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Number of Speakers: 121,000,000

Key Dialects: Tokyo

Geographical Center: Japan

Japanese is a language isolate, spoken by 121,000,000 people in Japanese archipelago. There are small Japanese communities in American Samoa, Hawaii, North and South America, Europe and Australia.

The genetic affiliation of Japanese is questioned. Since Japanese cannot be easily proven to belong to any language family, most scholars consider it a language isolate. The only languages that Japanese is related to are the languages spoken in Ryukyu islands lying South–Southwest of Japan, but the linguistic affiliation of the Ryukyuan languages is not known either. According to some accounts, Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages form Japanese–Ryukyuan language family (Ethnologue, Vance 2001). It has been proposed that Japanese may be genetically related to Korean, but that has not been proven either. Studies of Japanese have showed that Japanese contains Altaic and Austronesian elements: the phonological system is closer to that of Austronesian languages (Alpatov 1998), but the archaic lexicon seems to have more Altaic elements (ibid.). This led to the hypothesis that Japanese (or, more precisely, the ancestor of Japanese) was created as a result of mixing of two languages: the substratum language of Japan, which possibly was Austronesian, and the language of relatively recent newcomers, which possibly was Altaic (Shibatani 1992, Vance 2001). Thus, according to this theory, Japanese would be an old creole language.

Japanese is roughly divided into three dialectal groups: Eastern (Eastern and Northeastern Honshu, Hokkaido), Western (Western Honshu and Shikoku), Southern (Kyushyu),(Alpatov 1998). Dialects from different areas can be so different that they are not mutually intelligible, but most speakers are able to communicate in standard Japanese, which is based on the Tokyo dialect.

It is believed that the Chinese writing system (Chinese characters, or kanji in Japanese) was transmitted to Japan as early as in the 1st or the 2nd century AD (Seeley 1994). However, the earliest written texts date back to the 4th century AD. The earliest texts are written in classical Chinese, and it was not until the 8th century that Chinese characters started to be used phonetically, primarily to write down Japanese proper names. Later they were employed in order to write down also common native nouns and other Japanese words. These kanji, devoid of their original meaning and employed only in order to represent phonetic sequences, were called kana.

The earliest attempts to use kanji phonetically appear in Manyoshu (8th century), and subsequently those kanji were called manyogana. Manyogana was very inconvenient, because often different kanji were used in order to represent the same sound or a sound group (syllable). Between the 8th and the 10th centuries, several systems of kana emerged, but only two, viz. hiragana and katakana, both known from the 10th century, prevailed. The symbols of hiragana and katakana developed from Chinese kanji, but they developed in different ways: slightly round symbols of hiragana developed out of quickly written cursive kanji, whereas angled katakana symbols developed out of abbreviated kanji. Sometimes a single Chinese kanji served as the base for both katakana and hiragana symbols (cf. the katakana and hiragana symbols for a, u, o, ka, ki, ku, ko, shi, se, so etc.).

In the beginning, katakana was used by Buddhist monks in order to transcribe Chinese characters in the Buddhist texts, written in Chinese. Later (also in the modern times) katakana was used to write down foreign words (mostly borrowings from European languages), but to some extent the ancient tradition of transcription in katakana has been preserved until modern times, since the kanji that have Chinese reading (on-yomi), are still transcribed in katakana in Japanese dictionaries and kanji handbooks. For a long time Hiragana was mostly used by ladies of the court, but in the modern times hiragana is used to represent various native Japanese system words and affixes. It is also used to transcribe kanji that have native Japanese (kun-yomi) readings (in fact, in extremely rare cases hiragana is used to transcribe both native Japanese and foreign, i.e. Sino-Japanese and Western words; it happens, too, that transcription is done the other way, i.e. entirely in katakana). Kana is a syllabary script, the symbols of which are arranged in the same order as that of Indian Devanagari (Kaiser 1994).

