Thursday, September 23, 2004

English and Japanese words with similar roots

Nowadays, when the Japanese need a new word in their language, they usually turn to English, taking the English word for that new technology or concept and adapting it phonetically to Japanese pronunciation. For instance, "hotel" is hoteru, "space shuttle" is supeisu shatoru, and “Internet” is Intaanetto. (Americans, of course, occasionally borrow from other languages, such as “skosh,” which comes from Japanese, and schadenfreude, a German word referring to pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.)
But a century or so ago, just as Western scientists drew from Latin and ancient Greek to form new words, Japan turned to Chinese ideographs (known as kanji) to form Japanese words having the same meaning as the Western counterparts. For instance, "petroleum" comes from the Latin roots petra, for “rock,” and oleum, meaning "oil." The Japanese word for petroleum is sekiyu, which combines the kanji for rock (seki) and oil (yu). Another example is the Japanese for automobile: jidousha, which literally means “self-moving cart.”
Some word pairs are nearly identical but with a slight cultural twist. For instance, the English word “dinosaur” is a combination of the Greek for “terrible lizard,” whereas the Japanese for “dinosaur” is kyouryuu, which means “terrible dragon.”
It’s interesting how both cultures in those days turned to the languages of classical cultures to create new words. Today, acronyms seem to be the default method in the English-speaking world for naming new concepts or inventions: PDA, ADD, CEO, HMO. However, we still sometimes go back to Latin and ancient Greek to form new words: biotech, ergonomics. Similarly, the Japanese still turn to kanji: ekishou (liquid crystal), kyougyuubyou (mad cow disease).