Orthographic Diversity in Japanese: SNS and More

Just over a month since I left social media platforms (except for Microsoft’s LinkedIn, if that can be called social media), I find myself writing about the most commonly used Japanese word for social media, SNS.

Claims of the complexity of the Japanese writing system often cite kanji and the two sets of phonetic characters, katakana and hiragana. But the adoption of Roman orthography to write a limited set of elements in Japanese makes things even a bit more complex. SNS is a good example.

Yes, SNS is now a Japanese word that just happens to be written using Roman orthography. It is pronounced esu-enu-esu and means social media. To be fair, SNS is, of course derived from the English social networking service, but that phrase is much rarer in English than SNS in Japanese and is not understood by nearly as many native English speakers as Japanese who understand the Japanese word SNS.

The pronunciation of SNS as esu-enu-esu is now accepted, is used in countless media, and can even be seen on government websites. For example, on https://www.soumu.go.jp/main_sosiki/joho_tsusin/security/kids/sns/index.html, we find “SNS(エスエヌエス)を使うときの注意”

In its usage as a Japanese word, however, SNS is quite divorced from (and often not glossed by) its English origin, which is probably not understood by most Japanese speakers and users of the SNS as Japanese. It is used almost exclusively to refer to not the systems that provide social media, but to social media platforms themselves. I suspect that, asked about the meaning of SNS, many Japanese people would merely offer examples such as Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok, rather than providing the expansion of the underlying English expression or even offering ソーシャルメディア as the meaning.

You can find the Japanese term SNS sprinkled about in countless print/online news stories every day in Japan and hear it pronounced as noted above by news presenters.

The understanding here in Japan of SNS to be what is called social media in English is fairly well established. That said, Nikkei might not trust that understanding, as they gloss SNS with 交流サイト at almost every first appearance in news articles.

Another twist is that the adopted foreign (now Japanese) expression SNS finds use in a wider range of categories than the collective noun social media occupies in English. For example, people are regularly reported as having said things on “their SNS,” referring to their social media account. This use of the name of the whole to represent a part thereof is somewhat similar to the use of メニュー to mean an entire menu and also the individual items in/on a menu. An example is メニューが多くて迷う in a restaurant review website or 表示させたい画面のメニューをクリックしてください in a website, referring to single menu items corresponding to screens you might wish to display.

Upon its arrival in Japan, the initialism SNS was probably not sufficiently questioned by the authorities at its port of entry and has apparently stepped into Japan with its shoes on and been issued permanent residence status, although it arguably lives in the lexicographical Nishi-Azabu ghetto of borrowed foreign (and now Japanese) terms.

Japanese is rich in elements that look like borrowed English initialisms, which come in a variety of classes.

  • Totally bogus, in that they are romaji initialisms of purely Japanese expressions; for example, KY for 空気読めない, from which the essential negation of the ability to read (the room) is not even indicated in the initialism.
  • Initialisms created from single English words by Japanese imagining them to be two separate words; examples are IC for interchange and IF for interface).
  • Arguably valid English initialisms in Japanese that find use in real English but that are either rarely used or poorly understood by native speakers of English. SNS is good example of this class of Japanese initialism.

A Japanese-to-English translator needs to decisions when encountering such initialisms in a Japanese text. Knowledge of everyday Japanese (as opposed to what is taught in Japanese classes for foreign learners) and knowledge of what actually is used and works in English are essential in making those decisions.

Since new examples of these often-problematical initialisms pop up all the time and are often short-lived, vigilance on the part of the translator is essential. Keeping a constant eye on what is actually being used in both source and target languages will avoid errors in translations and confusion on the part of readers of translated texts.

Other articles directed at colleague translators at various stages in their development can be found on the parent website.