During late middle ages, another system, called okototen, was used for a while beside other writing systems. In this system, the stems of words, as well as certain particles, were written in Chinese kanji, whereas certain other particles (affixes) were represented by dots, which could be written beside the character that they modified. This was not a convenient system, since only very few particles (or affixes) could be represented (Campbell 2000).

Thus, it appears that in the course of time many styles of writing were employed, from purely kanji (medieval scholarship, legal documents) to purely kana, but eventually it was settled on mixed style, which employs kanji (for stems of notional words), hiragana (for native system words and affixes) and katakana (for foreign elements). Today, also Arabic numerals and Latin letters are used to represent prices, dates, e.g. 2,600? ‘2,600 yen’, 2002?6?1? ‘June 1, 2002’, or foreign names, titles and acronyms, e.g. UNESCO, M. M. Matthews ? Dictionary of Americanisms (in the last example, the meaning is “M. M. Matthews’ Dictionary of Americanisms”), etc. Characters are used instead of Arabic numerals, too, cf. ?? ‘June’ (literally, ‘six-month’).

Japanese has 15 simple consonants, 3 affricates and 5 vowels. There are no diphthongs in Japanese, and any diphthongs occurring in foreign words are treated as two independent monophthongs. Dentals become palatalized before front vowels, and palatalization sometimes results in affricatization, cf. /-ta-/ , but */-ti-/ >, written -chi- or, more rarely, -ti-; /-sa-/, but */-si-/ , written -shi- or, more rarely, -si-. The consonant /t/ becomes an affricate also before /u/, cf. */-tu-/, written -tsu- or -tu-. The consonant [j] does not occur before front vowels (the word yen is pronounced [en], personal communication with Kanehiro Nishimura), and the consonant [w] occurs only before /a/ (there are a couple instances of [wo]).

The structure of Japanese syllables is (C)(R)V(N), where ‘R’ stands for ‘glide’, and ‘N’ for ‘nasal’. Syllables that have the structure CRVN are extremely rare, and occur in onomatopoeic words, e.g. kyan-kyan ‘wow-wow!’ (personal communication with Kanehiro Nishimura). Most of the syllables have the structure CV.

Some scholars consider Japanese a tone language, but its tone system differs from ‘typical’ tone languages, like Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese (Shibatani 1994). The system is more like the pitch accent systems found in languages like Slovenian. Japanese nouns and adjectives do not have the categories of gender or number. Plurality is in general made clear by the context, although in certain instances the plural suffix -tachi can be used. Natural gender is expressed in personal pronouns, cf. kare ‘he’, kano-jo ‘she’.

The tense system consists of two tenses: past and non-past. A peculiarity of Japanese is that not only verbs, but also adjectives have the category of tense, cf. mi-ru ‘see’ (non-past) – mi-ta ‘saw’ (past), utsukushi-i ‘beautiful’ (non-past) – utsukushi-katta ‘id.’ (past).

In order to express syntactic relationships and various grammatical categories (mood, voice, etc.), Japanese uses a great number of particles or affixes. Word formation and composition are very productive in Japanese. Adjectives can easily be formed from nouns with the help of the particle no, e.g. Nihon ‘Japan’ > Nihon-no ochya ‘Japanese tea’. Often words, that have kun-yomi reading when they stand independently, switch to on-yomi reading when they are parts of compounds, e.g. 水 mizu ‘water’ > 水仙 sui-sen ‘daffodil’. It happens often that long compounds are shortened by means of syllable deletion, which results in simple words (i.e. non-compounds), e.g. hiru-meshi ‘lunch; lunch meal’ > hiru ‘id.’. This also affects borrowed compounds, cf. waado purosesaa ‘word processor’ > waapuro (examples from Shibatani 1992).

Japanese is an SOV language.

