No, there is no spelling mistake in the title. Well, not my spelling mistake anyway. My wife bought some cake decorations today. She showed me the label, and sure enough it read: Decolationed Cakes.
Which is a great opportunity to talk about English in Japan, or as it is more commonly known: Engrish (or Japlish).
The phenomenon of Japlish/Engrish has several aspects:
- The Japanese learn to spell English using their Katakana phonetic alphabet. This alphabet was created to deal with words that did not originate in Japanese, but because it mimicks the Japanese phonetic alphabet (Hiragana), it sounds like Japanese. For example, no sound ends in a consonant except for N and there is no V. So when you spell out an English word like “service”, the Japanese spelling in Katakana is “sa-bi-su”. The end result is that most Japanese pronounce English incorrectly (aside to the well-known confusion between L and R; surely you heard about the Japanese prime minister that asked a visiting counterpart whether there were erections in his country…).
- The structure of Japanese grammar is very different from that of English. For example, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. So the English sentence “yesterday I went to Kyoto” is “yesterday I Kyoto to went” in Japanese. As a result, when Japanese write English they sometimes structure the sentences as if they were Japanese sentences, i.e. upside down.
- As with any foreign language, trying to get a message across can be tricky. In Japan, this is especially true when it comes to marketing and advertising. There is a surprisingly large number of slogans, expressions and phrases written in English that make little or no sense. Some of them look like a few words were put together but with no sentence structure whatsoever. When the previous two aspects of Engrish/Japlish are combined with an effort to advertise in English, the result can be quite funny.