Thursday, 27 June 2013

和製英語文法 (Japanese) English Grammar

Creepy Engrish Evokes Silence of the Lambs

Japanese is full of English words and phrases. Many of them are simply borrowed from English (in much the same way English speakers who don’t speak any French or German will say “C'est la vie” or “Gesundheit” or “Adiós”), but others are combinations or have meanings unique to Japan. They are called 和製英語: Made-in-Japan English. For most Japanese people it is impossible to distinguish between English and Made-in-Japan English, and talking about the differences is a popular talk-show or educational broadcast topic. Sometimes the differences spring from the era a word was introduced into Japanese. Some words meant something different in nineteenth century than they do in the twenty-first, but in Japan it remains frozen in time. In other cases the basic meaning has spun new connotations: smart, as in “smartly dressed”, has come to mean “thin” in Japanese while the more common usage in English is to express intelligence. Other words have been used in promotional ways that have warped their meanings, for example “mansion” to refer to a concrete apartment building. My favourites, however, are the true Japanese originals. See if you can figure these out (no cheating, answers at the end of the post):
Handle Keeper
Cunning Paper
Silver Seat
Paper Driver
Less charming but becoming increasingly burned into my brain is a particularly Japanese version of English sentence structure. For over two hundred years Japanese students have studied English by translating sentences in and out of Japanese. This has led to textbooks full of thoroughly unnatural English passages that follow Japanese word order or common phraseologies. The most frustrating of these for me (teaching Junior High) are the use of “let’s”, “enjoy” and rhetorical questions. In Japanese volitional verbs conjugate to ~しょう, which is translated into English as “let’s ~”. This is fine in sentences like “let’s get a drink” but in Japanese it’s used for a much wider range of situations, including “shall I ~?” and giving instructions. The “us” in “let’s” is largely ignored, leading to peculiar sentences such as “let’s go with us”, “let’s open your textbook” and “let’s call you tomorrow?” Even more awkward is when 頑張る, usually translated as “do one’s best” is used in the volitional (頑張りましょう, one of the most frequently used expressions in any Japanese school) and becomes “let’s do your best” or “let’s do my best”. In one particularly awkward conversation at a work party a JTE who was waxing lyrical about the joys of parenthood turned to me and said “Let’s make a baby!” Then, sensing that it was not exactly what he had wanted to say, corrected himself to “Let’s make a baby with your husband!” There’s also a generally acceptance that adding “let’s” to a present-participial verb makes an invitation: “let’s dancing” or “let’s walking”.

Enrgrish Christmas decoration
Dansing a Go Santa picture courtesy of Kachiepamyu
“Enjoy” is one of the first Japanese-English-isms to creep into unsuspecting expats’ vocabularies. It pops up everywhere, from “will you enjoy a picnic tomorrow?” to “do you enjoy karaoke every day?” through to the classic combo “let’s enjoying!” Enjoy is another victim of the translate-a-Japanese-word-with-no-direct-equivalent phenomenon: 楽しむ (to enjoy but also to anticipate or experience). “Enjoy” is synonymous with “do” for many Japanese speakers of English. I once tried to explain to a teacher that “do you enjoy karaoke every day?” is not actually asking someone if they do karaoke every day, it assumes that they do it every day and is asking if sometimes they don’t have fun. I wasn’t able to convince her.
Rhetorical questions are not as grammatically confusing but just… odd. Students are taught to include questions and repartition in every English speech, just like they would in Japanese, but the effect is not the same. The textbook my schools use actually has a list of these weird questions in an activity box labelled “make your presentation sound more natural”. Seriously?! These speeches come out as:
‘My Dream.’ Do you have a dream? I’m going to tell you about my dream. My dream is to be a pilot. Do you know why? It is because I like pilots. So, my dream is to become a pilot. I have dreamed it for a long time. Everyone, let’s treasure your dream.
This would probably win an essay contest. I might actually pursue a future career in textbook publishing.

"Handle Keeper" is a designated driver, the person who doesn't drink
"Cunning Paper" is a cheat sheet, a list of answers smuggled into a test
"Silver Seat" is the seat reserved for the elderly on public transport
"Paper Driver" is someone who has a license but never actually drives
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  1. "It takes a rest with the dumpling and soft ice cream"...Ewww, that's scary to think that someone can understand that sentence. What's even more frightening is that someone paid someone to make that into a sign. Reading some of the T-shirts that the kids wear at school can be amusing and alarming. Often I just shrug my shoulders and tell the kids I have no idea what the shirt says. I had one small child ask me what her shirt meant, "I'm a good lay." Ummm, wakarimasen. I walked away quickly.

    1. Sometimes walking away is the only way to go!

  2. The text of that speech brought back instant audio memories of teaching English in Taiwan... And I'm pretty sure we were gifted that same dancing Santa one year. Bowdu hated him.

    Very interesting post!

    1. Wow, what an amazing gift! Did Bowdu growling-a-go? XD


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