Misunderstanding Katakana

The Japanese language is a beautiful, even poetic, and yet enigmatic language. An ancient language composed of three alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Although some people might say that the Japanese language has evolved, therefore, now, we have four alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji and the (English) alphabet.
I want to explain traditional things here 🙂 so we will only focus just on the three alphabets: Hiragana, which is a phonetic alphabet, made of beautiful strokes that resemble the curves of a woman. Kanji, which comes from China and has suffered alterations to fit our needs. And katakana, which is the alphabet that introduces, or adapts, if you’d prefer, words from other languages into Japanese. For example:

Chocolate = チョコレート(chokore-to)
Towel = タオル (taoru)

Katana is a resourceful and creative alphabet. Because it helps us understand other languages, and somehow make them familiar. While helping the Japanese language to overcome its lack of “L” sound

As you read it, in case you haven’t noticed in the examples above, the Japanese language doesn’t have “L” sound. And that’s why we replace it with the “R” sound, which we think is the closest to “L” so words with “L” suffered a few itsy-bitsy (very small) modifications:

Light = ライト(raito)
Lemon = レモン (remon)

Although we have found a creative way to overcome our shortage of “L” sound replacing it with the “R” sound, I’d be bold to say that that’s also the reason why we have some problems differentiating words such as:

Play (プレイpurei) Pray(プレイ purei)

And as most Japanese speakers will keep using the katakana pronunciation when speaking English because, as aforementioned, Katana is the alphabet that helps us understand sounds we are not familiar with, we rely on it. Therefore, some people, as it is logical, trust that the sound katana is providing us, it is the sound in the original language, which it is, unfortunately, not always true.

And even countries’ names also suffer certain modifications

Brazil = ブラジル (Burajiru)
Russia = ロシア (Rosia)
Mexico = メキシコ (Mekishiko)

I have come across countless students, who become speechless once I correct the pronunciation of the countries’ names. Believe it or not, it is an eye opener.

But the real problem comes when we borrow words from other languages into Japanese language and then change their meanings. As you read it, we modify the meaning of the words we borrow.
As someone who loves languages, I have always found fascinating the interaction among them. But borrowing words and changing their meaning, it’s in my humble opinion, not good. Because aside from disrespecting the original meaning and richness of the language we are borrowing words from. We are consequently, damaging our learning process and our understanding of what a language means.

I will give you some examples to illustrate what I am trying to say. For example:

Complementary service = サービス (sa-bisu) we only take “service” which in English on its own doesn’t mean complementary service.

Transit = トランジット (toranjitto) which we use to refer to the places where we change planes while traveling.

Claim = クレーム (kure-mu) which we have decided means complaint.

It is not only Japanese language that has borrowed words from other languages. English has as well borrowed many words from French:

Croissant 🥐 = the rich buttery bread I could eat every single day 🙂
Bureaucracy = administrative system

As you can see, all languages borrow words from one another. Therefore, it is more than OK to borrow words from other languages. Especially in this time of technology, where finding the equivalents in our languages to all those new words is an enormous (very big)task. But fortunately, in Japanese, we have katakana to help us. But let’s not change the meaning of words, because we will be confusing ourselves creating a sort of Japanese- English mix that only works in Japan for Japanese speakers.
And as a result of all that, we will be unnecessarily complicating and delaying our learning process and, at the end, misunderstanding katakana.

Let’s keep learning together ❤️

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