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Incomprehensible English text used decoratively on a Japanese t-shirt.

Engrish is a slang term for the perceived improper use of the English language by native speakers of Japanese, Korean and other Asian languages.[1] The term itself relates to Japanese speakers' tendency to inadvertently substitute the English phonemes "R" and "L" for one another, because unlike English, the Japanese language has only one liquid consonant (traditionally romanized with "R").

The term Engrish first appears as a mispronunciation of the word English in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1980s that it began to be used as a byname for defective Asian English.[2] The related term "wasei-eigo" refers to pseudo-anglicisms that have entered into everyday Japanese. While the term may refer to spoken English, it can also describe written English. In Japan, it is common to add English text to items for decorative and fashion purposes. Such text is often added to create a cosmopolitan feeling rather than to be read by native English speakers, and so may often be meaningless or grammatically incorrect.

Engrish can be found in many places, including signs, menus, and advertisements. Terms such as Japanglish, Japlish or Janglish are more specific terms for Japanese Engrish.[2]

Roots of the phenomenon[edit]

Engrish used for aesthetic and marketing purposes on a Toyota RAV4.

There are two contributing factors to Japanese Engrish. Firstly, the two languages have significantly different grammar: Japanese word order, the frequent omission of subjects in Japanese, the absence of articles, a near-complete absence of consecutive consonants, and difficulties in distinguishing /l/ and /r/, or /θ/ and /s/ sounds, all contribute to substantial problems using Standard English effectively.[3] Japanese people have tended to score comparatively poorly on international tests of English.[4]

Secondly, English is frequently used in Japan (and elsewhere) for aesthetic rather than functional purposes;[5] i.e., for Japanese consumption, not for English speakers per se, as a way of appearing "smart, sophisticated and modern", in much the same way as Japanese and similar writing scripts are used in Western fashion.[6] Such decorative English is not meant to be read and understood by native English speakers, so emphasis is not put on coherence or correctness.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

A shop front in Kyoto.
A Lotteria restaurant in Myanmar

Engrish has been featured occasionally in the Trey Parker and Matt Stone cartoon South Park, such as the song "Let's Fighting Love", used in the episode "Good Times with Weapons", which parodies the poorly translated opening theme sequences sometimes shown in anime, and in Parker and Stone's feature length Team America: World Police where the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is depicted singing the song "I'm so Ronery".[8]

The British fashion brand Superdry, which takes inspiration from Japanese clothing styles, has established a style of placing meaningless Japanese text such as 'Sunglasses company' and 'membership certificate' on clothing sold in Britain.[9] The company explained to a Japanese television news programme that most translations were done using simple automatic translation programs such as Babelfish, without attempting to make the texts accurate.[10]

Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a parody of the drama series Elizabeth R, where they portrayed the cast riding motor-scooters and speaking Engrish, thus changing the title to "Erizabeth L".[11]

In the 1983 film A Christmas Story, the Parker family goes to a Chinese restaurant for their Christmas dinner, and are serenaded by the waitstaff with Engrish Christmas carols, such as "Deck the harrs wis boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra" and "Jingre berrs, jingre berrs, jingre arr the way, oh what fun it is to ride in one-horse open sreigh!"[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ziemba, Christine N. (December 5, 2004). "Translate at your own risk". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b Lambert, James (2018). "A multitude of 'lishes': The nomenclature of hybridity". English World-wide. 39 (1): 12. doi:10.1075/eww.38.3.04lam.
  3. ^ Dougill, John (2008). "Japan and English as an alien language" (PDF). English Today. 24 (1): 18–22. doi:10.1017/S0266078408000059. S2CID 145471291. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-17. Retrieved 2013-05-21.
  4. ^ Kowner, Rotem (2003). "Japanese Miscommunication with Foreigners: In Search for Valid Accounts and Effective Remedies" (PDF). Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien. 15: 117–151. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-01.
  5. ^ Ikeshima, Jayne Hildebrand (July 2005). "Some perspectives on the phenomenon of "Engrish"" (PDF). Keio Journal of International Studies. 15: 185–198.
  6. ^ Dougill, John (1987). "English as a decorative language". English Today. 3 (4): 33–35. doi:10.1017/S0266078400003126.
  7. ^ Melin, Tracy; Rey, Nina (2005). "Emphasizing Foreign Language Use to International Marketing Students: A Situational Exercise That Mimics Real-World Challenges". Global Business Languages. 10: 13–25. there is often no attempt to try to get it right, nor do the vast majority of the Japanese population ever attempt to read the English design element in question. There is therefore less emphasis on spelling and grammatical accuracy.
  8. ^ Stuever, Hank (October 15, 2004). "Puppet Government 'South Park' Creators' Left Jab at Jingoism May Backfire". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2019-05-06. Retrieved 16 September 2011. The North Korean dictator speaks in the voice of 'South Park's' Eric Cartman, ... only with an Engrish accent. 'I'm so ronery,' Kim confesses in a pitiful ballad to himself, which explains his evil-doing—he just needs to be ruvved.
  9. ^ "Superdry". Unmissable Japan. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
  10. ^ "Superdry: Popular UK Fashion Brand Uses Gibberish Japanese". Japan Probe. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
  11. ^ Monty Python's Flying Circus, Series 3 Episode 3 of 13, Features The Money Programme, Erizabeth L, Dead Bishop, Jungle Restaurant and The Argument Skit, 2 November 1972
  12. ^ StarWalker13 (April 26, 2009). "A Christmas Story Chinese Restaurant Scene" on YouTube

External links[edit]