The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you a Japanophone? はい

Q: Is there an English word to describe a Japanese-speaker? Perhaps a something-phone, along the lines of “Anglophone” or “Francophone”?

A: We’ve seen the words “Japanophone” and “Nippophone” (either uppercase or lowercase) used on the Internet to describe a speaker of Japanese.

The preferred term, by a wide margin, appears to be “Japanophone.” The also-ran, “Nippophone,” shows up on French websites more than on English-language sites.

You won’t find either term in standard English dictionaries, however. We checked a half-dozen dictionaries in the US and the UK.

Some people obviously feel a need for such a word, so they’re creating one—or in this case two.

There are certainly precedents, as you’ve pointed out, for using the word element “-phone,” from the Greek term for “sound,” to create a noun referring to the speaker of a specific language.

The most familiar examples are “Anglophone” and “Francophone,” for speakers of English and French. (American dictionaries tend to capitalize the two words while British dictionaries tend to lowercase them.)

In the neologisms we’ve seen online, people are adding “-phone” to versions of “Japan” or “Nippon” to mean a speaker of Japanese.

Interestingly, both the English and Japanese names for the country are ultimately derived from an old Chinese phrase meaning “origin of the sun.” Why? Because the sun rose to the east of China, where Japan was located.

By the way, the terms “Anglophone” and “Francophone” are relatively new, first recorded in English in the early 20th century, according to their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest examples of each are from the same book, The Races of Man (1900), by the anthropologist Joseph Deniker: “In Canada two-thirds of the white population are Anglophones, and the rest Francophones.”

Deniker’s book appeared in French and in an English translation the same year. The French nouns anglophone and francophone had appeared earlier, in 1894, and the French adjective francophone in 1880.

Here’s a more recent example using both words, from the Canadian magazine Saturday Night (1967):

“It is because our fizzy Canadian cocktail has intoxicating qualities, because a dazzling future lies in wait for francophones and anglophones … that we should hold together, along with the valuable New Canadians.”

Other “-phone” words used in this sense are much less common, and few are recognized in dictionaries. The OED does have an entry for the noun “Russophone” (which it capitalizes), from 1899, for a speaker of Russian.

Oxford also has an entry for an adjective, “lusophone,” meaning Portuguese-speaking, but not for a noun. The usage is dated from 1974. (The “luso-” part is from “Lusitania,” an old Latin name for Portugal.)

As for other such words, we’ve found examples of “hispanophone” and “italophone” in literary usage, but generally not as nouns. They’re usually adjectives referring to Spanish and Italian literature (as in “hispanophone proverbs,” “italophone writings,” etc.).

We’ve also found many examples—from books, newspapers, and the Internet—for the noun “slavophone” used in reference to Greeks or ethnic Greeks who speak a Slavic language. But the usage is controversial and caught up in Balkan politics.

It’s easy to invent these words, but some of them are bound to remain oddities, like “netherlandophone.” The simple phrase “Dutch speaker” does the job very well.

As for that Japanese word in our headline, it’s pronounced hai and it means yes.

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