While studying my Genki textbook I noticed that the word たばこ uses hiragana instead of katakana. I've always seen loan words to be in katakana, so this was interesting to me. I saw in this answer that this is because its an older word. I was wanting to know if there was more information about this. Why is たばこ, a loan word, written in hiragana?

  • Michael, what kind of sources are you looking for with your bounty? Are you looking for specific documentation about why the spelling varies (kanji, hiragana, katakana)? This is harder to find; there are numerous other older borrowed terms that are also written in kanji, hiragana, and katakana, but little explicit discussion (that I can find so far) about why this is so. Or are you looking for documentation about when the term appeared in Japanese? This is easier to find. – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 24 '16 at 16:42
  • Since it boils down to the time it was imported, sources about when the term was introduced would work. – Michael McQuade Mar 24 '16 at 18:28
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    I've added the history of the term tabako with references. Tenpura is outside the scope of your question as posted above, so I haven't added stuff for that. – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 24 '16 at 19:08
up vote 14 down vote accepted
+50

The simplest explanation is that たばこ is often written in hiragana because it was borrowed so long ago that it has nativized. (Sorry, in a rush -- details to be posted later.)

Update

There are a few words that are definitely borrowings, but that were borrowed so long ago that they are treated as native terms, and they might even have kanji spellings.

  • Tabako is one such word. The substance was introduced to Japan by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in the late 1500s. The source of the Japanese term is generally listed as Portuguese tabaco. The term may be encountered in hiragana as たばこ, in katakana as タバコ, and in kanji as 煙草 (most common, even offered up by the MS IME), or as 烟草 or 莨 (less common, listed in some dictionaries).

  • Tenpura is another well-known Japanese term that was borrowed. This too has kanji spellings, as 天麩羅 or 天婦羅, even though the term again comes from Portuguese. See the Wiktionary entry for more detail.

As a general rule of thumb, borrowings are indeed spelled in katakana. However, the older the borrowing, the less this rule applies. For instance, this other question-and-answer thread lists several old borrowings from Korean that are treated as nativized Japanese words, complete with kanji spellings. For newer borrowings, especially from English, katakana is the way to go.

Update 2

More details about the history of the term タバコ, with references (emphasis and translations mine).

  • Shogakukan's 国語大辞典 mentions the following:

    原産地では古代から吸煙に利用され、一六世紀初頭にスペインに伝わり、世界じゅうに急速に普及、日本へは安土桃山時代に輸入された。
    Used in its place of origin since ancient times for smoking, reaching Spain in the early 1500s, rapidly spreading around the world, imported to Japan in the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

    The 安土{あづち}桃山{ももやま}時代{じだい} (Azuchi-Momoyama period) dates from 1573 to 1603.

  • Daijirin explains:

    日本へは近世初頭に南蛮船によってもたらされた。
    Brought to Japan by ships from Spain or Portugal in the early modern ages.

    近世{きんせい} ("early modern ages") is further defined more specifically as:

    日本史では,後期封建制の時期の安土桃山・江戸時代をいう。
    In Japanese history, refers to the late-feudal Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods.

  • Daijisen explains:

    南アメリカの原産で、桃山時代に輸入。
    Originally from South America, imported in the Momoyama period.

  • Gogen Allguide explains:

    日本には南蛮貿易を通して伝わり、慶長年間(1596~1615年)​にはタバコの栽培が行われた。
    Reached Japan via trading with the Spanish and Portuguese, with tobacco then cultivated in the Keichō era (1596-1615).

    Cultivation was preceded by importation of the product and the term, and this timing again coincides with the other sources.

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    I always (baselessly) assumed that since たばこ used to be frequently written in kanji, it could also be that hiragana was used simply as a reading of a kanji word, not unlike ねこ for 猫 or たけ for 竹. (This ties in with the sentiment that it is a "nativized" word, of course.) – Earthliŋ Mar 24 '16 at 21:04

History of smoking is pretty long in Japan to say たばこ is a borrowed word, though it’s certainly foreign origin. According to Wikipedia, there’s two theories about the time of the tobacco coming to Japan. One is at the time guns were brought into Tanegashima by Portuguese for the first time in Japan in 1543, and the other, it was imported much earlier than that by westerners around 1600.

It’s pretty new to come to write タバコ in Katakana. Before then, it was written in Kanji same with Chinese equivalent, 烟草. For examples, we can find “巻煙草 - cigarette,” ”刻煙草 - finely chopped tobacco,” ”嗅煙草 - sniffing tobacco,” and “噛煙草 – chewing tobacco,” in “毛吹草 - Kefukigusa,” a commentary on 俳諧 ‐ Haiku written by Matsue Shgeyori and published in 1643. We also see the word, “煙草,” in the line, ”請願寺通の末なる煙草切の女といへり – She was said to be a dried tobacco-leaf chopper by her profession, who lives in the corner of Seiganji Teple Street in Kyoto” in “好色五人女 – Lecherous five women” of a famous novelist and play writer, 井原西鶴 – Ihara Saikaku in early Edo era.

In Showa-era, たばこ is written in Katakana. “タバコのみの歯磨スモカ – Sumoka, the toothpaste for heavy smokers” was a famous, long-life slogan invented by a genius of copywriting, Kataoka Toshio in early 19 century. Since then tobacco is written and indicated in three ways of タバコ, たばこ, and 煙草.

If you google “tabako” in romaji, you will get instantly “タバコ銘柄、値段、種類、”たばこ税,” ”たばこ事業法,” “JT website 煙草商品一覧,” and so on.

So you cannot say “たばこ uses hiragana instead of katakana.” Actually たばこ、タバコ, 煙草 are all in parallel use today.

  • One minor point: any term of foreign origin is etymologically a borrowed word. For instance, the English term ball in reference to a dance is a borrowed word, borrowed from French. Similarly, 明太{めんたい} is a borrowed word in Japanese, borrowed from Korean. In both cases, the borrowed nature of the terms isn't important anymore -- the terms have effectively nativized, and are treated as regular English/Japanese words. – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 24 '16 at 16:38

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