Unexceptional Part 6 – Mongrel Languages
The tendency among ELH practitioners is to focus obsessively on the micro aspects of the Japanese language. Usually this means a focus at the level of the phoneme. Because the phonemes of Japanese and English differ it seems plausible, at first, that there is some essential difference between the two languages.
If, however, one shifts focus and looks at English and Japanese from a macro perspective, from a larger context, the similarities between the two languages become evident. One similarity between the two is that both languages have a large percentage of borrowed words. Consider the following from Language and Society in Japan:
“No language exists in a vacuum. All are influenced to varying degrees by others with which they have contact. We need only think about the number of widely-accepted Americanisms or words and expressions from non-English languages current in Australia today to see this in action. Any native speaker of English . . . even without detailed knowledge of or contact with Japan, will know what sushi means . . . The two major linguistic influences in the case of Japanese have been Chinese and English. Around 60% of today’s Japanese vocabulary, or at least of that part of it found in dictionaries, is made up of loanwords from other languages. Around 6% of these are from western languages, but the vast majority come from Chinese. Kango, Sino-Japanese words, reflect the long history of language and cultural contact between China and Japan since the fifth century.”
Language and Society in Japan
The high percentage of loan words in ordinary Japanese resembles the high percentage of loan words in ordinary English used today. If Anglo-Saxon is taken as the foundational language out of which modern English emerges, thousands of Anglo-Saxon words have fallen away over time. Many of these words have been replaced, and new words added, over the centuries from French, Latin, Scandinavian, other European languages, and more recently non-European languages. In the U.S., Spanish is making a significant contribution to the spoken English vocabulary.
Some sources suggest that 45% of modern English vocabulary consists of loanwords; this means words that are of non-Anglo Saxon origin. It is not always clear as to whether or not a loan word came first from French or Latin, or a mixture of the two, but the influence of French on the English language is, in many ways, comparable to the influence of the Chinese language on the Japanese language.
In other words, both Japanese and English are mongrel languages. By ‘mongrel’ I mean a language whose identity is essentially a mixture. Like a mongrel dog, a mutt. Japanese and English are mutt languages. Neither Japanese nor English are ‘pure breeds’, to continue with the analogy. Both Japanese and English are essentially a mixture of numerous linguistic influence that have become so thoroughly interwoven that the average person has no inkling of the linguistic source of these numerous loanwords.
“Most Japanese hardly think of these as loanwords, however, as over the centuries they have become absorbed so thoroughly into Japanese as to seem not at all foreign.”
Ibid, page 11
The same can be said for English. English speakers, unless they are linguists themselves, simply speak what they consider to be English. The fact that what they are speaking is a mongrel language, a mashup of Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation. And the fact that when Japanese speak it is a mashup of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, etc., etc., is irrelevant to everyday conversation in Japan.
For those who think of Japanese as an exceptional language, these considerations would seem to undermine that stance. If Japanese is a uniquely unique language, then how does the Japanese language manage to borrow such a huge number of loanwords? In order for language X to borrow from language Y, the two languages need to be porous to each other, to share common features; otherwise borrowing would not take place. That is why English has been able to borrow so many foreign words. And that is why Japanese has been able to borrow so many foreign words.
Again, we see that Japanese is unexceptional. Just like English, and many other languages, the Japanese language is a mixture, a hybrid, a mongrel, a linguistic mutt, a mashup of numerous linguistic influences and borrowings that have become thoroughly interwoven. To close with a less abrasive metaphor, both English and Japanese are like vast oceans that easily absorb the rivers of numerous languages as they pour into their respective waters. This gives both English and Japanese enormous expressive resources that would be absent had either language remained ‘pure’ due to isolation. As poets, both Japanese and English writers are greatly blessed by this history of borrowings and influence. It is an expressive feature which both English and Japanese share and which both benefit from.