Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?

17 Jul

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

One of the issues that often gets brought up in cases of linguistic appropriation is why the author wanted to use non-English words.  There are a few possible reasons for using non-English words in an English language novel:

1. To create a sense of exoticism, or an atmosphere associated with a certain real-world culture

2. To create a sense of otherness compared to the perspective culture (the protag’s culture)

3. To express concepts not expressible in English without a wordy paraphrase

4. To signal to the reader that the culture being presented differs from their own

5. To distinguish when a character is speaking a language that is not the perspective character’s native language

In this post, I will address the first reason, since it’s arguable that it is the most common, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Each of these reasons have positive and negative ideas underlying them.  Many people have argued, and often convincingly, that exoticism is never an acceptable reason to appropriate someone else’s culture–or in our case, language.  Nisi Shawl quotes a beautiful if uncomfortable poem by Hiromi Goto in her article Appropriate Cultural Appropriation:

Removed.  Please see the full version at the link above.

The problem with exoticism is that it doesn’t truly relfect the culture in question, but only those attributes that the exoticizer finds attractive.  Of course, SFF is not necessarily about accurately depicting real-world cultures.

However, what exoticism does is perpetuate (sometimes harmful, often disrespectful) stereotypes of real-world cultures.  And even if they may not think in those terms, that’s exactly what the story-teller making use of it wants.  Because the goal of invoking that culture, with language or otherwise, is to bring the reader in mind of the cultural stereotypes that society has instilled in them towards the target culture.

To make an analogy to my previous discussion of words, what the exoticizer is invoking are the connotations associated with the target culture, instead of the denotation.  And language is a powerful invocation of culture, because words signify the cultural perceptions.  To use Japanese and Japan as an example, “samurai” is a symbol of the culture, especially in the West.  The Western concept of samurai, based on beliefs of which many have proven to be erroneous, is a strong invocator of Japanese culture.

But samurai has been established in its position as an English loan-word.  It by itself is not enough to call forth the stereotypes of Japan to complete the atmosphere and the appropriation.  But then we have the concept of respect/honor/humility, part of the Western perception of Bushido–the way of the warrior.  And so Kristoff, for example, makes use of honorifics in his dialogue.  This appropriation–and an incorrect one, at that–calls forth stereotypes of Japan that fit Kritsoff’s character arc, in this case, the conflict between duty and righteousness.

As an example of exoticizing, I’d like to do some linguistic and anthropological analysis of the concept of Bushido.  Bushido is a concept invented at the end of the 19th century to reflect the warrior ethos in Japan.  As with many such concepts or supposed ethical systems–such as the Western code of chivalry–Bushido represents and over-simplification of a myriad of personal and local philosophies/codes of ethics present in Japan during the various historical periods during which the samurai were a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, society, and politics.

Inazo Nitobe wrote and published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1900, as an original english language(OEL) text.  It was eventually translated into Japanese after achieving popularity in the English-speaking world, influencing such people and organizations as Robert Baden-Powell, found of the Boy Scouts.  Many people don’t even realize that one of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture was not even an originally Japanese invention.  Although the concepts espoused in the book were rooted in some historically accurate ideals of Japanese culture, thus the enormous popularity of the book with Japanese citizens of the time, it is not an accurate depiction of the way in which so-called “feudal” Japanese culture worked.  Primary sources, such as letters, diaries, and even books of ethics written by many Japanese lords and warriors, do show that there were ideas of ethical behavior that reflect many of the concepts of bushido.  But rather than a universal code of ethics, they were the results of many people with a shared history and culture based in Shinto, Buddhism, and a certain political and social climate.

The construction of the word Bushido is interesting in its etymology.  “Do” has the meaning of “way” or “path”.  It comes from the morpheme /to/ in Japanese, as seen in Shinto, “the way of the gods”, and other similar belief systems.  “Bushi”, a Japanese word for “warrior” comes from the Chinese “bu” and “shi”, which originally was a compound meaning not “warrior”, but translating roughly as “to stop the spear”.  And “samurai” itself actually referred to servants or retainers, rather than warriors in its original conception, and it was used by the aristocratic Kuge class, rather than the warriors who preferred bushi.

Getting back to our main topic, the desire of the story-teller to romanticize the connotations of a foreign culture rather than explore and appreciate its denotation is one of the main factors that marks something as appropriation.  Goto’s poem touches on this idea in the stanza quoted about (#5), and the other stanzas quoted in Shawl’s article, pointing out the idea of the appropriation as art, the shared love of the romanticism inherent in most appropriation, and the lifelessness of the metaphorical girl in the kimono.  What the appropriator loves so much is no the culture itself, but what they can get out of it, and when that culture crumbles to dust as Goto describes, it’s okay, because the appropriator can merely build it up again.  It is, after all, merely their own creation, and not a living, breathing thing which matters to others because they live it.

In the next post, I will address reason number four, since it serves as a powerful set-up for the remaining reasons, and ties in so strongly with what I had to say in this one.  In order to understand the use of language in fiction, it is necessary to understand why it has such a powerful effect on us.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism


Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


Tags: , , , , , ,

3 responses to “Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?

  1. CC

    September 19, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    The use of ‘kimono’ in English certainly seems to have had some interesting variation. I’ve been reading a lot of 20’s and 30’s magazines lately (as well as a lot of P.G. Wodehouse), and ‘kimono’ at that point seems to have been one of the preferred polite words for a lady’s light dressing gown, being applied to anything light, roomy, and collarless. Most of the ads I’ve seen in the magazines are not for Japanese or even japonisme examples, but lacy things. However, that usage seems to have completely disappeared in the intervening 80 or 90 years.


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