This is soap?

I had to translate the katakana word シャボン (shabon) from Japanese into English, but I couldn't figure out what it meant. Usually I can figure katakana words out because they usually come from English, but this was baffling, so I went to my beloved Popjisyo (though the online katakana dictionary has it too). It means "soap" and is derived from the Portuguese word "sabão."

Ok, I have some questions: why did they decide to use the Portuguese word for soap instead of the English word, which is ソープ (soupu) in katakana? And why don't they just use the Japanese word for soap 石鹸 (sekken)? And by the way, how does シャボン (shabon) sound like sabão? They sound quite different from each other.

Maybe they wanted to be fancy: by choosing the Portuguese word, they were being a little more "exotic" and "special" since English is often used. As for the katakana representation of "sabao", maybe they were trying to capture the "oa" sound at the end of Portuguese words that sound like "n" to some of us lame Portuguese speakers.


Paul D. said...

Surely you're aware that Japanese contact with Portuguese civilization precedes contact with the US and Britain by centuries, and thus many common words are borrowed from Portuguese.

I don't know why they borrowed シャボン in particular, but it seems to be the most common word used for blowing soap bubbles, or シャボン玉.

The Portuguese word is not sabao, but sabão — note the tilde — which is a nasal vowel. The pronunciation of the nasal ん in Japanese is almost identical to nasal vowels in Portuguese and French.

See also:
pão -> パン
botão -> ボタン

Margaret Larkin said...

Yeah--I know that the Portuguese were there way before the others, but contemporary katakana seems to contain lots of English nowadays. And about sabão--the katakana doesn't seem to capture the "ao" sound because it's a long "o" sound instead. And does Japanese have a nasal "n"? I don't think of their language as nasal.

But that's why I said that I am part of the group of "lame" Portuguese speakers because it's been a while since I've spoken it :D

Paul D. said...

Ah, well, being a lame Portuguese speaker is better than knowing none at all. :)

I'm another lame speaker, but it's my impression that ão is more of a diphthong — although I'm more familiar with the Brazilian accent than the continental — and アン (or オン) is pretty close to a Japanese ear.

The Japanese ん is totally nasal at the end of a word or before a vowel. :D

Margaret Larkin said...

According to a quick online search, ão is a dipthong, but people's interpretation of it is different.

Also, what I forgot to mention before was パン (pan)--I thought it was based on the French word for bread "pain" instead of the Portuguese pão.

And lastly: have you ever noticed that "obrigado" sounds similar to "arigato"? Just a coincidence, but still.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard shabon by itself, always shabondama. Soupu sounds really weird! Sekken is standard. Since I haven't lived in Japan in years, I don't know if there's some kids out there that actually speak differently than what I just wrote. During my last trip I was shocked that the waitress didn't know the Japanese word for rice (gohan). It was frustrating. For her group it's been replaced by raisu! Maybe it's just a big city thing.

There's tons of foreign words Japanese use that are not English-based. I know it's convenient when the words are English-based if you speak English.. but it's also fascinating at times what country some words are from.

Margaret Larkin said...

Yeah--it is fascinating to see what countries the non-English katakana is [are?] from.

I can't believe she didn't know "gohan"--it's a standard (and old) word!

Your blog looks interesting btw--and your to "goals" list is as well.

Anonymous said...

So what word and kanji should I use? I make an all natural soap, and sell at the farmers' market in Hawaii. I would like to communicate with the Japanese visitors here. Thank you. vicki

Margaret Larkin said...

You could use the kanji 石鹸 because I went to a famous soap manufacturer's site to check it out, and they use it on their products

However, they also use the kanji/hiragana blend 石けん in their descriptions, and other companies use that as well, so maybe using both 石鹸 and 石けん would be fine. You should try going to a Japanese store in Hawaii to see what they use.