Katakana: when English is a foreign language

One of my hobbies when travelling in Japan is katakana-watching. Katakana are phonetic characters, originally a shorthand for kanji, that were developed in the 7th century  and are now primarily used in Japanese to represent words of foreign origin.

Common useful examples for travellers are words such as ビール (Biiru/Beer)、コーヒー(Kouhii/Coffee), ジュース(Juusu/Juice), タクシー (Takushii, Taxi), バス (Basu/Bus) and ワイン (Wain/Wine). If you can read the katakana, you can as often as not guess the meaning.

There are exceptions though. And that’s where it gets really interesting.

Outside my Tokushima hotel the other day, a large colourful signboard  was marked バイキングコース (Baikingu Kousu). The word BAIKINGU had a picture of a viking helmet next to it.  So, what’s a BAIKINGU KOUSU?

In Japanese, inspired by Scandinavian smorgasbords, BAIKINGU has come to mean buffet. Baikingu is used apparently because it is easier to say than smorgasbord, a fantastic logic.

Take a BAIKINGU KOUSU and gets some KOOCHINGU to fit your SUKEJUURU.

In this case though, the advert was for a language school. Baikingu referred to language courses; students could  choose whichever course they wanted.

On the next sign down was a 2,000 YEN item on the menu called ビジネスセット(Business set). What makes the ビジネスセット so special is that you get a beer served with your main meal. That’s my kind of business.

Katakana can be a foreign language at times, but that’s what makes it so interesting. Who would guess アラサー(Arasaa) means around 30 years old?

Or that スナック (Sunakku / snack) are bars where men go to chat with the female staff. Or that マンション (Manshon / mansion) means small apartment. That particular one has disappointed thousands of newly-arrived English teachers across Japan.

If you are still learning katakana, I can recommend the free Katakana Memory Hint App provided by the Japan Foundation. The Tofugu website also has some excellent katakana learning ideas and original material.

If you want to test your katakana skills, have a go at our Shimaguni Katakana quiz. At Shimaguni, we also run katakana learning events, as well as private and group Japanese lessons at our Shimaguni school in the North Laine. Please email info@shimaguni.co.uk for more details!