第387課: Etymology

     Most words in Japanese come from one or more of three sources. 


     Native words define the language itself. Regardless of the percentage, native words are used extensively. They’re very similar looking throughout the Japonic language family.

 Meaning Standard Okinawan Amami
 Chest Müne N’ni Munï
 Blood Tɕi Tɕiː Tʃiː
 Fog Kiɾi Tɕiɾi Kiɺ̠i
 Rain Äme ʔami ʔamï

IPA/Curriculum Note: Tʃ is more similar to an English “ch”. ɺ̠ is a retroflex lateral flap. 

     Native words suggest that Japanese is an isolate. Some words, though, are similar to Korean. In fact, many deemed native are actually ancient borrowings from Korean and elsewhere. Words like 馬 and 梅 came from China before 漢字. カササギ (magpie) is from Old Korean. クズリ comes from Nivkh. Lots of words come from Ainu. When the 弥生 (ancestors of the Japanese people) came to Japan, they met people called 蝦夷(えみし・えぞ). There are no records about these languages, but their descendants are the Ainu. In some Northern Japanese dialects such as 気仙, significant vocabulary comes from them. Many words considered native may be borrowed words from extinct 蝦夷 languages. 

     As for Modern Japanese native words, most are polysyllabic and CV (consonant-vowel). Japanese grammar for the most part doesn’t intermingle items of different etymologies; however, some exceptions exist. For example, する follows Sino-Japanese words to make them verbs. な is added to Sino-Japanese abstract nouns to make them adjectives, and る is often added to words to create colloquial verbs.

Word Note: Surnames for the most part are native in origin, but given names are a different story. As for writing, native words are generally written in 漢字 or ひらがな.  


     漢語 (Sino-Japanese words) were borrowed from Chinese readings from several stages of Chinese. Nearly 70% of all Japanese words are 漢語, but they make up only 20% of the most frequently used words. 音読み is the basis of deciding whether a word is of Chinese origin; however, be cautious of 当て字. There are rare exceptions where a 訓読み is actually of Chinese origin: 馬 and 梅. 


     和製漢語 literally means “Japanese-made Chinese words”. At the start of modern innovation, many terms were created with 音読み to describe new things.

 Environment 自然 しぜん
 Telephone 電話 でんわ
 Science 科学 かがく
 Dermis 皮膚 ひふ

     Some Sino-Japanese words made in Japan even correspond to unique Japanese items.

 Manga 漫画 まんが Judo 柔道 じゅうどう
 Tokyo 東京 とうきょう Japanese paper 和紙 わし
 Public bath 銭湯 せんとう Go (game) 碁 ご
 Powdered green tea 抹茶 まっちゃ Kendo 剣道 けんどう
 Geisha 芸者 げいしゃ Daimyo 大名 だいみょう
 Dojo 道場 どうじょう Haiku 俳句 はいく
 Shintoism 神道 しんとう Shogun 将軍 しょうぐん

     Many Sino-Japanese words are the product of putting characters in a Chinese word order and using 音読み to make a more technical term. Of course, there are always the words that are half Sino-Japanese and half native–湯桶読み and 重箱読み.

 Meaning Native  Sino-Japanese 
 Reply 返り事 かえりごと 返事 へんじ
 To get angry 腹が立つ はらがたつ 立腹 りっぷく
 Ninja 忍び者  しのびもの 忍者 にんじゃ
 Fire breakout 火が出る ひがでる 出火 しゅっか


     Foreign loanwords are from modern languages. Preference to use these words is somewhat debatable. Some have no native equivalent. Some have been borrowed because the possible Japanese term is too complicated. For the most part, these words are nouns, but with the aid of grammatical items such as する, な, and る, they may be turned into verbs, adjectives, etc.

     At times words have mixed etymology. Foreign expressions in Japanese are often abbreviated. This is so common with English terms that it creates “和製英語” or Japanese-made English words. These words have diverged from their original appearance, meaning, or both. At times 外来語 are made in Japan to describe a unique thing and are then brought back to the original language as a new phrase. The best example of this is anime.

     Common languages where 外来語 may arrive include French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, and several primarily Indo-European languages. There are even some 外来語 from modern Chinese dialects.

     外来語 are primarily written in カタカナ. There are some older loanwords, though, that may be written in 漢字. More traditional approximations are common. So, many speakers will still call a smart phone a スマートホン rather than a スマートフォン. But, there is a movement in electronic terminology to prefer newer combinations. Nowadays, though, you are more likely to hear the abbreviated form スマホ.

      To some speakers, loan words are undesirable. In the realm of technology, words have been coined with normal Japanese processes and borrowing. For example, function keys used to be called 機能キー. Now they’re called ファンクションキー. Many speakers would rather use 機能 rather than ファンクション. 

