Language Info Uncategorized

The Languages of Japan

Have you ever thought about what languages are spoken in Japan? The answer seems obvious: Japanese! And naturally, this is correct, but it’s not the whole truth.

There are very few countries in our world where only one language is spoken. This is also the case in Europe:

  • In Great Britain, for example, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Manx (on the Isle of Man), and Cornish (Cornwall) are spoken as pre-Germanic indigenous languages, in addition to English. Of course, there are also numerous immigrant languages: Hindi, German, French, Chinese, etc.
  • German is spoken in Germany. Sure. Besides standard German, there are a few other Germanic languages within German territory, such as Low German (Plattdeutsch), Saxon, and Bavarian (which, linguistically speaking, cannot easily be considered dialects of the standard language – but that’s a topic for a separate blog entry). Many immigrant languages are also spoken in Germany. First and foremost is probably Turkish. Besides that, there are many speakers of English, French, Spanish, Polish, and Danish as well as Semitic languages like Arabic or Syriac, etc. Some minority languages are also native to Germany, a prominent example being Sorbian.

The language situation in Japan is roughly the same. Here, too, immigrants have brought their mother tongues with them. Chinese speak Chinese, Germans speak German, and US-Americans – generally speaking – speak English. Aside from Chinese immigrants and guest workers, the largest expatriate community is most likely that of Korean-born immigrants, the zainichi (在日 – “those in Japan”). Some zainichi families have been in Japan for three or even four generations and often still maintain proficiency in the Korean language.

However, there is also a wide range of autochthonous (“native”) languages that have long been spoken on the islands of the Japanese archipelago. First of all, there is the group of “Ryūkyū languages” spoken on islands of the same name, which are located south of the main islands of Japan. Depending on how you count them, you can come up with about 10 to 15 languages, all of which are related to Japanese but are categorized as separate languages because they are too different from Japanese to be considered dialects. The Ryūkyū languages can be loosely divided into two groups: The Northern Ryūkyū languages on the island of Okinawa and the islands north of it, and the Southern Ryūkyū languages on the islands south of Okinawa. The best known of these languages is Uchināguchi, or “Okinawan,” which is spoken on the island of Okinawa. Its relationship to Japanese is evident even in short sentences. Compare the following sentence in Uchināguchi and Japanese:

U: Wannē “Omorosōshi” ndi ‘yuru sumuchi yudan.
J: Watashi-wa “Omorosōshi” to iu shomotsu-o* yonda.

E: “I read a book called ‘Omorosōshi’.”
(*In Japanese, the word hon is usually used instead of shomotsu.)

A very extreme example is Ōgami on Miyako Island: kff ff means “the comb I make” – quite distinct from normal Japanese (which would be tsukuru kushi), isn’t it? Together, the Ryūkyū languages and Japanese form the Japonic language family, which thus far has not been shown to be genetically related to other languages of our world (although many linguists would like to link it to the Altaic languages).

Location of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan
The Ryūkyū Islands south of the main Japanese islands

In the north (Hokkaidō, southern Sakhalin, Kuril Islands, and even the southern tip of Kamchatka), a language is (or was) spoken that is not at all related to Japanese: Ainu (proper name: aynu itak). It is believed that the original form of this language was already spoken on the Japanese islands before the “modern Japanese” even immigrated there. Ainu is thought to be a descendant of the language of the Jōmon culture (ca. 12,000 BCE to 300 BCE).

Ainu map.svg
The distribution of the Ainu language before 1945

Today, most Ainu live in Hokkaidō, although there are also large numbers of Ainu in Tōkyō and other cities outside Hokkaidō. During the Edo period, the Ainu maintained close trade relations with the Japanese, which ultimately led them to become increasingly dependent on the goods offered by Japanese merchants. With the advent of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Japanese government made a major effort to incorporate Hokkaidō and the Kuril Islands into the domain of the Japanese Empire. The Ainu in these regions were considered Japanese citizens and were forced to abandon their own culture and language. Today, the Ainu still face discrimination from the Japanese government, but despite this, there are significant efforts to revive this severely threatened language and culture.

If we also compare an Ainu sentence with a Japanese one, the differences become clear:

A: “Omorosōshi” sekor aye kampi kunukar.
J: Watashi-wa “Omorosōshi” to iu shomotsu-o yonda.

D: “I read a book called ‘Omorosōshi’.”

Rather different, isn’t it? Not only in vocabulary, but also in sentence structure and morphology, Ainu differs greatly from Japonic languages. While Japanese and the Ryūkyū languages are typologically agglutinative languages, Ainu is a polysynthetic language, meaning that Ainu can build complex words that correspond to whole sentences in other languages. In terms of its relationship to other languages, Ainu is considered an language isolate; it has no demonstrable genetic relationship to any other known language. Linguists therefore count it among the Paleo-Siberian languages, a group of individual languages (some of which are also isolates) that were spoken prior to the settlement of the Asian Northeast by European, Chinese, or Japanese settlers.

In summary, there are about 15 indigenous languages spoken in Japan: Japanese, with about 127 million native speakers; the Ryūkyū languages, with a total of about 1 million speakers (Uchināguchi accounts for about 98% of these speakers, while Yonaguni brings up the rear with just under 400 speakers); and Ainu, which is now only really spoken by a handful of people.

Incidentally, it is encouraging that at least Ainu and Uchināguchi can also be learned with the help of textbooks (as long as you know Japanese, as that is the language that all the textbooks are written in). So why not make your own contribution to the preservation of these beautiful languages by learning one of them?

A textbook for Uchināguchi beginners
Source: D.W.
A textbook for the Ainu language
Source: D.W.

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