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Campus Now

Early Spring Issue (Apr.)

A WASEDA Miscellany

Peter Backhaus

Reading the signs

Peter Backhaus,
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

I joined the School of Education, Department of English Language and Literature, in April last year. My speciality is sociolinguistics, where one of my favourite research topics is language on signs. Reading the "linguistic landscape", as this has come to be called in linguistics, has kept me fascinated ever since I did my first larger survey on the topic in 2003.

The streets of Tokyo with their many languages and scripts to read provide a congenial environment for research. Needless to say that it's Japanese that dominates the city's outward appearance - much to the dismay of many a foreign traveller who all of sudden feels like having turned illiterate. However, there is much more to Tokyo's linguistic landscape than Kanji and Kana.

For instance, walking through Okubo and other parts of Shinjuku Ward, one is struck by the high visibility of Korean Hangul on signs by the local shopkeepers and other residents. While generations of zainichi Koreans did their best to conceal their ethnolinguistic origin, the recent prominence of Hangul in Tokyo's linguistic landscape is a most visible reminder of the fact that Japan is not as monolingual a country as some still would have it.

More than any other minority language, however, it is English that lines the streets of Tokyo. And a very special kind of English too, coming as it does with somewhat different rules than in most other parts of the world.

Take for instance the word "parm", which is a frequent sight on signs of hairdressers' and other types of beauty shops. Why is it spelled that way? One most likely reason can be found in the Japanese term pama, a Katakana word modelled after the English original, "perm". Since the loan word has an "a" rather than an "e" as first vowel, it may easily end up being spelled "parm" when transliterated from Katakana into the roman alphabet. This phenomenon in linguistics is called interference.

Interference not only occurs on the orthographic level, but can also be found with regard to vocabulary. Thus another common oddity in Tokyo's linguistic landscape, again taken from the domain of beauty, is the phrase "hair & make". Taking this to be English, the combination of the noun "hair" with the verb "make" must appear rather enigmatic. Yet it seems for hairdressers' there is no way round offering "hair & make" services on their signs these days. The phrase is even used as a slogan of a major beauty chain. The key to understanding the puzzle is the fact that "make" in Japanese is used as a noun (in the sense of "make-up"). These are words that go together well.

Tokyo : An empire of signs

What language is "hair & make" supposed to be then? Its outward appearance, in roman alphabet and following English spelling rules, would suggest it must be English. Its meaning, on the other hand, is only retrievable when read (and pronounced) in Japanese, where it becomes hea ando méku. Examples like this show how much - and how inevitable - the English language has become part of Japanese, not only in the domain of beauty.

Reading the signs thus tells us a great deal about Japanese language and society at the onset of the 21st century. Apart from that - and what is even more - it provides a most welcome opportunity for researchers to escape from their ordinary desk work.