talking the talk

October 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Everyone remembers Pokemon, right?  The gameboy cartridge versions (red version all the way), the tv show at 7:00am every weekday morning (I didn’t even need an alarm), the coveted trading cards (I still have mine in a binder somewhere in my basement…), and of course the monumental decision to choose between Charmander, Squirtle, or Bulbasaur as your starting pokemon (Charmander, obviously!!!) only to get beaten to it by cousin Gary…

But before I digress into an embarrassingly unabridged narration on the history of my prepubescent, unconditional devotion to the beloved gaming adventure, here’s the shocking truth behind Pikachu’s adorable, squeeky trill:

Okay I swear I didn’t just bring up Pokemon because I still harbor a youthful love and adoration for it–it actually has a lot to do with the phenomenon of appropriating foreign words into Japanese.  The word ‘Pokemon’ itself is actually a hybrid of two words: “Pocket” and “Monster,” combined to form the contraction “Poke-Mon.” The clever hybridization and dual-moniker is actually a common method of internalizing foreign words into the Japanese catalog of sounds.  There’s even a special alphabet used to demarcate words derived from other languages, called Katakana.

By adopting other words and converting their unfamiliar speech into sounds compatible with the Japanese language, the words themselves tend to change and morph drastically;  evolve, if you will (another Pokemon reference to my fellow devotees >.<).

So while I may not be trying to emulate the small, electric pokemon’s nominal cry when speaking Japanese, it is in my interest of optimal communication to speak in the mannerisms and sounds of Japanese.  Meaning, if I want to say the word “McDonald’s,” I can’t actually say “McDonald’s,” but instead have to use the Japan-ized word “Mack-u-do-narudo” to indicate my desire for a big mac. In fact, there’s a whole range of colorful words and phrases that have rather surprising iterations in Japanese:

1. The phrase “Don’t Mind” has been affectionately re-appropriated as “Don-my-in”

2. “Hunger Strike” is recognizable only as “Han-su-to”

And perhaps most outrageously of all,

3. The abridgment of  “Sexual Harassment” into “se-ku-hara”

And others:  “Thank you” has a popular following as “Sank-yuu,” and the obvious but still cute-ified “Bye-bye!”

Here’s a video so you can hear what they sound like!

Peculiar cultural appropriations aside, for language in general, adopting the intrinsic sounds of a language is as equally important, in my opinion, as learning the intricacies of grammar patterns and vocabulary.  It’s kind of like taking on another persona–whether that’s in Pikachu’s likeness or just mimicking pronunciation is entirely up to you :)


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§ One Response to talking the talk

  • katalexan says:

    This post was really interesting. I’ve read a bit on how English adapts words from other languages, so it was cool to see how it works in the opposite direction.

    I also liked the video, that was really helpful to hear how the words have changed.

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