I’m proficiently bilingual in English and Japanese. But starting from the age of 6, I began speaking something different, which to this day is still my most comfortable form of communication and preferred choice of language: Japlish.
Now before I go into detail, I want to establish that when I talk about ‘Japlish’, I am not referring to what is commonly know as ‘Engrish‘, which I’m sure a lot of you are aware of. There’s an entire site dedicated to examples of Engrish where you can find pictures of signs, menus and advertisements with hilariously-butchered English, often spotted in East Asian countries such as Japan, China and Korea. Country-specific terms also include: ‘Chinglish’ for China, ‘Konglish’ for Korea’, ‘Japanglish’ or ‘Janglish’ or ‘Japlish’ for Japan. But I’d like to claim the term ‘Japlish’ to describe the language my friends and I spoke, and still speak today, which refers to something completely different.
Simply put, Japlish is a hybrid language of Japanese and English.
Still confused? Let me explain.
As I recounted in my ‘Accents of the English Language‘ post, I grew up predominantly speaking English despite growing up in Japan as my parents are Singaporean. But technically I learnt English and Japanese at the same time, speaking the former at home and the latter at kindergarten. When I was 6 years old, my parents enrolled me in an international school called Christian Academy in Japan (aka CAJ, situated in Higashi Kurume, Tokyo) so that I could receive an English education. Naturally, my English improved drastically; but I still spoke Japanese everyday, especially with my friends.
Fast-forward 10 years to when I was 16. I went to get my hair cut at QB House, a cheap and convenient barber’s (10 minute cut for 1000 yen) at Higashi Kurume station. My barber was a young man probably in his early to mid-20s, and pretty soon we had struck up a conversation. When he realised that I was a student from CAJ, he said he had a question for me. I was not expecting what he then asked with genuine astonishment:
‘What language do you speak with your friends?!‘
I stared at him, confused. His question didn’t register in my mind, so I asked him what he meant. He explained:
‘Well, whenever I hear CAJ students talking to each other, it throws me off. I can pick up Japanese words here and there in your conversations, but it’s also mixed erratically with English words and phrases. What you guys speak sounds utterly foreign and alien to me!’
It was only at that moment, 10 years after being in an enclosed international TCK environment, when I was jolted to the realisation that I neither spoke purely English nor Japanese with my friends. The next day at school, I listened carefully to our conversations, heavily conscious of how we formed our sentences – and sure enough, it was an erratic mix of English and Japanese.
What an epiphany. It was a fascinating linguistic phenomenon. Because most of the students in school were (at least) bilingual, usually English and Japanese, and because we were in a unique environment where both languages were understandably used for practical reasons, we had unknowingly and unconsciously created our own hybrid or mixed language, which I have subsequently come to term ‘Japlish’. But why had this resulted?
It was only when I graduated from CAJ in 2009 and found myself immersed in an all-English (or for some friends, all-Japanese) environment when I finally understood why. We couldn’t speak just English or just Japanese. Okay, we could, but we found it immensely difficult. Why? My school had been an environment where we had the luxury of being multilingual, meaning we had an escape route: if we couldn’t think of an English word in our conversations, we would instinctively and immediately substitute the missing word with a Japanese one, and vice versa. Yup, we were lazy; and which consequently explains why the majority of us were not well-versed in either and only English or Japanese.
Here’s an example of a sentence in Japlish that might have showed up in our conversations:
(‘Saigo no essay itsu due nano?’ which literally translates to ‘The last essay when due is it?’, or in proper English ‘When is the last essay due?’)
Another phrase we would always use was:
(‘Oh majide?!’ which literally translates to ‘Oh really?’)
We also used hybrid words/phrases that were forcibly stuck together to be used as slang (I wouldn’t claim that we created them; I’m sure many of these were around in existence long before we used them):
- ‘hotsui‘: meaning ‘hot (temperature)’
- (combining the English word ‘hot’ with the Japanese equivalent ‘atsui‘)
- ‘yabarf‘: used as an exclamation to express surprise, whether good or bad, ‘that’s crazy’
- (combining the Japanese word ‘yabai‘ used to express surprise, with the English word ‘barf’ aka vomit; ‘you’re so surprised you’re going to vomit’)
- ‘suimasorry‘: used to apologise (though often sarcastically)
- (combining the Japanese word ‘suimasen‘ which means ‘sorry/excuse me’ with the English word ‘sorry’)
- ‘Uncle Gary‘: referring to ‘diarrhoea’
- (‘geri‘ is ‘diarrohea’ in Japanese, so we personified it; Q. ‘Why were you in the toilet for so long?’ A. ‘Uncle Gary’)
Japanese filler words (prepositions, adjectives, etc.) are also commonly used, usually added to the beginning or end of a sentence:
- 「だって」(‘datte‘) or「だけど」(‘dakedo‘) or「でも」(‘demo‘) were common substitutions for ‘but’ (e.g.「でも I thought she said…」)
- 「でしょ」(‘desho‘) was used for ‘right?’ (e.g.「Your grades are fine でしょ?」)
- 「めんどくさい」(‘mendokusai‘ meaning ‘troublesome’) or「微妙」(‘bimyou‘ expressing vagueness, a slight denial) (e.g.「That’s so めんどくさい」or「That’s so 微妙」)
And the Japlish I speak with my friends? Think of it as every single word switching between English and Japanese. It’s hectic, crazy and a whole lot of fun.
