Friday, January 23, 2009

Saying "China" in Russian and Japanese

Today I came across Китай (Kitay), the Russian word for China. Curious as to how China ended up with that name in Russian while most other languages that I'm familiar with have a form similar to English, I guessed that it was related to the English word Cathay and Wikipedia appears to have confirmed that for me. They both seem to trace their roots back to Qìdān (契丹), which I'll wager was pronounced "Kitan" or the like back in the day.

If you that's not enough useless knowledge about what China is called in various languages, then I've got one more for you. In Japanese, China is generally called Chuugoku (中国), but they've got a couple of versions like "China" as well, one which is A-OK and the other which is taboo. The one that's fine to use, and is even kind of cute, is just taking the word from modern English: Chaina (チャイナ). Like many English words, the Japanese flexibly stick it into their script and then use it freely, if informally, although the only place I've heard it commonly used is in a contracted form to say Chinese: Chaigo (チャイ語). You'll particularly hear college students use this one when discussing studying languages, and they do the same sort of contraction with other languages as well. For instance, "French" becomes Furago (フラ語) instead of the full form of Furansugo (フランス語).

The term you don't want to ever use in Japanese is Shina (支那). Although the mayor of Tokyo might beg to differ and has been known to use it, it is generally offensive to Chinese people due to its wartime use, despite its uncontroversial origins dating back to Sanskrit (read the whole story here).


  1. I remember people saying ポル語 instead of ポルトガル語 when I was in Japan. Now I know why! Nice post

  2. Interesting post! It's always interesting to trace the origins of country names.

    Would you happen to know why we call Japan 'Japan' and not Nihon or Nippon?

  3. @ Kelly

    The answer to your question is here.