hybrid Japanese

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

セフレ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.

linguistically-modified organisms

frankensteinIn 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 the five vowels, hiragana and katakana each have their own symbols.

hiragana (for Japanese words) and katakana (for everything else): distinct symbols for the five vowels


“yo” in hiragana

For example, in the Japanese-only syllabary (hiragana), the sound “yo” looks like this: , 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.


“yo” in katakana

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?

Boku no Shiru Anata no Hanashi by Suzuki Tsuta

Boku no Shiru Anata no Hanashi by Suzuki Tsuta

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).

Long Vacation by Hideyoshico

Long Vacation by Hideyoshico

in conclusion

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)”

8 thoughts on “hybrid Japanese

  1. Now this is what I call interesting.
    To be honest I have noticed a few of those hybrid words, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember any of them right now.
    I think I first came across them when I noticed a few words that sounded English with a Japanese pronunciation. But when I looked them up the spelling was “off”. My Japanese vocabulary is non-existent, but even I can understand what you were talking about. So thank you for giving me a bit of insight into this topic.
    But I do also think the trend of incorporating English words into other languages is something interesting, no matter what language you look at.
    In German for example we use a lot of English words, they might not be the 100% proper way of saying certain words, but everybody will understand you.
    For example the word “baby”, which is clearly English is used in German to 99% of the time. The “proper” word for it would be “Säugling”, but you will hardly hear anyone referring to a baby that way. Also some terms like “browser” or “call center” don’t even have a “proper” German word.
    The last thing Germans like to do is take English words and change them only slightly. For example “to cheat” becomes “cheaten” or “graphic” becomes “Graphik” or “Grafik”.
    This way of using words is often referred to as “Denglisch”, which means “DeutschEnglisch” (GermanEnglish).
    It’s interesting to see that the Japanese have their own way of spelling those kinds of words though.


    • Yes — I freaking love this stuff!! English is also a language full of borrowed words; our language is such a mish-mash. But I have a hard time thinking of hybrid words in English (probably because I’m not trying hard enough — they must exist, right?).

      Japanese actually has three major categories of way English is used in Japan: garaigo, wasei-eigo, and Engrish. I’ll be talking about them in the future. I’d say that the hybrid words fall into the wasei-eigo.

      Your description of “baby” sounds like the German equivalent of garaigo (straight-up borrowed words), while “cheaten” might be an example of the German equivalent of wasei-eigo (modified to be different from how they were used in English). If it’s just a different spelling but used identically to how it’d be used in English, then it’d still be like garaigo, I think. I’m still working to understand the distinctions between the categories better before I write a real post on them…


      • Oh I’m sure there are plenty. Right now I can only think of a few though, like “Doppelgänger” (Doppelganger) or “Dachshund” which are both have German origins. But also expressions like “vice versa” are not uncommon.

        Ah, I didn’t know that. I’ll look forward to that post then 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Actually, German is one of English’s parent languages, so we have a lot of German-origin words. Many of them have just been integrated so long that they’re hard to spot. But an English speaker looking at German can pick some words out… usually that’s a sign of an English word that originally came from German.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Personally I wouldn’t call it a parent language. It’s just that both have Germanic roots ^^
          I’m not too familiar with the whole subjects, therefore I’m not sure which one came first.


        • That’s fair — shared Germanic roots works for me. Hmm, so then if a word is similar in German and English d/t shared roots, we probably wouldn’t call that a borrowed word, would we? I wonder at what point a word becomes borrowed instead of shared…

          My, this is a marvelously messy topic. Fantastic!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Sadly, I am not very good with languages, (Thanks public schools, you’re right I didn’t need to start languages until 10th grade!) but they do fascinate me. I had no idea that the two syllabaries were used to distinguish the origin of the word. It is always a good day when you learn something new, thank you! 🙂


    • Cool — I enjoy Japanese’s quirks so much (I guess they’re only quirks from another language’s speaker’s perspective). I’m glad you found the separate syllabaries interesting, too!


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