Friday 3 February 2012

(Don’t) Lend Me Your Words

Old joke. English couple on holiday in the south of France. Rent a darling little gîte just outside the most picturesque village imaginable. Visit the shops every morning to pick up freshly made croissants. Eat delectable coq au vin at a charming restaurant on the town square. On their final evening a band start playing. The music is beautiful and finishes all too soon. Desperate for more, but not knowing how to ask, the wife turns to her husband and demands, ‘Quick! What’s the French for encore?’

Encore, schaudenfreude, otaku. In linguistic circles they’re unhelpfully known as ‘loanwords’. Unhelpfully because ‘loan’ suggests that at some point they're going to be given back. And that’s where the problems start.

Preferably this one

Yeah, I know I’ve been here before. A couple of times. Truth be told, I've a bit of a backlog of longer pieces and was going to sit on this one for a few weeks in the hope that your collective memory would fade, but the Guardian published a Charlie Brooker article on Wednesday which highlighted very nicely the fact that it works both ways. So strike while the iron is hot and all that. See if you can spot my brilliantly disguised pseudonym in the comments section.

An otaku, my arse

Timing aside, loanwords and their (mis)use are subjects that bear thinking about. Outcome is more important than process, and I really, really hate pedantic nitpicking about language. I’m certainly not above making a joke about a misspelling or misuse of it, but it strikes me that there are basically two types of error: those that obscure or alter meaning and those that don’t. The former are worth comment on, the latter (outside the classroom at least) really aren’t.

The title (and background illustration, for that matter) of this blog is taken from a piece of work one of my students did years ago. I’m honestly not being ironic or sarcastic when I say that it’s a brilliant use of language. What could be a fairly unwieldy phrase in grammatically correct English, ‘This is the reason that caused her to start a fight,’ is reduced to something shorter, punchier (ha!), and far more fitting.

It’s also an almost perfect trochaic trimeter; maybe the last foot’s a spondee, but we’ll let that go. The poetry is accidental but the communicative effect isn’t. And that, surely, is what matters?

There’s a genuine discussion to be had about universal standards and how they impact upon communicative ability in English. Especially given its role as the current lingua franca, which means that most conversations in it will involve at least one non-native speaker. That’s why many bigger online discussion boards ban text speak. It’s also why, as a teacher, I’m not an advocate of a laissez-faire approach. Anything does not go. But it’s important not to confuse Means with Ends.

Using correct English is important because doing so usually increases your chances of being understood, certainly more so than whatever local variation you may see fit to create yourself. But ‘being understood’ is the most important part of that sentence, not ‘using correct English’.

Now! Correct it now! Come on, do it!

When I was studying in Australia, I once asked one of my lecturers if it would be ‘politic’ to ask about course funding for the next year, which caused a 10 minute rant about the Howard government. This is illuminating for a couple of reasons. The first is that, if you were still holding out any hope that I’m not a pretentious intellectual snob, then the fact I was using the word ‘politic’ in a real sentence at the age of 19 should disabuse you of that completely (‘disabuse’ for fuck’s sake. I just can’t help myself). The second is that there’s no point using ‘correct’ language if it doesn’t get your point across. I was right in my usage – I wasn’t talking about politics at all – but frankly I should have just said, ‘Do you mind if I ask about…?’ and made everyone’s lives easier.

Another old joke. An old Australian joke, as it happens. When the first European settlers and explorers were charting the continent they’d find out the names of geographical features or animals by pointing at them, shouting ‘WHAT IS THIS?’ at the indigenous locals in very slow English, then writing down whatever was said in reply. This means that there are a lot of things in Australia whose English names translate as ‘Your Finger, You Fool,’ ‘Buggered If I Know,’ or ‘Really Tasty’ in the local languages.

Totally apocryphal, of course, but it does demonstrate the dangers of co-opting foreign words without fully understanding their original meanings. When I go into town with my son we get lots of squeals and comments about haafu being kawaii. About mixed-race kids being cute. Which is something I still have trouble with, and not just because of the gross generalization it involves.

The word ハーフ is a transliterated version of ‘half’, and if anyone called my son that in English I’d have real problems, and pretty quickly so would they. ‘Mixed’ is tolerable, but he’s a whole person, not ‘half’ of anything. And that’s quite apart from all the negative ‘half-caste’ connotations the word throws up. I have to keep reminding myself that the people using that word aren’t using English. It’s a Japanese word now, and the English meanings just don’t map directly.