(On a slightly related note, Japan does have many foreign loan words – referred to as gairaigo – but some loan words from English have been taken a step further to become wasei-eigo, Japanese pseudo-Anglicisms: you can see a whole list of gairaigo and wasei-eigo terms on Wikipedia.)
This might be fascinating, or even amusing to you, especially if you’re monolingual. But it’s safe to say that this isn’t an uncommon linguistic occurrence: look at Franglais (French/English) or Spanglish (Spanish/English), for example. Similarly to Japlish, Franglais ‘usually consists of … filling in gaps in one’s knowledge of French with English words’ (e.g. Je suis tired. – I am tired. (Je suis fatigué)). And Spanglish is growing especially in America; although ‘it seems like a “bastardized language” … In reality, Spanglish has its own culture and has a reputation of its own.’
Although I call it a hybrid language, Wikipedia terms it as a ‘mixed language‘: ‘a language that arises through the fusion of usually two source languages, normally in situations of thorough bilingualism, so that it is not possible to classify the resulting language as belonging to either of the language families that were its sources.’
And recently, a friend stumbled upon this particular term which might possibly relate to this issue: ‘relexification‘ which ‘is the mechanism of language change by which one language replaces much or all of its lexicon, including basic vocabulary, with that of another language, without drastic change to its grammar’ often arising from a universal principle of ‘simplification’ (which is what we Japlish speakers certainly do).
But enough with the technicalities.
‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head; if you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.‘
English and Japanese are both languages I understand, and I would also argue, both languages that come from my heart. There are times when I think in English, there are times when I think in Japanese. I have even dreamt in both languages. But there is no doubt that Japlish is my ultimate heart language.
2 years ago, I went to visit a friend whom I hadn’t met in 7 years. We had been classmates back in middle school until she left Tokyo for Vienna. I was visiting friends around the UK that particular Christmas holiday and decided to drop by since she was studying in Nottingham. As the train pulled into the station, I felt slightly anxious, unsure of how our reunion would be. But the moment we met and started talking in Japlish, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me; I knew it would be all right. We spoke a common language, and needless to say, that allowed us to connect straightaway.
When I’m in the UK, I speak English solely. And that’s fine; it doesn’t cause me much hardship. But it’s when I’m with fellow Japlish-speaking friends, often fellow TCKs, that I feel I can be most myself.
In my first year of university, I was writing an essay ‘The History of the English Language: Story of Power and Emergence of World Englishes‘ when in my reading of critical sources, I stumbled upon, to my utter delight, the word ‘Japlish’ in John Honey’s Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies! Honey was talking about ‘hundreds of alternative Englishes’, among which was ‘Japlish (as used in Japan)’. It’d be interesting to look into the growth or increase of Japlish, and to see if in the future it’ll rise up to the level other mixed languages like Franglais and Spanglish have reached.
Searching ‘Japlish’ on Google yields countless sites on Engrish; but I found an article called ‘Losing Our Language‘ by Sandra Stotsky, which surprisingly refers to my definition of Japlish, the hybrid language. She only briefly touches upon it, but she does provide an example she found in the 1996 Houghton Mifflin grade 6 reader (not surprisingly the first and only example she has found) of a passage written in Japanglish/Japlish by Gary Soto (I later discovered it was taken from his book Pacific Crossing):
‘On the engawa after dinner, Mr. Ono said to Mitsuo, “Take Lincoln to the dojo. You are not too tired, are you, Lincoln-kun? It is almost eight o’clock.”
“No, not at all,” Lincoln said as he left the room to get his gi.
Puzzled at Mitsuo’s smile, Lincoln watched him hurry away, geta ringing on the stone walk. Lincon shrugged his shoulders as he entered the driveway with a fistful of yen, his monthly dues. On his way down the driveway, Lincoln stopped to gassho — salute — to three black belts who were stretching on the lawn, sweat already soaking into the backs of their gis.’
I perfectly understand what this passage is saying, but obviously, to an English-speaker who doesn’t understand Japanese, this might be slightly incomprehensible. Gary Soto does provide a context in which you could potentially decipher what some of the words mean (he even directly translates gassho as ‘salute’) but the words engawa (veranda) and Lincoln-kun (an honorific used when addressing boys) can easily fly over one’s head.
One of my goals is to write a novel entirely in Japlish. I’m actually very encouraged by Gary Soto and his book because it’s the first novel I’ve heard about that actually utilises, to some extent, Japlish. Obviously, it’ll be directed at a niche audience, much smaller than say an audience who understands Franglais or Spanglish, but there’s always a first for everything, right?
I mean, it’s fascinating to look at a novel like Villette by Charlotte Brontë which contains (according to an Amazon.com reviewer) around 400 French phrases, which weren’t translated at the time; or even Shakespeare’s Henry V which contains entire scenes and dialogue in French (Katharine). I’m presuming back in the day, most people understood both English and French, which was why they could get away with it. I’m hoping that by the time I write my Japlish novel, there will be a lot more people who comprehend and speak it.
For my fellow Japlish-speaking friends, what are some of your favourite Japlish words or phrases?
[UPDATE: Read my next Japlish (not Engrish) post here: ‘Japlish (not Engrish): the Tragic Gift of Bilingualism / Multilingualism‘]
- Charlotte Brontë
- Christian Academy in Japan
- English language
- Gary Soto
- Henry V
- hybrid language
- John Honey
- mixed language
- Nelson Mandela
- Pacific Crossing
- Sandra Stotsky
- Third Culture Kid