The Linguistics of Pokémon

News of the release of Pokémon Go has been dominating social media and the mainstream media alike recently. Those born earlier than the 90s likely remember the phenomenon surrounding the Pokémon franchise in the late ’90s with the GameBoy games, TV show, trading card game that got loads of people obsessed with catching them all. Now, after years of little innovation in the Pokéworld, it looks like the franchise has struck gold with the new “Pokémon GO” app.

For those not familiar with the franchise, Pokemon is a Japanese media franchise managed by The Pokémon Company, a Japanese consortium between Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures. The franchise was created by Satoshi Tajiri in 1995, and is centered on fictional creatures called “Pokémon”, which humans, known as Pokémon Trainers, catch and train to battle each other for sport. However, even though the origin is Japanese, the word Pokémon is really a portmanteau of the English words “Poketto Monsutā” (“Pocket Monster”) that Japanese borrowed, shortened and then merged to make “Pokémon”.

The notorious linguistic playfulness of Pokémon nomenclature comes into full focus when we look at how famous Pokémon names have been “translated” from the original Japanese into English and other languages. This article will look at some of the interesting linguistic features of Pokémon and look at the phenomenon of trying to translate made-up or nonsensical names between languages, a subject which was touched upon briefly in my article about phonosemantics.

The fact that Pokémon became a global phenomenon produced some very interesting translations.

1

Pikachu / Raichu

Pika in Japanese means “shiny or sparkling”, and “rai” is a word meaning lightning. It is one of the few Pokémon which don’t change their names across different languages.

 

2

Magicarp

Magicarp is called in Japanese ‘Koikingu‘  (Koi King) which references the crown-shaped fin on its back, this feature is lost in the English, French and German translations, which are Magicarp, Magicarpe, and Karpador.

3

Abra / Kadabra / Alakazam

Alakazam has an amazing name, since it’s the third of three evolutions, the first and second being “Abra” and “Kadabra”… get it? Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam. The Japanese names are Kēsyi (Casey), Yungerā (Yungerer) and Fūdin (Foodin).

Alakazam is based on a magician and also a spoon bender. It also shares similarities to goats and foxes, both animals with ties to magic.

Mega Alakazam is based on a sorcerer or wizard, or possibly sadhus with psychic powers.

The English names for the 3 evolutions of this Pokémon are from the magic words ‘abracadabra’ and ‘alakazam’. The word ‘abracadabra’ was originally a magical formula, 1690s, from Latin (Q. Severus Sammonicus, 2c.), from Late Greek Abraxas, cabalistic or gnostic name for the supreme god, and thus a word of power. It was written out in a triangle shape and worn around the neck to ward off sickness, etc. Abracadabra was still used as a “cure” well into the 18th century, Eventually, people let go of the abracadabra superstition and by the 19th century the practice of hanging an abracadabra charm around your neck to cure disease had died down. At this point, the word started to take on the meaning of “fake magic” which is what we know today.

The Japanese name for the 3rd evolution of this Pokemon is Fūdin is probably a reference to Harry Houdini. The syllable “hu” is difficult to pronounce in Japanese meaning that ‘Houdini’ is pronounced approximately as “fudini” (more accurately ɸudi:ni:), hence the name “Fūdin”.

The German name for Alakazam is “Simsala” which is named after the catchphrase of Harry August Jansen (aka. Dante the Magician) a Danish-American magician who uttered the trademark magic words “Sima Sala Bim” rather than abracadabra or alakazam.

44

Pidgey / Pigeotto / Pigeot

The Japanese translation for this group of Pokémon is “Poppo / Pijon / Pijotto” which is sufficiently similar to the English to warrant no special explanation, and the German names “Taubsi / Tauboga / Tauboss” originate from the German word for ‘dove’, ‘Taube’.

French goes a little further by naming them “Roucool / Roucoups / Roucarnage”, joining the word for the cooing noise a pigeon makes (roucouler = to coo) with the words for ‘cool’, ‘strike’ (coup) and ‘carnage’ respectively.

5

Caterpie / Metapod / Butterfree

The Japanese translations are pretty unremarkable except for Metapod. The English version ‘Metapod’ is a combination of metamorphosis and pod (referring to its state of chrysalis). Japanese translates them as “Kyatapī / Toranseru / Batafurī”. The word ‘Toranseru’ (or Trancell) appears to be a combination of transform and cell or shell.

French uses the words for caterpillar, cocoon/chrysalis and butterfly (French: chenille, chrysalis, papillon) to produce “Chenipan / Chrysacier / Papilusion” mixing the word ‘chrysalis’ and ‘acier’ (steel).

Similarly, German uses the same words, Raupe, Kokon, Schmetterling to produce “Raupy / Safcon / Smettbo”.

6

Scyther (Strike/Insecateur/Sichlor)

Scyther is a bug/flying type Pokémon, and looks like a praying mantis with scythe-like blades for arms. In Japanese it was called “Sutoraiku” (Strike), but the French name combines the French for insect (insecte) and the gardening tool pruning shears (sécateur), to make “Insecateur“. The German name is “Sichlor”.

7

Gyarados

Almost everywhere in the world, this Pokémon is a portmanteau of two monsters from Japanese monster movies, Gyaos and Rodan. However, for the French translation, they decided to go with Léviator, from Leviathan. Pretty cool, right?

8

Arcanine

The fire-type dog is a portmanteau of arcane and canine in English. However, in Japanese it is actually called Windie, due to its speed. Clearly that wouldn’t have sounded right and needed to be changed.

11

Gengar

The name of this ghost-type Pokémon in Japanese was taken from the German word doppelgänger. In most countries, it goes by Gengar. However, the French translation went above and beyond when they combined the words for ectoplasm and plasma to call it Ectoplasma.

9

Dragonite

The dragon-type Pokémon has a cool name in both French and German. In French, it combines the Latin word for “dragon” and the French for “colossal”, giving the nameDracolosse. I reckon German wins this localisation battle with Dragoran, from the words for “dragon” and the verb “to riot”, randalieren. Even in Japanese, the name is cool, “Kairyu”.

12143.png

Blastoise

In Japanese, the name of this Pokémon is “Kamex” from the Japanese for tortoise “kame”. In English, however, this water-type Pokémon’s name is a portmanteau of “blast” and “tortoise”. Everywhere but France kept it the same as English, with France opting for a portmanteau of the French for “turtle” and “tank”, to give Tortank.

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Charmander / Charmeleon / Charizard

The most popular of the original 150 Pokémon. This dragon-like fire/flying-type Pokémon is not only awesome in appearance, but its name in most localised languages is awesome.

 

English is a combination of “char” and “salamander/chameleon/lizard”. In Japanese it’s “Hitokage/Lizardo/Lizardon”. Strangely, “Hitokage” means “a person’s shadow”. I’ve never been able to work out why that is its name. In French it’s more logical with “Salamèche/Reptincel/Dracaufeu”, the latter being from “dragon” in Latin and “fire” in French. German wins this round with a combination of “ember”, “dragon”, and “rocket”, giving us “Glumanda/Glutexo/Glurak”. Regardless, you probably want this Pokémon in your team.

Now get out there and catch them all!

 

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