As I’ve mentioned in the past, language in a fluid, living and ever changing thing. While it does usually retain its roots in grammatical patterns for the most part, colloquial expressions, descriptors and intensifiers can sometimes change in meaning or even gain an opposite meaning.
Recently I had a conversation with my mother-in-law (who is from Kyushu but has lived in Hokkaido now for the past 20 years) about the Japanese language and how it is changing, or in her words “becoming strange” (おかしくなってる).
Her reasoning for as to why Japanese is becoming strange is “because of young people”. The first thing she referenced was the tendency of younger women to exclaim “kawaii!” (cute!) in regards to just about anything. My mother-in-law’s issue appears not to be necessarily with the word itself or its meaning but the fact that it is stated about not just cute things, but about normal things (in her opinion) as well.
The word gets a less intense meaning from its overuse while simultaneously becoming a necessary part of conversations in this subculture of young Japanese women. In fact, in many situations their conversations will stop dead in their tracks if you were to tell these girls to try to eliminate the word “kawaii” from their speech.
For those studying Japanese, you probably already know the word “ぜんぜん” (zenzen). It is a word that basically means “not at all”. Up until fairly recently, this word was always used in regards to something negative, i.e. “ぜんぜんできない” (I can’t do it at all.) However, now the word seems to be lending itself to simply being an intensifier of meaning, be it positive or negative: i.e. “ぜんぜんできる” (I can totally do it.)
In all actuality, my mother-in-law is correct in her assertion that Japanese is in fact gradually changing because of young people. However, her feeling is that the Japanese that has been established in her mind is “correct Japanese”, while understandable is a fairly common misconception among older generations.
The Japanese language, as well as all other languages, has been gradually changing bit by bit since their very conception. Consider for example, the Japanese language 200 years ago. “Kisama”, these days a rude way to refer to someone as “you” and commonly used in anime, actually used to be an honorific way to say “you” 200-400 years ago in Japan. “De gozaru” was also a common way to end sentences instead of “desu”, but has since become a characterization of how ninjas speak.
Japanese is certainly changing little by little as time passes, but rest assured that this phenomena is not at all strange. In fact, it would be considerably stranger if it never changed at all. For those of you who either have an intricate knowledge of Japanese or have been in Japan for a couple decades, is there any other Japanese that you know of that has changed over the years?