If a guy somewhere in Asia makes a blog and no one reads it, does it really exist?

Monday, June 7

Creoles and glass eyes

Creole languages are not as exotic as you might think. Look at how foreigners speak to each other here in Japan. Even after just a few months, people start giddily peppering their conversations with Japanese words. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. For example, almost every single foreigner I have met in Japan refers to their cellular phone as a keitai. Why? Don't cell phones exist back home? My foreign coworkers call staff meetings kaigi. Why? Are meetings a uniquely Japanese phenomenon? Just this morning, a foreign coworker said to me, "It's just so mendokusai." Why didn't he say, "It's just a pain in the ass"?

I'll admit that I do it too, although I'm making a conscious effort to stop. It's obvious that being immersed in a foreign language makes your native tongue vulnerable to degradation, but why the selective lexical perforation? Why call a convenience store a conbini?

I think there are a few reasons why this happens. Some things are simply much more pervasive in Japan; conbini and jihanki (vending machines) are found on practically every street corner. Hell, there’s even a vending machine on top of Mt. Fuji!

Another reason might be that the object being spoken about is in fact uniquely Japanese with no English equivalent. Saying "uniquely Japanese" makes me cringe, but wouldn't you agree that it's nicer to say onigiri than "seaweed wrapped rice balls"?

And finally, there's the Cool Gaijin Factor. People use the Japanese word just to show how immersed they are in Japanese culture. Some people take this way too far:

"TSUKARETA! Today's kaigi was like, totally nagasugiru. Kacho told me to tsuyaku this one part and I was like, yo, wakaranai, okay? So are we goin' to an izakaya tonight? I'm ready for some yakiniku, dude. Remind me to swing by a conbini to pay my seikyushos before we go. I'll pick you up at, say, rokuji-han? I'll be driving an orange kei, you can't miss it."

But really, as weird as this may look, it's not a creole, or even a pidgin, since both parties are usually native English speakers. However, there are instances when two non-native speakers of Japanese are having a conversation in a weird hybrid language (me and my fiancée, for example). Exchange by two foreigners overheard on a train:

Gaijin A: 「ああ、それは目が落ちますよね。」
Gaijin B: 「ええ、そうですよね。」

I thought these guys were serious students of Japanese and that me ga ochiru (an eye falls) was an obscure Japanese idiom that I had never heard before. I looked it up in dictionaries and found nothing. I asked Japanese people. Nothing.

It's not an idiom. It doesn't mean anything, aside from the literal meaning of "an eyeball drops out of your eye socket", but to these two people, it obviously meant something. Perhaps it's an idiom that just happened to exist in the native tongues of both. I felt as if I'd witnessed the birth of a new creole.

Or maybe he really had a glass eye that kept popping out of his head.


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