Saturday February 7, 2004

Borrowings and False Friends

Like many languages, Japanese has borrowed a lot of foreign words. Many of the recent loan words have come from English, but there are quite a few borrowed from German (especially medical and technical terminology) and from Portugese (often from several centuries ago). In addition, there's a very large number of kango, or words of Chinese origin.

Since the Japanese borrowed the Chinese characters for their writing system (note to self: compose rant about the Japanese writing system) and also used Chinese as the language of court and prestige for centuries, most characters have more than one pronunciation. Some of these pronunciations are native Japanese (kunyomi), and some based on the original Chinese pronunciation, suitably shoehorned into Japanese phonology (onyomi).

I recently learned the Japanese word baibai, which means "trade" or "buying and selling". I've gotten used to encountering English loan words in Japanese, and I figured baibai was just a reduplication of the English word buy. Simple, right?

Not so fast, gaijin. It turns out that the onyomi of the character meaning "buy" is bai, and the onyomi of the character meaning "sell" is also bai. The Japanese word baibai, in fact, is unrelated to the English word buy; instead, it's a kango word made up of the characters meaning sell and buy. It looks like this, if your browser does Japanese:

売買

That'll teach me to jump to Anglocentric conclusions.

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» LINGUISTICS IN SF. from languagehat.com
A new blog, apparently language-oriented, called Tenser, said the Tensor is beginning a series about linguistics in science fiction with a post on a good H. Beam Piper story:How would you decipher texts in an unknown language, written in an... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 27, 2009 12:29:13 PM

Comments

Yes,

The Character on the right is the traditional chinese character which is pronounced in Mandarin, "mi" (with an 'eye' sound), meaning 'to buy'.

The one on the left favors the chinese character which means 'to sell' (same pronounciation, different tone).

Cool post.

Posted by: keto at Feb 16, 2004 6:58:22 PM

Also, the compound 買賣 (买卖 in simplified characters) maimai in Chinese is pretty much the same thing, "buysell" being "trade, business, buying and selling." Interesting that the order's reversed in Japanese.

Posted by: Brendan at Feb 17, 2004 1:28:55 PM