The Evolution of Language

Just like English, where new words are created all the time, so it is in the Japanese language.

Last week an elderly lady I was teaching remarked that she cannot stand the new language used by teenagers. As she screwed up her face and shook her head in disgust I could almost see and hear the typical ‘old person’ stereotype saying, “Young people these days have no respect. Back in my day…”

I asked her to give me some examples.

Her number one pet hate word is umai (うまい) when it’s used to refer to food that is considered to be delicious. She insists that people use the word oishii (おいしい) instead. A Google search of both words and the reasoning behind her dislike will show you that ‘umai’ is an informal word and more commonly used by men. Being the very traditional Japanese lady that she is, I can understand where she is coming from.

I think perhaps the funniest thing about the situation though, was that I kept thinking about a very good male friend of mine who uses the word all the time when he’s eating. In fact, he uses it so often that it’s become a running joke amongst our circle of friends and even I’ve started to use it just for fun. What makes it even funnier is that he exclaims it so loudly and always so suddenly that it takes you completely by surprise and I’ve jumped in fright more than once.

The same friend likes the word so much that he decided to create English-type comparatives and superlatives using the base word.

e.g. umai, umaier, umaiest.

That is, ‘umai’ is delicious, ‘umaier’ is even more delicious and ‘umaiest’ is the most delicious.

I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next!

Not only are new words created in a language, but also new expressions.

The other night another friend decided to tweak an English phrase to suit the situation. He spotted a person he knew and I heard him say, “Short time no see.” I immediately interrupted and said, “You mean, ‘long time no see,’ not short.” He shook his head. “Yes, I know the expression,” he said, “but I only saw him yesterday so it’s short time no see!”



2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language

  1. Michael Freemantle says:

    Was the word umai originally used by men to describe a gorgeous female perhaps, now used also for food? Is that why the lady objects to it? Bit like how gay used to mean something bright or cheerful, but now you can’t really use it in that sense for fear of being misunderstood?


  2. Jack Crispy says:

    Interesting thought Michael. I hadn’t considered that. I have a Japanese friend who is interested in history looking into the origin of the word for you. I haven’t been able to find much on the Internet. The only thing I can tell you is that the word is considered to be a bit too ‘mannish’ for women to use. I guess it’s much the same in Australia where men use slang such as ‘bucks,’ instead of ‘dollars.’ There’s no reason a woman can’t use the word, it’s just not considered to be as polite. Of course, as we’ve both pointed out, language evolves over time and the meanings of words change to suit the new circumstances.


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