Japanese has a great number of loanwords, accounting for about 60% of the vocabulary. Most of the loanwords are Chinese, and they entered Japanese along with the transmission of Chinese culture (Buddhist religion, writing system, literature, etc.). A small number of words entered Japanese from Portuguese, cf. pan ‘bread’ (< Portuguese pan ‘id.’). Nowadays, many words are borrowed from English (for more information see Alpatov 1998, Campbell 2000, Shibatani 1992 and 1994, Vance 2001).

Japanese is the official language of Japan. The standard language, based on the Tokyo dialect, is used throughout the country. Japanese is also becoming the dominant language in Ryukyu islands, where most of younger people either use it more often than the local languages, or are monolingual in Japanese (Maher 1994, Shibatani 1992).

Archeological research has shown that people were present in Japan as early as 40,000 BC (according to some accounts, even as early as 200,000 BC). The first inhabitants of Japan had probably arrived from Eastern or Southeastern Asia. They were hunters and gatherers that wandered throughout the country in search of game. After 10,000 BC signs of permanent settlements and a more developed culture appear. This culture, called Jomon, continued from ca. 10,000 till 300 BC. Around 300 BC new peoples, carriers of the so-called Yayoi culture, emerged in Japan. The Yayoi culture flourished until 250 AD, when it was succeeded by the Kofun period. During the Kofun period, Japan was greatly influenced by Chinese – and to some extent by Korean – culture. Around the middle of the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced (via Korea), and it was during the Kofun period that the Chinese writing system was adopted in Japan. During the Nara and Heian periods, the major literary monuments of Japan, viz. the historical books Kojiki and Nihongi, were written, as well as the great collections of poems, Manyoshu, or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”, and Kaifuso. During this period, Buddhism flourished in Japan. At the end of the 13th century (Kamakura period), Japan suffered two wars with the Mongols, and a civil war that arose between different family clans. Although the strife between clans did not cease during the following Muromachi period, this period was characterized by renaissance of secular and religious arts and strengthened interest in the traditional Shinto religion. Several decades before the beginning of the Tokugawa (Edo) period, which started around 1600, Japan was unified by several military lords, at the head of which stood Oda Nobunaga. After his assassination in 1582, Nobunaga was followed by his chief general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who, after having eliminated his opponents, took the control of the whole country into his own hands. Hideyoshi waged two wars with China, trying to obtain more influence on the continent, but these military actions were stopped by Hideyoshi’s death in 1598. Tokugawa Yeyasu followed Hideyoshi. During the Tokugawa period, named after the Tokugawa clan, the Japanese had their first encounters with Europeans, viz. Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish travelers, merchants and missionaries. The Tokugawa period continued until the second part of the 19th century, and was succeeded by the Meiji, a period of major changes in political and economical life. During the Meiji period, the capital was moved from Kyoto, the ancient capital, to Tokyo, formerly called Edo.

During the last decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Japan involved in a number of wars in the continental Asia, fighting with Korea, China and Russia over political and economical influence. After World War II, during which Japan suffered several blows from the Allies, Japan started quickly rebuilding its economy, and after the third quarter of the 20th century it became one of the leading economies of the world. (For a more detailed history of Japan and for further references see

Alpatov, V. M. 1998. “Japonskij jazyk”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazyko-znanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. Pp. 625 – 6.

______“Japonskoje pis’mo”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 626.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World’s Languages”. Vol. 1. Abaza to Kurdish. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Kaiser, S. 1994. “Japan: History of Linguistic Thought”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 4. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 1800 – 4.

Maher, J. C. 1994. “Japan: Language Situation”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 4. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 1804 – 5.

Seeley, C. 1994. “Japanese Writing System”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 4. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 1812 – 4.

Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1992. “Japanese”. In: Bright, William (Editor-in-Chief). “International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics”. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. Pp. 248 – 53.

______1994. “Japanese”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 4. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 1809 – 11.

Vance, Timothy, J. 2001. “Japanese”. In: “Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present”. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin. Pp. 345 – 9.

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