Loan words are words used in a language that are borrowed from a foreign language. The term loan word first appeared in English print in 1874 when Archibald Henry Sayce, an Orientalist and philologist wrote his book The principles of comparative philology (philology is the study of the historical development of languages and the relationships between them). Here he writes about the process of words entering into another language:
The greater the distance between [two civilisations], the greater will be the influence, socially and linguistically, exercised by the superior… Linguistically, the influence will show itself in the shape of borrowing…More often it applies only to the vocabulary, and loan-words are common to all dialects. No people can have near neighbours without receiving something from them in the shape of inventions, products, or social institutions, and these, almost inevitably, are adopted under their foreign names.
Today, there are probably very few languages, if any, that don’t use loan words. Over the millennia, civilisations have adopted foreign words and concepts, through philosophical teachings, religious activity, economic activity or military occupation, leaving a linguistic footprint of historical interactions.
Japanese has some interesting examples of loan words from languages including Portuguese, German, and English, and a little investigation of them offers a fascinating insight into Japan’s history.
Portuguese words entered into Japanese when the first Portuguese explorers arrived on the shores of Japan in 1543. The missionaries and merchants introduced copo (a tumbler glass) which became koppu in Japanese; Cristo (Christ) which became kirisuto; and ingles (English) which became igirisu (England or the UK in Japanese).
Loan words from German
Many German words entered the Japanese language from German physicians working in Japan. These include Heinrich Botho Scheube who was a lecturer in Kyoto at the end of the nineteenth century and Erwin Bälz who was also a lecturer and the personal physician for the Imperial Family in 1902. Some of the loan words include: karute for medical record (from the German karte), noirōze for neurosis (from neurose) and rentogen for X-ray (from röntgen).
Finally, the turn of English. Relations between Japan and the United Kingdom began in 1600 when the English navigator Wiliam Adams arrived in Japan and became advisor to Shogun at the time, Tokugawa Ieyasu. An influx of English words ensued and the American occupation of Japan after World War II continued the trend for adopting English words.
Today, English loan words continue to enter into Japanese through technology, business and popular culture. Some of these are fairly easy to understand once you understand Japanese pronunciation, so pasupōto is passport and miruku is milk. Others, however, are almost impossible: Train platform is hōmu (this is a contraction and the Japanese pronunciation for –form), inflation is infure (a contraction) and, interestingly, Oedipus complex is mazakon (the Japanese pronunciation for mother + kon for complex).
A particularly interesting loan word is furītā. It’s impossible to guess the meaning of this word because it is such a strange, obscure mix of English and German. The furī comes from the English word free (furii in Japanese). And the ta? In Japanese, the word for part-time work is taken from the German arbeit (arubaito in Japanese). The German for worker is arbeiter, so the Japanese take that ter sound and adapt it to make furītā.