Linguistics
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Anonymous, 2004, The English Influence on the Japanese Language - Borrowing as a Trend, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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