As linguists and scholarly types routinely profess, language is something that is continually evolving. It is a living, breathing entity that twists, turns and grows on an almost daily basis. As our lives change, so too does language. We don’t always like the changes, but, realising that the amount of time we spend on this earth is a mere blink of the eye compared to how long language itself has existed, we come to accept that words are no more ours than the valleys and hills we trek over. (Although I must confess that I still face-palm whenever I hear someone utter the phrase “I could care less” to suggest that they do not care an iota about something.)

Nevertheless, when changes in language begin to occur, people notice them. The first time we heard the word “Facebook” used as a verb or saw our first “LOL”, many of us likely furrowed out brows and thought, “Is that right?” In much the same way, in July and August last year Japanese broadcasting giant NHK launched an online survey asking the people of Japan whether they had noticed the rather peculiar use of the word “arigatou” (thank you) cropping up in conversation in recent times.

Although now usually written in entirely phonetic hiragana script, the word arigatou was once routinely written using kanji characters: 有り難う. Itself born of the phrase「有り難い」 arigatai, which is composed of the words “becoming/existence” and “difficult”, the term was in a sense a way of expressing humility and to suggest thanks for making “the difficult thing I asked you to do” happen. Of course, like all language, meaning is often lost as we use it frequently, and, with the word arigatou once voted as Japan’s most loved word, it is little wonder that the deeper meaning of the word has slowly come to be forgotten. Much like the English term “thank you”, arigatou is now a simple stock phrase that we use dozens of time each day- provided, of course, that our parents tapped the backs of our heads enough when we kids and forgot to say it.

So, in the scenario of a boss waving a document at an office worker and saying “I need 50 copies of this by lunch time,” we might not usually expect said subordinate to respond by saying “thank you!” and grabbing the sheet of paper with both hands. (Unless, perhaps, it is followed by “-sir, may I have another!?” in the voice of a Dickensian schoolboy.) But believe it or not, this somewhat awkward back-and-forth is, according to the boffins at NHK’s research centre, becoming commonplace in Japanese offices.

In its online survey, NHK asked a total of 343 people of various ages whether they had heard conversations in their workplace wherein a member of staff had responded to a request from their boss or superior with the phrase arigatou, or, to be more precise, arigatou gozaimasu (“thank you very much”).

A staggering 18 percent of the people surveyed, including 37 percent of those in their 20s, responded that they had heard the word “thank you” used in such a way at work.

Asked why this might be, researchers suggested that, especially among younger members of staff, set phrases like “kashikomarimashita” and “shouchi itashimashita“, which equate to “certainly” or “very well” in English, might be considered a little laboured or unnatural. Furthermore, “ryoukai shimashita” (“Understood!”) puts us in danger of coming across as unfeeling robots, which leaves us with the softer, yet equally polite, phrase “Thank you very much!” to fall back on.

“By using the word in this fashion,” researchers suggest, “staff may be suggesting to their boss that even odd jobs like making photocopies come as vital work experience to them; something to be thankful for.” They also suggest that the language used in modern-day chain pubs and bars across Japan, wherein waiters and waitresses often shout “arigatou gozaimasu” and “with pleasure!” upon taking orders may have had an effect on younger people’s understanding and use of the word. As a Brit who routinely uses the word “cheers”- which can only have come from the cry given moments before gulping down some form of alcohol – in place of the word thank you, I think they may well be on to something with the latter hypothesis.

Source: NHK ニュース