Grammatical changes in English loanwords

The following was going to be an article to submit to SIG newsletters until I realized it was more a collection of uncitable observations than anything academic.   I suppose it has academic use though, so feel free to cite it and have your manuscript rejected for citing a blog!

Loanwords, particularly from English, are a prominent part of modern Japanese vocabulary (Kay, 1995).  In ELT, loanwords can be considered a type of false friend because of their sometimes different meanings, pronunciations, collocations, and derivations to the lexical items from English that they originate in.  An example that is currently very visible in Japanese society is aidoringu (“idling”), meaning the idling of automobile engines, whose pronunciation stretched into 7 morae (a-i-do-ri-n-gu), and which collocates in a way that would be ungrammatical in English in aidoringu sutoppu (“idling stop”, turning off the engine when the car is not in motion).  English teachers in Japan can expect to encounter these words very often; a cursory use of the Japanese corpus Shonagon gives 21 hits for アイドリングストップ aidoringu sutoppu and only 16 for エンジン停止 enjin teishi (engine stoppage, which itself uses a loanword).


The purpose of this article is to examine the grammatical changes loanwords undergo in the process of becoming a part of the modern Japanese vocabulary.  The changes described will be results of consistent differences between Japanese and English grammar, and therefore should be generalizable.  Whether these changes are transferred back to Japanese speakers’ L2 English is a separate issue, although one must be aware that translation is a widely accepted method of ELT in Japan (Nishino and Watanabe, 2008), and transfer errors from the application of this method may be expected.  The differences between loanwords and English words do not disqualify them as learning material either, as Daulton (1999) has stated.  The following sections describe the grammatical changes that loanwords are likely to undergo in their induction into Japanese vocabulary.


Adjectives in Japanese are broadly separated into i-adjectives, including kawaii (cute) or isogashii (busy); and na-adjectives, such as kiken-na (dangerous) or reisei-na (calm).  The so-called na-adjectives, which are also called adjectival nouns, can also be used as nouns in the absence of a particle marking them as adjectival or adverbial in function, making words like 安全な anzen-na (“safe”) and 安全 anzen (“safety”) easily derivable and even interchangeable in many cases, such as before the final copula da or desu.  Adjective loanwords are typically na-adjectives, meaning that they also can be used as nouns, and noun loanwords may become adjectives with the addition of –na.  セーフティ seefuti (“safety”) is commonly used as both a noun and an adjective, as in the common term セーフティドライバー seefuti doraibaa (“safe driver”).  Other examples of adjectival borrowings that can be used as nouns in Japanese include compounds ending in フリー such as バリヤーフリー bariyaa furii (“barrier free”) or simply フリー furii (“free”, more often used to mean “available” than “at no cost”), モバイル mobairu (“mobile”), and ライブ raibu (“live”, referring to a live performance or concert).  The existence of adjectival nouns means that both adjectives and nouns may be shorn of their conjugated forms when borrowed from English into Japanese, and nouns and adjectives may be used in each other’s places.

“Safety Driver Contest Shizuoka Prefecture Contest”


Verbs in Japanese all end in -u in their dictionary forms (which corresponds roughly to the bare infinitive or simple present in English), using different characters from the u row of the hiragana chart.  Examples from the native vocabulary include 食べる taberu (“eat”) or 歌うutau (“sing”).  One class of Japanese verbs, which includes borrowings from middle-age Chinese (analogous to Latinate words in English) as well as most loanwords from English, uses the standalone verb する suru; including 生活する seikatsu suru (“live”), 取得する shutoku suru (“acquire”), and カンニングする kanningu suru (“cheat on a test”).  Following the pattern of confusion of nouns and adjectives mentioned in the previous section, kanningu is known more as a noun than as an adjective.  The addition of suru converts that noun into a verb.  Conversely, removing suru turns one of the verbs from this class into a noun, making the derivation of nouns the relatively simple task of converting, for example, 取得する shutoku suru (“acquire”) into 取得 shutoku (“acquisition”).  Some verb loanwords from English come pre-conjugated as gerunds, e.g. アイドリング aidoringu, ジョギング jogingu (“jogging”) or ショッピング shoppingu (“shopping”), and require the addition of the verb する suru to function as verbs in Japanese.

Because the verb する suru is similar in meaning and usage to the light verbs such as make or do in English, English learners in Japan are likely to translate these gerund + light verb combinations literally rather than derive the verb base from the gerund, yielding utterances such as “do idling” or “do jogging” rather than simply “idle” or “jog”.  Even in cases where the verb is borrowed in its bare infinitive form, e.g. プロポーズ puropoozu (“propose marriage”), it needs する suru to be a verb in Japanese, and removal of する suru yields a noun, not a verb.  Hence, according to Shonagon, プロポーズ puropoozu is widely used as a noun, even more than its verb counterpart プロポーズする puropoozu suru.

There is a very small class of loanwords ending in -u which are used without する suru as 五段活用動詞 (“5-stage verbs”, verbs with regular conjugation besides する suru and a few others), including ググる guguru (“to Google”), ハモる hamoru (“to harmonize”) or トラブる toraburu (“to be troubled”).  These are rare enough that no broad patterns in changing grammatical class from the English words they are derived from can be described.

