I just noticed Tyler Cowen had blogged a Boston Globe article about the number of loanwords in various languages (is there something from the press Cowen will not blog ?), and his own take was to ask, which major language has the lowest percentage of foreign loanwords ? He seems to think Chinese could be one, but many people in the comments section (correctly) reject the suggestion. Here I talk about “Japanese-made Chinese words”.
There are two basic kinds of loanwords amongst languages : the “conventional” one where both the meaning and the form of the word are borrowed simultaneously ; and the other where the meaning is borrowed but the form is “translated” into indigenous roots — or “calque“.
In the “conventional” loanword, the borrowing is usually apparent because the original form hasn’t changed too much. English, a world champion importer and exporter of words, contains tens of thousands of Latin and French borrowings whose appearance is only slightly modified, such as guarantee and importance. In more recent borrowings, English hardly bothers even with perfunctory transformation, e.g., tsunami and angst. Likewise, languages like Turkish and Indonesian don’t invent new words for “electromagnetism” ; they only modify the word to reflect the local difference in pronunciation and spelling standards.
But in calque languages, the loanwords tend to be invisible. An example is the Russian самолёт (samolyot “self-flight” or airplane), which looks and sounds purely Slavic. Both Russian and German are abundant in calques, but not as much as Arabic, a language which on first appearance seems to lack any foreign loanwords. In fact its abstract vocabulary is heavily borrowed from classical Greek (and later the modern western languages), but the actual words were calqued from Semitic roots. Sometimes the borrowing first took place in Syriac, which lent to Arabic.
English and the Romance languages normally do not create calques from indigenous roots, but they still have thousands of “classicising” calques — neologisms built on Greek or Latin roots which were not found in the original languages. Thus microscope is created entirely out of Greek parts, viticulture from Latin, and automobile, a miscegenation of Greek and Latin.
Most people are aware that Classical Chinese stands in a similar relation to Japanese and other East Asian languages, as Greek and Latin have stood to the modern European languages. Japanese has borrowed thousands of whole words of Chinese origin, but using classical Chinese roots the Japanese have also come up with calques called wasei kango (和製漢語) or “Japanese-made Chinese”. A pretty basic example is the formal Japanese word for car, or jidosha (自動車 or “self motion vehicle”) — which is almost exactly parallel to the classicising calque automobile. (That set of characters is not used in Chinese to denote “automobile”.)
Since the Japanese were the first in East Asia to adopt Western knowledge and technology on a large scale, they had to find equivalents of new words by the thousands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A great many of these were “borrowed back” by the Chinese. According to this source,
Chinese reform leader Kang Youwei 康有為 once said: “I regard the West as a cow, and the Japanese as a farmhand, while I myself sit back and enjoy the food!’” Early Japanese translations made large numbers of important scholarly works and concepts from the West widely available to Chinese audiences; the Chinese felt that Japanese was an “easier” language than Western ones for a Chinese to learn. The Qing court sent increasing numbers of students to Japan – 13,000 in 1906. Between 1902-1904, translations from Japanese accounted for 62.2 per cent of all translations into Chinese. The great majority of these works were themselves translations from English and other Western languages..
But because the Chinese language has its own way of pronouncing Chinese characters that’s different from Japanese, the reborrowed words may sound completely different and many Chinese people may not even know these had been first coined in Japan.
Here is a very short list of “Japanese-made Chinese” words which did get exported to Chinese [source]:
- telephone, train or tram, electron
- chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy
- philosophy, history
- library, art, religion, comedy, symphony
- system, industry, corporation, market, international
- communism, communist party, proletariat
- people’s republic
Notice the word “philosophy”, which may surprise some people because, after all, wasn’t classical Chinese civilisation full of philosophers ? Yes, but beware of anachronism ! We moderns find the similarity, but East Asians, when first confronted with European philosophy, considered it something quite different from Confucius et al.
Basically, a great many modern words in Chinese related to science, technology, government, and commerce, as well as abstract western concepts which may not have had an exact equivalent in East Asia, trace back to late 19th and early 20th century coinages in Japan. An article in a modern Chinese newspaper would be impossible without these Sino-Japanese calques.
In some cases, the Japanese went looking in ancient Chinese texts for words with similar but not identical meanings, and resurrected them by giving them modern, western significance. These include : society, capital, revolution, economy, law, science, election, heredity, literature, etc. There are also some pure Japanese words written in Chinese characters that were borrowed.
