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What is the Japanese word for sushi?

By Rolf Weimar

This question, though at first absurd, can be a great jumping off point for a discussion about language. When does a word become a part of a language? And what is a language anyway? If you went up to someone who didn’t speak Hungarian and said something in Hungarian they wouldn’t understand you. So we can say that your language and Hungarian are different enough that they can be grouped separately. But if you just said the word “sushi” to an English speaker, while not a sentence, it would put the idea of sushi in their mind. Does this make sushi an English word? Could we group English and Japanese together because they share a word for something?

Of course, no one is suggesting English and Japanese are the same language. Both languages are clearly very different. You are probably picturing English and Japanese in your mind and that picture probably has writing on it. Writing though is just a tool and outside of the page and in the real world things get a bit more messy.

So, what is the criteria for saying a word is a part of the language? Does it need to invoke an idea in the receiver’s mind? Ok, well “sushi” clearly fulfills that criteria. But it’s also very clearly a borrowing from Japanese and the pronunciation has only been changed very slightly. Does its clear foreign origin give it away? Would someone reading a menu, coming across the word sushi, jump back in surprise and say “Why are there Japanese words on this menu?” Probably not. They probably just look at the word and understand what it’s refering to.

Sometimes when someone asks a linguist a question they get the answer: “It depends”. Whether a word is considered a part of the language or not depends on a lot of things. It could be considered a “true” member of the new language or it could sit on the outside and only be used when a speaker needs to refer to things that they don’t normally refer to.

There are many examples of words with very specific meanings that were borrowed because they served a purpose. When your language doesn’t have a word for something, people often just borrow the word from the people who do have a word for it. An example is the word “raccoon” which was borrowed from the Powhatan language that was spoken in Virginia. Initially it would probably have seemed like a foreign word. It would have seemed as strange as the new creatures Europeans encountered in the new world.

As Europeans and their descendants spent more time in America, the word and the animal it referred to would have seemed more normal. Now when a character like Rocket Raccoon appears in a movie, no one says to themselves “Why did they name the character using a word from a Native American language?”. “raccoon” is simply what the animal is called in English. It has since become a word in English. How long a word has been in English has a big effect on what native English speakers think is an English word. Words have all sorts of origins, whether it is from older forms of English or from the multitude of languages spoken in the world.

You might be thinking “It’s a word if it’s in the dictionary” but dictionaries are a modern invention. Do words exist simply because they appear in the dictionary? A lot of modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they try to show the language as it is used by people rather than be a place to tell people how they think the language should be.

We can actually go further than just “it depends”. We can say that a word becomes a member of a language once it has settled in and has been accepted by the speakers of a language. But we can actually zoom out and look at things a different way. Let’s imagine a time before books, computers or writing. Let’s imagine a tribal people getting by somewhere in the world. Someone goes hunting and they come across a strange animal. He runs home and says “I saw a creature and he was scratching in the dirt with his hands”.

Later on, when someone wants to say that they also saw a creature like that, they might say “I saw one of those scratching-in-the-dirt animals”. Someone might ask what a “scratching-in-the-dirt” animal is and they would say “It’s got black fur around its eyes, with a larger circle of white fur, but it’s mostly grey” and then the person would connect “scratching-in-the-dirt” with this new animal which you can guess now is actually a raccoon. I used this example because that is actually how the raccoon got its name. The word “raccoon” comes from the phrase “ärähkuněm” in the Powhatan language which means “he scratches with his hands”.

The speakers of this language would at first just think of “ärähkuněm” as a phrase but over time it would be shortened and eventually just turn into a noun. This happens all the time in language. Just look at the phrase “goodbye” which comes from the phrase “God be with ye”. Over time things that are useful settle down into a particular usage and stick like that. But what’s the broader view that I was talking about? Well, let’s think about “ärähkuněm” again. Would speakers of that language think of it as a word? Would they think about spelling or the word on the page? They would probably just think of it as a series of sounds, i.e. “ä” then “r” then “ä” and so on.

They grow up hearing people speak to them, they learn words and grammatical endings and various other things and they use what they have learned to speak to people around them. Anything that their community uses when speaking to one another they would probably just accept as part of their common speech or language. Let’s say visitors from afar come visiting. Maybe these visitors are from Europe. Their speech would sound strange to them and completely unintelligible. Whatever it is they are speaking, it would be very different to their own language. In their own village they would understand what people meant when people used the word for fruit, or animal, or parent, or mother of father and so on. That’s their language. They have an intuition and feeling about what makes their language their language.

If you could take all the words they know and put it into a box, you would have a box full of words. You could say that that box is for all intents and purposes their language. They would understand any word in that box and would accept any word in that box as one of their own.

What if you showed them something they had never seen before? They would probably use words they already know to describe the new object. What if someone came along and told them what the Europeans called it. Would they accept this as a word in their language? Or would they regard it as foreign and strange? Probably the second one. With enough time and exposure to these new things they might eventually borrow the word and change the pronunciation slightly and start applying grammatical endings to it, thus slowly absorbing it into their language.

That word would eventually find its way into the box. Actually, there is a better analogy. It’s a bit like a soup. Words are the carrots, and parsely and pieces of meat in the soup. This kind of soup is your favourite. It’s your soup. It’s something you are familiar with and you like it. Later people start adding garlic to it. Urgh! You hate garlic but over time you get used to it and even start to like it. It’s still your soup but it is a bit different now.

This really is the true nature of language. It’s a soup. It has bits and pieces from all over the place. Some parts are new additions to the recipe like “selfie”, “unfriend”, “vlog” and “cryptocurrency”. Others are older like “decide”, “royal” and “soldier”. And finally we have words that we can trace all the way back to the original language of the Germanic tribes which English is descended from. These words include “I”, “me”, “you”, “fish”, “hound” and “sheep”.

The truth is that words come and go and there is no hard and fast rule of what makes something a word in a language. So one day a while ago someone from Europe ate sushi for the first time and I decided that their friends back home had to know about it. “I had the most amazing meal today. The locals call it ‘sushi'” they would write. And thus a word that had never before been used in English was used and the course of the language was changed ever so slightly. Never before had an English speaker used a single word to describe what this person was eating, but now they had and a new expression was now possible in English. This has happened in every language around the world.

Humans go out into the world, and eat and drink and try different things. They talk about their experiences and as they talk they influence their language ever so slightly. The language hums and sings with a thousand voices and all of them speak of the experiences of its users. English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Arabic, they are all just ways to communicate with those around us. They are all different in some ways and similar in some ways and they all have something to say about what it means to be human.

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