I speak fluent English, Ukrainian and Russian. And I also have experience learning German and Japanese. As an avid language learner, I've been reflecting on what the languages have in common, their grammar, vocabulary etc. And I have noticed an interesting thing: in Japanese there are so many loanwords related to daily life: ドライブ、キャンプ、シャツ、ゲーム etc. However, when it comes to scientific terms, the vast majority of them seem to be Japanese words. It's not the same for, say, English or Russian:

English: ophthalmologist Russian: офтальмолог Japanese: 眼科

English: cardiology Russian: кардиология Japanese: 循環器科

My guess is that this may be due to lack of Latin influence on the Japanese language. Am I right? Are there any other reasons for not so many loanwords in, for example, medicine?

I don't know much about the history of the Japanese language, and I'd appreciate your opinions on this particular matter.

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    There are actually plenty of loan words from German when it comes to scientific terms...but I'll let the experts answer this. – DXV Oct 12 at 0:58
up vote 5 down vote accepted

It's not entirely clear to me that the majority of Japanese medical and science terms are not loanwords.

A very high percentage of Japanese academic, science, and medical terms are 漢語 (words imported from China). Even the use of kanji is an importation from China. As naruto helpfully points out quite a few kango actually were made in Japan and sent back to China. This makes sense when you see China and Japan as having a somewhat overlapping domain of knowledge on this.

Consequently, I think it might be better to think of it this way, the Western world's original medical science comes from Greek and Latin medicine and language. Conversely, the majority of medicine in China, Japan, and Korea comes from a Chinese medical tradition. My knowledge of world history isn't good enough to know what other cultures and areas had medical traditions with large impacts.

Western medicine did make a big impact in the 19th century and one impact of this was to make it so only practitioners of Western medicine can be called 医者. But many of the main domains and previously known terms and practices retained their either Chinese origin names or native Japanese names.

Novel techniques and medicines mostly have names in katakana reflecting more recent foreign origin.

Switching gears to science, at least in English, many chemistry terms actually come from Arabic such as alkaline, alcohol, chemistry (alchemy) ... But many common elements come from Germanic roots (Iron, Gold, Copper)

For Japanese, a similar pattern applies. Things people have known for a long time, Japanese word with a Chinese character. More recent things, imported Chinese word. Semi-recent things like 水素 are directly equivalent but turned into characters with Hydrogen. Most recent things, same as every where else: palladium are so recently differentiated and discovered that they are just katakana (パラジウム).

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    It's also worth noting that many "kango" technial terms are actually coined in Japan. This question and this one are related. The kanji 腺 ("gland" as in adrenal gland) is a Japanese-coined kanji which was later reverse-imported to China. – naruto Oct 12 at 5:05
  • Your example with Palladium is not really good, it was discovered in 1803 whereas hydrogen was discovered in 1766. Also, I doubt that the information exchange between Europe and Japan was very extensive back then, so it would not surprise me if Japan got to know of both elements roughly at the same time. The name 水素 was supposedly coined by 宇田川榕菴 who was born in 1798. – bjorn Oct 12 at 13:47
  • While palladium was discovered in 1803, it's extremely hard to extract from Pd/Pt ores since they have nearly identical chemistries. Hydrogen in contrast can be extracted from water by running an electric current through it. (note how most of the uses for Pd date to the 20th century?) – virmaior Oct 12 at 23:05

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