But the “glamour words” are not the extent of it. I was completely surprised to learn that Chinese appears to have borrowed a range of fairly mundane phrases or compounds from Japanese. Some examples include “new products appearance”, “shopping district”, “low birth rate”, and “housekeeping”. The nature of the Chinese character system implies that a new phrase or compound is almost a low-grade invention, because there’s no inevitable way such words must be formed.
(In Korean, the situation is more complicated, since it has heavy influence from both China and Japan. In short, the Korean language has directly borrowed Chinese loanwords, “Korean-made Chinese” words, “Japanese-made Chinese” words exported to Korea, European words converted into Japanese form and then exported to Korea, etc.)
Japanese used to have a lot of Portuguese and Dutch loanwords as a result of contact with traders starting in the 16th century, but most of those are now obsolete. One major survivor is the Japanese word for bread (パン pan), which is derived from the Portuguese pão. I’m convinced, though I can’t prove it, that the knowledge of the Luso-Japanese word pan was the impetus behind the Chinese translation of “bread” as mian bao (lit. “wheat bun”, simplified 面包 traditional 麵包). The fact that bao sounds like pan is pure coincidence, and its character has been used in words referring to various kinds of filled buns for a very very long time. But the main reason I believe in the pan-bao connexion is that in some other Chinese languages (e.g., Wu or Shanghainese, and Min Nan or Taiwanese) the second character would be read as pao or pau. Technically, /b/ and /p/ are voiced and unvoiced variants of the same sound. Vietnamese, I believe, also uses a cognate of mian bao, especially in reference to that headcheese-on-baguette sandwich, whose choice might have been influenced by the French pain. I could be completely wrong, but it would be neat if all this were true !
Speaking of bread… The point of the above is that Japan has been the intermediary for the diffusion of Western modernity in East Asia. And that also shows up in bread, or rather bakery items in general. Anyone who has been to East Asia knows it’s full of bakeries and patisseries just like this (image source):
In such places the delicacies on offer include familiar western staples, like croissant, baguette or strawberry shortcakes, which are western, but with localized taste ; and various semi-traditional pan-Asian buns filled with bean paste or chestnut purée. But there are also many hybrid pseudo-western bizarreries, with no equivalent elsewhere in the world, such as :
The above is Japan’s answer to both China and the West : fried noodles in a hot dog bun. More specifically, the noodles are yakisoba, itself a very modern interpretation of fried noodles dating from the early 20th century, one of whose principal ingredients is … Worcestershire sauce, or, rather, the Japanese version of it. The green bits are dried seaweed flakes (actually algae, but that’s being pedantic). This alarming combination of starches probably emerged after the war with the American occupation, but I’m not sure.
But Japan’s caricature of globalisation is surely the karei pan, or bun filled with Japanese “curry“, covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried :
The breadcrumbs are panko, the coarse type preferred by the Japanese which has become inexplicably trendy in many western countries. The British pseudo-Indian “curry” was most likely an import along with many other semi-western dishes that are mainstays of Japanese dining today. The Japanese twist on “curry” is primarily that it’s a roux of starch and palm oil, made from dissolving the semblance of a chocolate bar in water, into which miscellaneous detritus are then introduced.
Bakeries like the above are ubiquitous in East Asia, and they are imitations of the Japanese bakery model, so to speak. It would also seem, the Japanese preference for ultra-refined white flour for making breads and pastries has been transferred to the rest of East Asia. The fashionable sort of “whole grain” breads mixed with twigs and birdseed that one finds at trendy locales in western countries, is not yet widespread. (Though brown rice is making a comeback in Japan.)
Speaking of both loanwords and food, one Japanese word that’s not European-derived but was coined in response to industrialisation and later imparted to Chinese is ajinomoto (MSG powder ; Japanese 味の素 lit. “principle of taste”, Chinese 味之素). A Japanese scientist early in the 20th century had isolated umami, one of the fundamental tastes, and this was the basis of a major international food corporation, Ajinomoto, the world’s largest supplier of MSG as well as aspartame. Since so much of East Asia’s cuisines are based on exploiting and intensifying the naturally occurring glutamates in their ingredients, Japanese MSG played a major role in Asia’s enormous processed food industry.
The history of MSG and its extremely widespread use in global food processing is something I consider a synecdoche of Japanese industrialisation, but that’s a topic for another day.