More's the pity

So yeah, if you borrow a word, it’s better just to keep it. Don’t try to give it back, because you’ve probably broken it a bit. It’s why I don’t like lending out my books, they always come back with broken spines, or folded page corners. And people who write in the margins of other people’s books deserve a special circle of hell, where a demon dressed as Bob Cratchett uses goose-feather quills to scratch ‘This is Not a Notepad’ on their eyeballs for all eternity

Likewise, an ex-girlfriend of mine still has one of my old CD players, I assume. I’ve never asked for it back because to do so would have caused more problems than it solved. Besides, who listens to actual CDs anymore? I’ve moved on (she certainly has), and so has the technology and the utility of the original word/CD player. The CD player doesn’t mean what it did when she originally borrowed it and I’m not going to risk opening old emotional wounds by telling Japanese people not to use the word ハーフ because it’s apparently them and not me and they think we should take a break from each other and see how we feel about things for reasons which are frankly beyond comprehension and what exactly is wrong with the way things are going now anyway and I knew you were looking at Jim Cooper in a funny way last Friday you’re fucking him aren’t you I know you are I can see it in your eyes you slag stop lying to me and just come out and say it to my face will you you cheap lying bitch.

That metaphor may have lost its way a bit. What was I saying?

Oh yes, if you take a word from another language, it’s yours now. It doesn’t mean what it did and you’re only going to make things worse if you try to act clever and give it back. That’s basically what I’m saying here. That and some women are evil thieving harpies. But mainly the word thing. If you’ll excuse me I’m off for a lie down in a darkened room.



  1. Thank you for the explanation of the blog name. I knew it was 'broken English', and now I know why there's a picture of a girl crying and biting a tissue (or demon streaming blood and eating flesh? - same idea). On women, and your ex, I have similar resentments which, in my petty way, I calm by imagining what she must look like now in overweight Canada, not what she looked like then. Works wonders.

    About 'broken English', as you say there is more of it in international communication than there is 'proper English': a term at least five Anglo countries could fight about. Take a look at this Japanese guy's blog. He has the right idea.

    You are too generous with Japanese use of English loan words. It is a culturally insensitive country, even to their own untouchable castes and what few aboriginal peoples they left. It is no surprise that terms like 'half' do not get reformed. I am not going to go 'Debito' and consider each use of the term for my boy a personal offense, but I will still note it is a cultural immaturity. Besides, I have a story that shows a better way. A boy I teach, who has an American mother, told me that his Japanese father insisted he is not 'half', but 'both'. Good man. Pedantic, but I might start insisting my boy is not 'half': he is 'ryohou'.

    1. I may have conflated/exaggerated/flat out lied a bit about the girlfriend thing. Just for effect, y'know. An Ex did keep hold of one of my mini-systems, but in retrospect that fact that I kept choosing to clear off and live on different continents from her may have also contributed to the break up.

      That buoyancy blog is a very nice find, and I'll be using that 'both' line as well, if I may. The Japanese people I'm close to know how I feel about 'haafu', and can see where I'm coming from, but as you say there's really no benefit to me or anyone else in getting pissy about it with random strangers.

  2. I love your writing.
    Thanks for the background about the title and background!

    As the metaphor dissolved I was laughing my ass off. Your like me in that as you type... a word might be like a sudden detour sign that takes you somewhere else and the post becomes something totally unimagined just prior to the detour. But it's probably that your just a much better writer than me.

    1. Your comment got caught in the spam filter. Don't know what happened there.

      I used the leaflet picture again at the start because I was going to explain where the 'roman' had come from, but then one thing led to another and I got sidetracked a bit. I've a folder full of documents containing ideas I meant to write about but never quit got there. I'll get round to them all eventually. Maybe.

      I'm glad you like the writing. It's not 'better', just markedly different from yours, and that's what keeps things interesting ;)

  3. The first time I heard the term 'haafu' I nearly died. You'd be strung up if you used that here.

    Funny, I thought your blog name was from a song lyric and was trying to work out what it was!

    1. Not a song lyric, no. Though the fact you thought it was kind of demonstrates my point about the poetry, eh?

      When I was trying to think of a name I had really no ideas, other than I didn't want it to be yet another blog with 'gaijin' or 'Japan' or variations thereof. There are enough of those already. Then I remembered this student's work and it seemed to fit.

      I'm really not sure what messages the title and design of this blog send to other people though. They probably drive away as many people as they attract. Hey ho..