Ten surprising Japanese loanwords that come from German

By | April 6, 2023

English-speakers tend to quickly pick up on the large number of words in Japanese that come from English (something I’ve written a few articles about). However, there are many loanwords in Japanese that originate from other languages such as Portuguese, Dutch, French, and German.

It so happens that I have started studying German a little (it’s sort of a long, “dark” story that I will save for another article), so I thought I would highlight a handful of words that have come from German. Keep in mind that because of the connections between English and other world languages, sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a word originates from English or from another language.

I will try to focus on words that are actually used in Japanese (as opposed to something just found in a dictionary).

ウィンナー (winnaa)

This word comes from the German “Wiener”, which means “Sausage”. (By the way, in German a “w” in the beginning of words is generally pronounced similar to an English “v”, so the word sounds a little bit like “vii-nair”).

アルバイト (arubaito)

This word, coming from the German “arbeit”, means “part-time job”. While there are technically other ways to say part time job in Japanese, I hear アルバイト used most often. The German “Arbeit” means “work”, “labor”, or “effort”.

アレルギー (arerugii)

This is a word I use quite often in my daily life (having some allergies of my own), and until recently I was sure it came from English. In fact, it comes from the German “allergie”, which means the same thing (but sounds a bit more like “ah-lay-gii).

テーマ (teema)

Similar to アレルギー, I was sure this came from English. But it actually derives from German “thema”, which has roughly the same meaning: “theme”, “subject”, or “topic”.

ワクチン (wakuchin)

Even though this does sound a bit like “vaccine” (which is what it means), I never made that connection and assumed it was from some other language. It turns out it originates from the German “vakzin”, having the same meaning.

カルテ (karte)

In Japanese, カルテ is used to refer to a patient’s medical record, a word you mean hear sometime in Japanese dramas. However, this is derived from the German “karte” that simply means “card”. In German it can have the nuance of a playing card, an entry pass, or even a printed circuit board.

ゼミ (zemi)

This word is a shortening of ゼミナール (zeminaaru), and means “seminar” in Japanese. It comes from German’s equally-spelled “seminar”, which mostly has the same meaning. The difference is that it can also refer to an educational department or institute. 

By the way, the reason this word turns into a “ze” (instead of a “se”) is because “s” in German is usually pronounced like an Engilsh “z” sound.

ノイローゼ (noirooze)

This is another word (meaning “neurosis”) whose origin may be unclear when you first hear it. It turns out to be from German’s “neurose”, having the same meaning. Again we can see the “se” pronounced as “ze”.

ベット (betto)

This word derives from the German “bett” and both words mean “bed”. However while you may hear some people say ベット, in fact ベッド (beddo) is more commonly used in Japanese (and considered by some to be more correct). There is also the more traditional word 寝室 (shinshitsu), made using the kanji for “sleep” and “room”.

リュックサック (ryukkusakku)

This word, meaning “rucksack” in Japanese, derives from the same German “rucksack”. If you are wondering where the “ryu” part comes from, the “r” in German is generally rolled (something that can be quite difficult for English or Japanese speakers). “Ryu” doesn’t really sound rolled, but it is closer than a simple “ru”. (Note that the “uh” vowel sound doesn’t exist in Japanese.)

BONUS WORD: メルヘン (meruhen)

While I had this word in my mind when writing this article, once I reached 10 words I decided to stop. However, I had a reader comment mentioning about it, so I decided to include it after all.

メルヘン means “fairy tale” in Japanese, and comes from the German word “Märchen” that has the same meaning. Interestingly, the pronunciation in German is close to “meiyahen”, but for some reason this turned into “meruhen”.

They say the more languages you learn the easier it gets, and being able to compare across multiple languages is one of the reasons for that.

Do you speak German or are you interested in learning it? Let me know in the comments.


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2 thoughts on “Ten surprising Japanese loanwords that come from German

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks! I just added a note about it at the end of the article.


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