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The Ever Changing Japanese Language

As a language evolves, who is speaking the "correct Japanese"?

By 2 min read

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?

  • Kahani says:

    True along with accent, meanings and interpretations of words are also changing. I have a similar doubt, Can you tell me the exact meaning of words ” Kin Bow” ? This may be two different words, but I want to know exact translation of these one or two words in English, as I got different meanings of this/these words on searching on different social media, dictionaries and translators!

  • David Moore says:

    As someone who will be starting classes to learn Japanese soon, these discussions are both very interesting but still make me nervous. Is the formal method the standard that most instructors teach? I am stateside so my exposure will be limited to class time and study guides online.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      David, in most Japanese classes you are going to be taught formal Japanese. More often than not slang is not introduced until much later Japanese classes, or not at all. For many people including me, all of my classes involved formal Japanese and I had to practice my casual Japanese with my Japanese friends. For more colloquial Japanese, if going to Japan isn’t an option you could look into watching some Japanese dramas. Both formal and casual will come out of that.

  • Gaijinn says:

    I am quite familiar to Japanese language(formal or informal) i just dont like the way they talk.
    Thank you for the reply

    • Sik says:

      I just realized it came out like “it wouldn’t be surprising you don’t understand informal speech” when I meant “it wouldn’t be surprising that they think it could be the case” (;゚ω゚) Whoops, sorry.

  • James Lowrey says:

    お前 was honorific too, innit.
    My parents don’t understand me when I speak English like I do with friends, I guess it happens everywhere. I wonder how many oyajis know what a ドヤ顔 is, my Japanese sucks but maybe I understand some things old Japanese people don’t heh

  • Alexis Morton says:

    Agreed! I think it is fascinating how rapidly Japanese is changing! Next to kawaii, I think yabai is probably the most used word among Japanese youth. I’m sure your mother-in-law would say that yabai in its original meaning referred to something bad. Now, everything is yabai. From pop idols, clothing, or mundane actions/expressions between friends. Another craze is taking normal words and turning them into verbs. So like 事故 means accident, so one would normally say 事故を起こった or something of that nature. Now, the term (obviously amongst the young ones) is 事故る. I love how fluid language is! But I don’t think this only pertains to Japanese. Here in America, we just add ‘ing’ to a noun and all of a sudden, it’s a verb. Facebook-ing, Yik Yakk-ing, Instagram-ing, etc. I doubt we only use it for social media, but it’s the first thing that came to mind. lol

  • HaripriyaRamkrishnan says:

    I just read this article a little while ago today and just a few minutes ago, a friend texts me “zenzen daijoubu”. I did a double take as this was the first time I heard it being used so, and that, too, just a few hours after reading this! I’ve shared this link with her 😀

  • Raymond Chuang says:

    I think what really started to change the language was 1) the decision to create a single “standardized” version of Japanese (hyōjungo) starting in the Meiji Era, 2) the dramatic reduction in the use of bungo (the literary version of Japanese) since the end of World War II and 3) the enormous influence of loan words from other languages since the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation in 1853.

    But the other major change was the decision to drastically alter kanji usage after 1945. Indeed, most Japanese today could not read a pre-World War II Japanese printed book unless they have access to a kanji dictionary.

  • Yara Nogueira says:

    Linguistic prejudice is very common in many sorts of ways. Be it from age, social, region differences. It’s also common for the “elite” at the time (usually older white people in such places as the U.S.) have their speech considered the more “correct” one. Still, this is just a myth, just prejudice. Of course, to certain situations you must adapt your way of talking, but there are many in which it isn’t necessary. As long as you’re fluent, the language is yours to do as you wish with it, as long as you don’t forget the main goal: communication.

  • Clement Santoso says:

    The word ”適当” (tekitou) kind of changed too. It used to be a word used positively where the meaning was to give like an appropriate amount of something, but now its used to just give like a “whatever” amount of something. Really hard word to explain in English, doesn’t really translate.

    • Ain says:

      I first learned this word while working w kids (vs. learning it in Japanese class). To me, if was clear that if they were doing a worksheet and mumbled to each other, “適当でいい” that meant, in English, “Just write *something*.” In other words, no time or thought needed to be put into their answers. Later, I went back to university and took some Japanese classes and found a completely different meaning in my textbook. No one seemed to know what I was talking about!

    • HaripriyaRamkrishnan says:

      True. I’ve noticed this in manga and anime where they say “tekitou ni sureba..” where it implies “Do what you want.” I was always confused by this as I recall coming across the kanji for “teki” in my exercise book, reading it as “appropriate”.

  • Joakim Johansson says:

    Languages is always changing and I think that its a good thing.

  • Fredrich Benoist says:

    French has changed quiet a lot too, A lot of English words are now accepted in the everyday language. I’m a teacher and I’m 24, however I cannot understand what my students –who are 14 or 15– say at times. I have to say that witnessing the change of my mother tongue is not pleasant for me neither. In my case, I noticed that younger people cannot really articulate their thoughts in a complex manner in French. This is a bit alarming to me, but when I meet their parents I’m even more concerned because I can hear that even older people’s speech is affected by the changes. This leads to really weird situations when I speak more formally than people who are supposed to do so –because they are older than me and that we have a professional talk– and actually almost speak to me like they speak to their friends.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      “In my case, I noticed that younger people cannot really articulate their thoughts in a complex manner in French.”

      I noticed this as well back in the US as well. The worse part is that I saw the language on network TV change to come down to the level of the younger audience. For comedies or dramas this is fine, but annoying when it’s the national news.

  • Gaijinn says:

    I hate how japanese young people speak Japanese to each other. When they talk to me, they use different japanese because I am a foreigner. But when they speak to friends its like rude language. That is for boys. The girl’s are different story. They have weird way to speak Japanese ,keeping their kawai accent intact. Grown ups or people who work are the ones who uses good Japanese.
    majide,mechya,yabai etc are the recent trends.

    • Steph says:

      If they’re speaking formally with you it could be just a sign of respect as you are someone older.

      I have a hard time speaking formally because I became so used to talking to teenagers while teaching in elementary and jr high school, that now that I have a ‘real’ job working at a travel company often times I slip into what you may consider rude speech very quickly.

      I’m curious about mecha, majide, and yabai being recent though. When you say recent do you mean in the last ten years? Mecha is a regional western Japan word where chou is the eastern Japan equivalent, but I’m pretty sure it’s been used for quite some time.

      • Gaijinn says:

        yes last 5-10 yrs maybe. Because most of the people 40-50s dont often use them. Also Japanese sound really good when we speak in formal rather than informal dont they?

        • Steph says:

          Maybe in Tokyo they dont, but Ive heard many people that age use those words in the country.
          Personally, I much prefer hogen and informal speech to formal hyojungo.

  • Mikey says:

    Its kinda like how we could, like totally say like, like all the time. Like I was totally ready and she was like what, and I was like huh?

    My understanding is that most of the Japanese pronouns are always changing. Temae, which is now rude, used to be paired with jibun and somewhat authoritarian/militaristic. Anata used to be more of a my darling, but now more just means you. Same with kanojo which used to mean girl – but now also can mean “my girl” ie girlfriend.

    The first time I heard “zenzen ii” I was taken aback. For the reasons you stated above – It was a Japanese friend who used it in a lazy/slang/casual way. So I kinda adopted it, but even now my Japanese wife gets angry when I use it!! ha ha shes a bit like youre mother-in-law who thinks its just wrong!!

    NB: Im not an expert – this is just my research and experience, and subjective experience.

    M

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