Wednesday, December 17, 2003

A Word by Any Other Name

No doubt only days or weeks after people first started speaking organized languages, some purists began to complain about the degradation of the new grammar and vocabularies. Linguists know that languages only grow through change, but general semanticists consider change a multi-ordinal term, one with many forms and levels of meaning.

The Japanese language uses a special alphabet, called katakana, to write out non-Japanese words, similar to how we sometimes use italics in English to denote a foreign word. In English, however, we tend to eventually assimilate such words and they become indistinguishable from "real" English words (i.e. words derived from Old English rather than Latin, Spanish or some other non-English language.) In Japanese, the foreign word remains distinct forever due to the use of katakana.

Japanese linguists worry about the degradation of Japanese by these foreign bodies, but even more so, older Japanese citizens find it difficult to read the papers or understand to their grandchildren. In a move reminiscent of the French Academie, Japan has established a "Foreign Words Committee" to identify and promote Japanese native alternatives to the growing list of popular foreign terms, most of which come from English. They face a stiff challenge from younger citizens who detect a distinct difference between the foreign and native terms. Foreign terms tend to imply luxury, excitement and modernity apparently. Hard to compete with that.

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