Common 外来語

 外来語 Origin Meaning Original Language
 アベック Avec Romantic couple French
 アイドル Idol Pop star English
 アイスクリーム Ice cream Ice cream English
 アイゼン Steigeisen Climbing irons German
 アニメ Animation Anime English
 アンケート Enquête Questionnaire French
 アンニュイ Ennui Ennui French
 アップ Upgrade Upgrade English
 アロエ Aloë Aloe Dutch
 アルバイト Arbeit Part-time job German
 アルコール Alcohol/álcool Alcohol Dutch/Portuguese
 バイク Bike Motorcycle English
 バスケ Basketball Basketball English
 バター Butter Butter English
 ビル Building Modern steel building English
 ビール・麦酒 Bier Beer Dutch
 ボンベ Bombe Steel canister German
 ボールペン Ballpoint pen Ballpoint pen English
 ボタン Botão Button Portuguese
 ブランコ Balanço Swing Portuguese
 チンキ Tinktuur Tincture Dutch
 ダブル Double Double English
 デパート Department store Department store English
 ドンマイ Don’t mind Don’t worry about it English
 ドライバー Driver Screwdriver English
 ドラマ Drama TV drama English
 エアコン Air conditioning Air conditioning English
 エキス Extract Extract Dutch
 エネルギ Energie Energy German
 エレベター Elevator Elevator English
 エロ Eros Erotic English
 エステ Esthétique Beauty salon French
 ファンファーレ Fanfare Music fanfare German
 フロント Front desk Front desk English
 ガラス Glas Glass Dutch
 ガソリンスタンド Gasoline stand Gas station English
 ガーゼ Gaze Gauze German
 ゲーセン Game centerVideo arcade English
 ゴム Gom Rubber Dutch
 グラス Glass Drinking glass English
 グロ Grotesque Grotesque English
 ハンカチ Handkerchief Handkerchief English
 ハンスト Hunger strike Hunger strike English
 ホルモン Hormon Hormone German
 ホース Hoos Hose Dutch
 ホーム Platform Railway platform English
 イエス Jesus Jesus Portuguese
 イクラ икра Salmon roe Russian
 イメージ Image Image English
 インフレ Inflation Inflation English
 イラスト Illustration Illustration English
 イヤホン Earphone Earphone English
 ジュース Juice Juice English
 カメラ Camera Camera English
 合羽 Capa de chuva Rain coat Portuguese
 カラン Kraan Faucet Dutch
 カラオケ 空 + orchestra Karaoke Japanese and English
 コーヒー・珈琲 Koffie Coffee Dutch
 コップ Copo A glass Portuguese
 クラブ・倶楽部 Club Club English
 マージャン・麻雀 麻雀 Mahjong Mandarin Chinese
 マンション Mansion Condominium block English
 マスコミ Mass communication The media English
 メール Mail E-mail English
 ミルク Milk Milk English
 モテル Motel Motel English
 ノルマ норма Quota Russian
 ノート Note Notebook English
 OL Office lady Female office worker English
 パン Pão/pan Bread Portuguese/Spanish
 ペスト Pest Black Plague German
 ピエロ Pierrot Clown French
 プロ Professional Professional English
 プロレス Professional wrestling Professional wrestling English
 ライバル Rival Rival enemy Englis
 ラッコ Rakko Sea otter Ainu
 レントゲン Röntgen X-ray German
 リモコン Remote control Remote control English
 リンク Link Link English
 ロードショー Road show Premiere English
 ロマン Roman Novel French
 リュックサック Rucksack Backpack German
 サービス Service Service English
 サボる Sabotage To slack off French
 サンドイッチ Sandwich Sandwich English
 サラダ Salada Salad Portuguese
 セレブ Celebrity Rich person English
 刹那 Ksana Moment Sanskrit
 ソフト Software Software English
 ストーブ Stove Space heater English
 タバコ・煙草 Tabaco Tobacco Portuguese
 テーマ Thema Theme German
 テレビ Television Television English
 トイレ Toilet Toilet English
 トナカイ Tunakkay Reindeer Ainu
 トランプ Trump Playing cards English
 ワンピース One piece Single piece dress English
 ワープロ Word processor Word processor English
 ヨード Jod Iodine German
 ズボン Jupon Pants French

To search for an apartment.

Vocab Note: There are two words for apartment, アパート and マンション. An アパート is more like a 1~2 story building with a relatively cheaper rent whereas a マンション would be at least 3 stories.

To paint.

Noun Note: 塗る is paired with ペンキ. 塗る can also mean “to varnish; color; rub”.

The word “pan” came from Portuguese.

 Chinese Loan Words

  Newer readings from Chinese keep coming in from modern Chinese languages. Many words involve food and culture items. 

Pi dan is a preserved food of goose egg wrapped in ash.   

Szechuan pickles is a pickled food in Chinese cuisine. 

Gyoza is really delicious, isn’t it?

 Loan 漢字 
 メンマ 麺媽 Bamboo shoots boiled, sliced, fermented, dried in salt, and soaked
 ラー油 辣油 Chinese red chili oil
 リーチ 立直 Declaring that one is one tile away from winning in mahjong
 ワンタン 雲呑 Wonton