Welcome to some moderately geeky reflections on Japanese. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m absolutely, completely fascinated by the differences between Japanese and English. I love how Japanese twists my brain into pretzels, and I love that manga, anime, and drama CD’s offer glimpses into the brain-twisting nature of Japanese.
But today isn’t really a pretzel day. Today is pure play.
adoption and dissection
The Japanese know how to play with language. They aren’t just content to borrow words from other languages (although they do a lot of that); they retool words, taking the essential pieces they want, tossing the rest, and ending up with a word that hints at its origins but only makes sense in Japanese. Alternatively, they take foreign words, boil them down to their three or four most important syllables, and run with those.
One of my favorites is “sefure” (セフレ). Recognize it? Here are two hints: first, it used to be two words in English (the first word became the first syllable); second, when those words are pronounced a la Japanese (without the “boiling down” bit), they come out to seven syllables — that’s much longer than they are in English, but if you heard them that way, you’d immediately recognize them. Oh, and you often hear it on yaoi drama CD’s, because the phrase is about sex.
Say it out loud to yourself a few times, and let the “u” kind of fade into the background as you say it. Granted, the difficulty with figuring it out is that the last few English sounds are missing, so you’ll have to guess creatively. I’ll put the translation down near the bottom of the page so you can think about it awhile, if you want.
In any case, I’ve been collecting borrowed words for a few years, and I have a favorite (elusive) category: hybrid Japanese. These are Frankenstein-like words where Japanese and foreign languages are sewn together to create a new entity. They may be old hat for those who speak Japanese well, but for me, as a beginning student, searching them out is like an Easter egg hunt (where all the eggs have the tastiest chocolate inside).
I think that part of the reason I was so surprised to discover these hybrids was because Japanese goes to great lengths to separate Japanese-origin words from foreign-origin words. After all, it has two syllabaries (sort of like alphabets), and one of them has traditionally been designated exclusively for writing non-Japanese-origin words.
For example, in the Japanese-only syllabary (hiragana), the sound “yo” looks like this: よ, but in the other-languages syllabary (katakana), “yo” looks like this: ヨ. They’re the exact same sound, just written differently. Thus, depending on which syllabary is used to write a word, you can see at a glance whether or not it’s native to Japanese.
Actually, according to my teacher, in the current generation this distinction is getting messier: with the popularization of all things Western, media aimed at youngsters sometimes writes Japanese words in katakana to make them look hip. However, traditionally the separate syllabaries have served to maintain the distinction between what is truly Japanese and what is not, even when a foreign word has been adopted into general use.
So, you’re reading a manga, and an character is walking down the street and calls out, “Yo, dude!” Unless he’s talking to a guy named Yo (which would be written in kanji), I guarantee you that his “yo” greeting (originally from English) is gonna to be written as “ヨ”, in the “foreign” syllabary of katakana, never in the hiragana “よ”.
Actually, I don’t think the Japanese have adopted using “yo” that way. It’s just an imaginary example, okay?
Given this strict division between Japanese words and those-that-are-not-Japanese, the idea that the language would stitch Japanese and English words together to create a new word feels like a weird violation of purity. After all, the Japanese vs. not-Japanese distinction is coded into the language at such a basic level. So, yes, whether or not it was warranted, I was really shocked by my first hybrid sighting.
Sadly, I don’t have as many examples of these as I’d like, but I’ll give you the two that I’ve found in yaoi manga. Since, you know, yaoi is kind of the theme here.
you have a what?
The first hybrid I ever ran into, the one that spawned my fascination with this linguistic quirk, was “haburashi” (歯ブラシ). I first heard it when listening to one of my favorite drama CD’s — Boku no Shiru, Anata no Hanashi by Suzuki Tsuta. It’s actually in the middle of a sex scene, if you can believe that (a scene I’m sure I’ll end up talking about in another post, because it’s too crazy not to, but that’s for another day).
Anyways, from reading the manga, I knew that the item being discussed was supposed to be a toothbrush. Yes, in a sex scene; no, not for the reason you’re likely imagining. So when I first heard that passage, I thought, “Wait, ‘haburashi’? Did the scanlators get it wrong? Didn’t the seiyuu just say hairbrush?”
Well, no, they didn’t. It turns out that the first syllable, “ha” is Japanese, while the rest of the word is, indeed, a Japanese pronunciation of English’s “brush”. What’s “ha”? Yep, you’ve already figured it out: “ha” is Japanese for “tooth”. And “haburashi” is the Japanese word for toothbrush. It’s neither slang nor informal. It’s the one and only.
Since running into that first hybrid, I’ve been keeping an eye out for others, but they’re either rare beasts or my ear and vocabulary aren’t developed enough to spot them in the wild.
However, I recently ran into another hybrid in a Hideyoshico one-shot — I didn’t spot it; it was pointed out by the translator. Unlike haburashi, this word appears to be straight up slang: “ohamonin”. Again, it starts with Japanese — “oha” is an informal, abbreviated version of “ohayou gozaimasu”, the standard “good morning” greeting. And “monin” is what you probably expect: a Japanese-pronounced version of the English word “morning”. Slap those two together, and what you get is either a flippant or slangy morning greeting: ohamonin. I’m not sure what the subtleties of the connotation might be, but the character was a bit of a space case (and only half awake).
So, in the end, what do we take away from this hybrid phenomenon? Actually, that’s what I want to know, too. If I were a linguist, I could probably tell you about the history of hybrids and the cultural meanings attached to them. But as I am now, just a beginning Japanese student, all I can say is, “I’ve noticed them, they seem surprising given what little I know of the history and structure of Japanese, and I want to see more of them.”
If anyone has something more profound to share, I sure hope you will.
From the introduction: Q: what is “sefuren”? A: “Sex friend(s)”