June 02, 2006

"Big" in Japan (and Bali)

Matt of No-sword, an excellent blog on all matters Japanological, recently brought up an interesting case of lexical borrowing across multiple languages:

I always assumed that the company name Bikku Kamera meant "big camera", and was just an example of "bad man/Batman" double consonant devoicing. But a co-worker noted yesterday that according to Wikipedia, I was wrong:

創業者の新井会長が、バリ島を訪れた際に現地の子供たちが使っていた 「ビック、ビッ ク」という言葉に、「偉大な」という意味があ ると聞いて社名に使った。
On a trip to Bali, company founder Arai heard local children using the phrase bic, bic, and, told that it meant idai (great, grand), used it as the company's name.

On the other hand, it seems that this Balinese bic itself derives from English "big". This would mean that my "devoiced /g/" theory was accurate as far as it went, but the assumption that this took place within Japanese was mistaken.

Lesson: Loanwords in Japanese are a psychedelic fever swamp.

Bad news, Matt. This cross-linguistic telephone game looks to be even more feverishly complicated than that.

Matt's working theory is that Mr. Arai heard Balinese children saying "bic, bic" and that the reduplicated word bic (presumably pronounced as [bik] or [bɪk]) is a nativized version of English big with final devoicing. I find this theory improbable on several counts. First, in my research in Indonesia I've never heard of children in Bali or elsewhere using the English word big in this way. To be sure, big has been borrowed into Indonesia's national language and its related regional languages like Balinese — mostly in set English phrases like big boss (often spelled as big bos) or Big Bang. I suppose it's possible that some Balinese kids picked up the word big and began using it repetitively to mean 'great, grand,' but if they did, we wouldn't expect final devoicing as in [bik] or [bɪk].

Devoicing is unlikely because Balinese, like other nearby Austronesian languages, has no problem with final /g/. The Balinese wordlist on Robert Blust's Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database includes such words as beseg [bəsəg] 'wet' and kerug [kərug] 'thunder'. Another Balinese word for thunder also has final /g/: grudug, which can be intensified through echo reduplication as gradag-grudug. (Even more evocatively, the sound of a sudden thunderclap can be onomatopoeticized as jeg gradag-grudug!) Other common Balinese words ending in /g/ are gedeg 'angry', jegeg 'beautiful', belog 'stupid', kreteg 'bridge', togog 'statue', and awig-awig 'village regulations'.

What makes it even less likely that the children overheard by Arai were saying [bik] or [bɪk] as some sort of nativized version of big is the fact that the voiceless velar stop [k] generally doesn't occur word-finally in Balinese. The letter k, when it appears orthographically at the end of a Balinese word (like pianak 'child' or barak 'red'), is actually pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ].

So what did Arai actually hear? Could the Balinese children have been saying big, big in mimicry of English, which was perceived by Arai himself as devoiced, thus yielding the company name BicCamera? That's a possibility, but I think there's a more likely source for Arai's bic, and it has nothing to do with English. In the national language of Indonesian, an extremely common word is baik [baiʔ], meaning 'good, fine'. In conversation, baik is frequently repeated as baik, baik — much as one might might say "okay, okay" in English. (There's also a reduplicated word baik-baik, meaning 'well, carefully, in good condition'). Most children in Bali's urban centers code-switch between Balinese and Indonesian (or, increasingly these days, just stick to Indonesian). I'd wager that the children Arai heard were actually saying baik, baik, which doesn't quite mean 'great, grand' but is close enough. (Perhaps Arai wanted to aggrandize the source of the company name by giving it that gloss, or perhaps the meaning was simply embellished in translation.) I'm not clear on exactly how baik might have ended up as Japanese bic, though I suppose in rapid speech [baiʔ] might sound something like that to the untrained ear.

So to recap, it appears that a Japanese businessman heard Balinese children using a common Indonesian expression, shifted the semantics and phonology a little bit, and ended up with a company name that can be interpreted as a devoiced version of a common English word. Ain't globalization fun?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 2, 2006 01:33 AM