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Top>Opinion>Transforming words—what makes it right?


Transforming words—what makes it right?

Yumi Fujiike
Specially Appointed Associate Professor
Areas of Specialization: Japanese Corpus Linguistics, History of the Japanese Language

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Transforming words

Words and the usage of words are ceaselessly transforming, and new ones are being coined every day. Examples of some relatively new additions to the Japanese language include nama-piano and fijikaru-na CD. The term nama-piano (literally “raw” piano) is used as the opposite of “electric piano” (denshi-piano), and as far as I know has been in use for over a decade now. Electric pianos themselves have been around for nearly fifty years, but in the past people simply used the word “piano” by itself to indicate the acoustic version of the instrument. The fact that a simple “piano” is now being called a nama-piano may indicate that an object that was once considered standard is starting to be thought of as something special or unique. The same trend holds for the term fijikaru-na CD, or “physical CD,” where the CD stands for “compact disc.” With the widespread use of downloaded and streaming music distribution services, physical forms of media storage are now being described using the English loanword, transliterated as fijikaru. It’s of course quite common for new words to emerge along with the appearance of new items, but changes in language are a bit trickier than that—as in these two examples where we alter the way we refer to something that has already been around for a long time.

Transforming usage

The appearance of new words is not the only way that language changes. Sometimes, a word already in existence acquires a new usage. A sociologist recently caused quite a stir when he declared, “half-Japanese people sure seem to deteriorate (rekka) quickly” on a television program. One of the others on the program responded with, “I’m pretty sure ‘rekka’ is a word you use to describe objects.” But is it really incorrect in Japanese to use the word rekka to describe a person’s looks rather than a physical object?

Let’s take a closer look at what the word rekka actually means. The authoritative Japanese dictionary Nihon Kokugo Daijiten defines it as “a drop in material quality, function, or level as a result of changes occurring over time and the like.” In the television program, the commentator was pointing out that the person’s looks had faded as he had aged—which is fairly close to the definition of “a drop in level.” And yet, Japanese speakers still feel some awkwardness about using the term to describe a person’s physical appearance.

Our next step may be looking to see whether the word rekka is actually being used to describe people’s looks. One of the best ways to see how words and expressions are being used in a language is to consult a corpus. A corpus is a compilation of materials put together for the purpose of linguistic research. If we do a search on the lookup site for the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese (BCCWJ) (Shonagonnew window), we can easily check the usage of particular Japanese words and expressions. When I did a search for rekka, I got 542 hits. (Note that Shonagon only displays a maximum of 500 search results, and because they are character string results, the search engine also returned one instance where rekka was being used as part of a larger compound). Looking closer at the results, we see several examples of rekka being used in the phrase rekka-uran (depleted uranium, as in “depleted uranium shells”) as well as alongside terms like “variation,” “discoloration” or “fading,” “broken,” and “damaged.” The things described as having deteriorated or been subject to rekka were diverse—from rubber and plastic to metals, alcohol, oils, fuel, batteries, clothing, printed materials, soil, and more. Rekka was also used to indicate the decline of abstract qualities such as function, vision, sound quality, picture quality, communications quality, color, taste, earning potential, business conditions, culture, and spirit. So while the corpus tells us that the word rekka is not exclusively reserved to express concrete phenomena, it also tells us that using it to describe a person’s looks is extremely rare. Of the 542 usage examples, only three pertained to a person and two (twice in the same context) to a person’s looks.

I feel like the pro tennis player Maria Sharapova isn’t as beautiful as she once was. Or is it just me?

Really? You may have just caught her at a moment when she was showing her age. You know non-Japanese tend to deteriorate [rekka] more quickly. The tennis player Martina Hingis was a beautiful Akane Oda lookalike when she was younger, but she’s deteriorated [rekka] a lot faster than Oda.

(Yahoo! Chiebukuro 2005)

If we do a general web search for the term rekka, one of the top hits is a page that uses the word to describe an actor’s looks. If we search within newspaper sites, however, we find a lineup of examples much like the ones returned from the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese—with virtually none of them referring to a person’s physical appearance. Our inquiry so far suggests that it depends on the media that the word rekka is being used to describe looks. A general web search returns many examples of this new usage, indicating that the list of phenomena rekka can describe may be getting more inclusive. But the same time, we can also conclude from the possibility that there is a bias in the media in adopting this usage that people unfamiliar with this unconventional usage may still find it awkward when they encounter it in print or speech.

Know your audience

When it comes to word usage, nobody can say with absolute certainty what is “correct”—though there are definitely accepted ranges of meaning. Instead, what is “correct” depends on who the audience is for that particular word. While we have seen that there is a bias in the media for using the term rekka, the usage of a word takes a variety of forms depending on the age of the audience, whether it is being used as an inside term, and many other factors. You have to know your audience in order to know whether your meaning is going to come across as you intend it. And even if people might understand what you mean by a certain word, it is best to avoid it if it has the potential to cause uneasiness where you do not intend it. As we go about using words that are evolving day by day, we must consider whether the people with whom we are communicating are going to get the right message.

Yumi Fujiike
Specially Appointed Associate Professor
Areas of Specialization: Japanese Corpus Linguistics, History of the Japanese Language
Professor Fujiike was born in Tokyo in 1974. She graduated from the Faculty of Humanities, Japan Women’s University in 1997, completing a master’s program at the university’s Graduate School of Humanities two years later. In 2006, she withdrew from the doctoral program without an official degree after having completed all the required coursework. She has a Master of Humanities from Japan Women’s University.
Fujiike served as a project researcher for the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, participating in efforts to compile the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese and the Heian Period Series of the Corpus of Historical Japanese. She later worked as a part-time lecturer at Japan Women’s University and Showa Women’s University before taking up her current post in 2014.
Fujiike’s current areas of study include using corpus documents to research the history of the Japanese language (descriptive research on vocabulary and sentence structure in Heian/Kamakura Japanese and mixed literary Japanese and Chinese writings from a quantitative perspective). Her principal published work is “Quantitative Vocabulary Structure in Heian-period Tanka Poetry [Heian jidai waka no goi no ryoteki kozo]” (Literature and Linguistics (Bungaku gogaku) 211, 2014).