These Loanwords in Japanese Didn’t Come From English

Loan words in Japanese, or gairaigo (外来語), are words borrowed from foreign countries other than China — but not all of them come from English.

Ever wondered why “bread” is パン (pan) but not “bureddo” and “part-time jobs” are called アルバイト (arubaito) and not “paatotaimujobu”? That’s because these words actually originate from other European languages. In fact, Portuguese was the first European language introduced to the Japanese, as they were the first Europeans who traded with Japan way back in the 16th century. While the Meiji Restoration and worldwide popularity of English have made it a large source of Japanese loanwords, many common loanwords from non-English Speaking countries are still being used today.

Here is a list of some of the more frequently used Japanese loanwords from German, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and Russian. Next time, you’ll sound like a linguistic expert when your friends ask you to teach them some useful 外来語.

Of course, we’re not diving you head first into the multifaceted world of loanwords. We’ll give you a brief rundown of gairaigo and its significance in Japanese culture.

japanese wago gairaigo kango history of loanwords

History of Loanwords in The Japanese Language

We all like to think that gairaigo(外来語) in the Japanese language mostly comes from English, but that’s not true. In fact, in the past, more loan words in Japanese came from other languages besides English — and English wasn’t the first language that Japan borrowed its words from.

Japan first started borrowing words from other languages in the fourth century when they began adopting Chinese characters. This period is important because it marked the new Japanese writing style of kanji. So many Chinese words were mixed into Japanese that they weren’t even considered “loan words” anymore. Now, most Chinese loan words are written in kanji and use the Chinese reading called onyoumi.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Japan began adopting more loanwords from non-English countries. The Japanese interacted with Portugal and Netherlands, resulting in several loanwords from Portuguese and Dutch. For example, the word rasha is an old loanword that comes from Portuguese, meaning a thick wool cloth.

The Japanese language continued to borrow from many languages. During the Meiji Period, Japan learned a lot of vocabulary words from the Germans: arubaito (アルバイト) came from the word arbeit (“work”) and enerugii (エネルギー, energy) from German energie.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that English became the number one source for loanwords. Today, most (but not all) garaigo we know off are stemmed from the English.

Besides that, Japan also borrows words from modern Chinese and Korean languages, especially for newer foods. Examples of them are “kimuchi” (キムチ), a fermented vegetable from Korea, and “bibinba” (ビビンバ), taken from Korea’s rice dish “bibimbap

Types of Japanese Loanwords

Now, instead of grouping the Japanese language based on its writing system (hiragana, katakana and kanji), we can categorize them based on their origin: wago (和語), kango (漢語), and gairaigo (外来語).

Wago is a native Japanese word, while kango are traditional Chinese loanword and garaigo are loanwords taken from other countries other than China.

Kango dominates the Japanese language, taking up 60% of the vocabulary. Keep in mind that modern and traditional Chinese are different. Kango tends to sound more academic. On the other hand, more newly adopted Chinese words can still be written in katakana, like “uuron” (ウーロン), or oolong tea, which is sourced from 烏龍.

However, for loanwords that come from other languages, you can easily identify them if it’s written in katakana. Unlike hiragana, which is used for Japanese words that aren’t covered by kanji and Japanese particles, the katakana syllabary serves multiple purposes. They are used for emphasis, onomatopoeia and, most widely, loan words — which we all know alternatively as gairaigo.

So how do you transform a foreign language into a gairaigo in Japanese?

How a word appears as katakana depends on how the word is heard by native speakers. Japanese has fewer different sounds than English, and it does not have many ending consonants. Words tend to gain extra vowels — or reduced to the closest sound the language has.

So how do you transform a foreign language into a gairaigo in Japanese? The English language has 20 distinct vowel phonemes, making it one of the most complex vowel systems of any language in the world. In comparison, the Japanese language has only 5 vowels: a, i, u, e, o. They are terse vowels, pronounced clearly and sharply.

As such, vowels and consonants from foreign words are usually changed into the nearest equivalent Japanese alphabet. For example, the word “hug” has the vowel that’s closest to “a”, so Japanese people will say it as “ハッグ”.

We’ve provided a full guide on conversing a foreign word with a Japanese word here.

gairaigo japanese loan words

Using Gairaigo Instead of Wago

With Japan now becoming more and more of a petri dish for multiple cultures, it’s constantly growing more loanwords — particularly those from English. In fact, this viral parody gives you a good idea of just how many loanwords Japan has soaked.

Funnily enough, a lot of gairaigo has its Japanese equivalent or synonyms in Japanese. For example, the word ミルク, which is milk, is a loanword taken from English, but there’s already a Japanese word for it: 牛乳 (gyuunyuu).

For English speakers, this might be a walk in the park — one less vocabulary to remember, right? But what’s the Japanese language’s infatuation with absorbing English loanwords to the point a sentence can just be a jumble of katakana?

Mai besuto furendo, joggingu shimashouka?
My best friend, should we go jogging?

There are a few reasons attributed to this: Japan needs to compensate for its lack of vocabulary in certain fields, and modernization opens up more and more new discoveries that the Japanese language didn’t even know existed before. For example, many natively German loanwords are used in the field of medicine. Foreign cuisine needs to be adopted directly from the original country’s language.

However, the biggest influence today is mainstream media. Today, the English language is considered trendy and prestigious. There’s a social benefit to using English loanwords, no matter the actual effect saying it might be. Cultural and social trends particularly influence younger people to use “English” to look more modern and up to date.

Gairaigo words aren’t just used individually. You’ll find a lot of loanwords attached to a Japanese word. The longer you live in Japan, the more you’ll pick up a general preference. For example, instead of saying 入居者募集 (nyuukyosha boshuu), which means “looking for a tenant”, you’ll see テナント募集 (tenanto boshuu).

You’ll find other combinations of Japanese words and loan words.

省エネ ShoueneEnergy saving
レジ袋RejibukuroPlastic shopping bag
塩パンShiopanSalt bread
海老フライEbifuraiFried shrimp

Jump To:

Loanwords in Japanese from German (ドイツ語)

アルバイトArubaitoArbeitPart-time job
フリーターFurītāFree ArbeiterFreeter (Unemployed Young Adults)
ヒステリーHisuterīHysterieLoss Of Control
カルテKaruteKarteMedical Record
メルヘンMeruhenMärchenFairy Tale
メッセMesseMesseTrade Fair
Source: Wikipedia

Loanwords in Japanese from Portugese (ポルトガル語)

Japanese Romaji Origin Meaning
オランダOrandaHollandaThe Netherlands
ビー玉BīdamaVidro + 玉 (Dama)Marbles
Source: Wikipedia

Loanwords in Japanese from French (フランス語)

Japanese Romaji Origin Meaning
アベックAbekkuAvecRomantic Couple
バリカンBarikanBariquand Et MarreHair Trimmer
カフェオレKafeoreCafe au laitLatte
シュークリームShūkurīmuChou CrèmeCream Puff
エステEsuteEsthé(Tique)Beauty Salon
ポシェットPoshettoPochetteSmall Bag
ロマンRomanRomanRomance Novel
サボるSaboruSabotage + RuTo Slack Off
Source: Wikipedia

Loanwords in Japanese from Dutch (オランダ語)

Japanese Romaji Origin Meaning
Source: Wikipedia

Loanwords in Japanese from Russian (ロシア語)

Japanese Romaji Origin Meaning
イクラIkuraИкра (Ikra)Salmon Roe
カチューシャKachūshaKatyushaAlice Band
コンビナートKonbinātoКомбинат (Kombinat)Combine
ノルマNorumaНорма (Norma)Quota
Source: Wikipedia

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