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Sitting in a restaurant yesterday I saw a sign advertising a mango flavoured bagel. It was described as トロピカルな味.

That just got me wondering... whenever a 外来語【がいらいご】(word taken from a foreign language / "loan word") is used as an adjective, is it always a adjective?

Are there any examples of loanword adjectives?

Are there any general guidelines as to how loan words are made to conform to Japanese adjective rules.

(Please note I'm not familiar with linguistics, so even though I'm asking a fairly technical grammatical question, please dumb it down for me as much as possible. Thanks!)

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「エロい」 *​runs​*​ – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 7 '11 at 3:58
Ah, but エロい didn't appear until エロチック or エロチシズム already had, so the -i adjective was built on a word that had already been accepted into Japanese, even if its origins were foreign... – Matt Aug 7 '11 at 5:26
up vote 10 down vote accepted

If you're OK with エロい (as discussed in comments), there are examples like:

  • エロい
  • グロい
  • ナウい

But note that these are directly derived from エロ(チシズム), グロ(テスク), and ナウ ("now"). They were not borrowed into the language as -i adjectives; they were borrowed into the language as nouns and/or na adjectives, and then THOSE borrowings were turned into -i adjectives. Ultimately, this is a form of slang/language play along the lines of the verbs タクる for "take a taxi", マクる for "eat at McDonalds", etc.

So, to get back to the original question, yes. Foreign adjectives always start out as な adjectives. This is a clear rule in Japanese dating from the days of strong Chinese influence. Even when the borrowed word actually ends in an -i sound (e.g. ファジー, セクシー), it is still treated as a な adjective when it first arrives in Japanese. But, once they are in the language, they can be broken down and then reborn as -i adjectives, a la グロい.

The interesting issue, I think, is: how "real" are these 二世 -i adjectives? On one end of the scale, I think that エロい and グロい are completely unremarkable now in colloquial Japanese. No-one thinks of them as wordplay. At the other end of the scale, I have heard things like セクシくない, but only as a joke. Treating セクシー is if it were セクシい, an -i adjective, even though both speaker and listener know that it is not, is unexpected and therefore amusing. Sort of like how in English we might say "You think that's amazing? I can show you something even amazinger!" even though we know that "amazing" doesn't take the "-er" ending.

(Tangent: Note that セクシい is structurally different from グロい: instead of taking the first two morae and making a new stem, it just reinterprets (intentionally misinterprets) the existing sounds of the word セクシー. This may be one reason why セクシい remains at gag level while グロい is already a regular word. Maybe the only way to create unremarkable adjectives/verbs from gairaigo in Japanese is to create a two-mora stem and build on that, and any other method will always remain at the humorous level. I haven't looked into this too deeply. It would be especially interesting to look at perceptions of these words among people born before and after they were created.)

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I learned two new slang verbs today .. タクってマクりに行こう :P – Lukman Aug 12 '11 at 7:47

Reading up on sound symbolism, I found this

Nasal consonants like n and m convey warmth, tactuality, softness, and sound more personal and subjective.

e.g. むちむち (plump)

The な in な-adjectives is a nasal sound. I conject that they are subjective descriptions.

Also consider the comparison between adjectives ending in ~しい and those ending in ~い:

For ~しい type adjectives,




These are adjectives that cannot be objectively measured, hence subjective. (And also a large majority of them describe psychological states)

For ~い type adjectives,




These are objectively described; they can be measured.


For トロピカル there is no objective scale for "tropical-ness" hence it takes on な. It does not take on ~しい since it is not a psychological description (as most ~しい adjectives are).

For エロ my dictionary shows both エロな and エロい.

So depending on whether subjectivity/objectivity is conveyed, it corresponds to the use of な or い.

See also "i-adjectives used as na-adjectives: is there a difference? (e.g. 大きい versus 大きな)"

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How do you measure エロい-ness? :P – Lukman Aug 7 '11 at 16:25
@Lukman: Not sure, but I'd like to try. ;) – Questioner Aug 8 '11 at 1:03
@Dave I realise this is not specific to loanwords but I was more of trying to catch all adjectives and subject them to a generic principle(loanwords included). Of course it's mostly theory on my part, but the sound symbolism part was read from Seiichi Makino's and Mitchio Tsutsui's grammar dictionary. – Flaw Aug 8 '11 at 1:53
憎い... not very objective. – dainichi Jan 21 '12 at 18:29

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