Verbs have other properties besides what is typically considered their “meaning” which can also change when they are adopted as loanwords into a new language.  As hinted at earlier, light verb + noun pairings (e.g. make an appointment; do the dishes) and other collocations (propose marriage; propose a merger) often change.  Other changes may occur in the argument structures that a verb may use, as in エンジョイ enjoi (“enjoy”) which requires an object in English and does not in Japanese.  This must be seen in light of the fact that both subjects and objects are often optional in Japanese, even in transitive verbs such as 食べる taberu (“eat”), however object-less phrases such as “Let’s Enjoy” is seen often enough in signage to make clear that intransitivity is normal for enjoi in Japanese.


Several characteristics of nouns in Japanese affect the usages of borrowings.  First, nouns in Japanese generally lack distinct plural forms, meaning that the word samurai, to take one example, could be interpreted as a single samurai, several samurai, or samurai in general (the title of the film The Last Samurai, importing the word’s lack of plural form, is variously interpreted as all of these).  Because the form of a noun is unrelated to the plurality of its referent, nouns may be rendered permanently singular or plural, for instance in シャツ shatsu (“shirt”) or フルーツ furuutsu (“fruit”).  The same words used in English by a Japanese L1 speaker may refer to a single shirt, many shirts, or the general concept of shirts.

When specification of number is necessary in Japanese, a system of counters called 助数詞 josuushi are employed.  The film Seven Samurai is called 七人の侍 shichinin no samurai (“seven people of samurai”), using the counter for people –nin to indicate the number of samurai.  The separation of counters from nouns leads to utterances such as “member is 5 people”, treating member as an abstract class with 5 instances.  The same system works for almost every noun, including borrowings such as スタッフ sutaffu (“staff”) or ナッツ nattsu (“nuts”), which as described above are treated as plural-less with number specified in a different noun, often glossed people or pieces.

The rule by which nouns are converted into adjectives (properly adjectival nouns) applies to noun borrowings as well; マニアック maniakku (“maniac”, as in enthusiastic fan) yields hits in Shonagon as an adjective マニアックな maniakku-na and an adverb マニアックに maniakku-ni but not as a noun.  An English noun borrowed may thus no longer exist as a noun in Japanese.


Prepositions essentially do not exist in Japanese; a phrase with equivalent meaning is usually a noun phrase with a few particles, as in 食事の前に shokuji no mae ni (“before a meal”, grammatically renderable as “at meal’s front”) or 周りの人 (“people around”, literally “the area around’s people”).  When prepositions are borrowed into Japanese, they are often converted into nouns, as in the outdated term アベック abekku (“avec”, from the French “with”, meaning “couple” in Japanese) or ナイスオン naisu on (“nice on”, hitting the ball onto the green in golf).

Noun phrases are left-branching in Japanese, meaning that the head of a noun phrase (“dog” in “a dog in a doghouse in the yard”) generally comes last after all the words modifying it (“yard-in doghouse-in dog”).  Japanese “House That Jack Built”-type exercises add more words in front of the noun with every new line, ending with the head.

A page from the book Nomi no Piko (“Piko the Flea”), ending with the head of the noun phrase, another flea who lives on a cat.

A phrase of nouns and prepositions borrowed from English into Japanese may be interpreted as if the rightmost noun were the head of the phrase, rather than in English, where the head of a noun phrase is to the left of any prepositions modifying it.  A “pizza crust with cheese inside” may be written as a “cheese-inside crust”, mirroring チーズが入ったクラスト chiizu ga haitta kurasuto (“crust which cheese got into”).

“Air in choco”, interpretable in English as a package of air.

The well-known case of misuse of “let’s” may be called a product of a single mistranslation which has become conventional rather than of regular grammatical differences, although the differences that led to that original mistranslation are worth exploring.  In English, “let’s” needs a lexical verb (in addition to the causitive verb “let”) for meaning as well as to make a grammatically well-formed sentence.  The word in Japanese which is often treated as a substitute for “let’s” is しよう shiyou, the volitional form of the verb する suru.  しよう shiyou does not require another verb for meaning or grammar; it can stand on its own.  That property of しよう shiyou misapplied to “let’s” produces phrases where a noun appears as the object of “let’s”.  As detailed in the verb section of this article, that noun may also be a gerund, as in “Let’s eating”, which until recently was spelled out in glowing neon letters over the food court of the mall in this author’s city of residence.

Yes, a real English school


The purpose of this article is not to take a stand against loanwords.  No matter how vexing their proliferation may be to English teachers, there is certainly an intelligent and proactive way of approaching them and even making them a part of curriculum.  One may not even need to move beyond translation, an approach to SLA that almost all students will be familiar with, to make this point; knowledge of the grammatical differences between loanwords and their English counterparts can simply yield better and more accurate translation.  Regardless of the approach a particular teacher or class takes, some explicit treatment of loanwords and the grammatical differences between Japanese and English can deepen and practicalize their knowledge of both languages.



Daulton, Frank. (1999).  English Loanwords in Japanese — The Built-in Lexicon. The Internet TESL Journal, 5/1.

Kay, Gillian. (1995), English loanwords in Japanese. World Englishes, 14: 67–76.

Nishino, T. and Watanabe, M. (2008). Communication-oriented Policies Versus Classroom Realities in Japan. TESOL Quarterly 42/1, pp. 133-138.


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