A short history of the Japanese language

There are few languages on Earth which escape a deep analysis of its roots and origins and the Japanese language is one of them, perhaps together with Basque and a few more isolates. Scholars’ opinion is irreconcilably divided among those who favor the Japanese language belonging to the Ural-Altaic family, Polynesian, and its relationship with Korean.

Japanese as an Altaic language

Japanese has been traditionally believed to be connected to the Ural-Altaic family, spreading over much of Central Asia, the Eastern parts of the now Russian Siberia. Other languages in the Altaic family include Mongolian, Tungusic and according to some scholars also Korean – although Korean is sometimes also considered another isolate and curiously Turkish. (Let us remember that Turkish is spoken in the Anatolian peninsula as a result of migration, as Turkish people spread from Central Asia after adopting Islam). Evidence for the link between Korean, Japanese and Turkish lies in the fact that all three are agglutinative languages and particularly in the case of Korean, both languages do share various significant characteristics, from the general structure of the language to vowel harmony, as well as lack of conjunctions. A very particular feature like the widely used “honorific speech” to address the listener may be due more to historical and cultural factors. Just as it happens with Thai, the perceived hierarchical relationship between the speaker and the person being addressed markedly affects the way of the discourse. However, the relationship to Korean, although considered plausible, is not demonstrated.

Japanese relation to modern Korean language

There is a strong controversy about the relation of Japanese language to other language groups, particularly to Korean, with which it shares many similarities, and the Altaic language family (although many scholars deny Japanese actually belongs to this group and the Altaic hypothesis has been losing currency over the years). Isolation of the many setlers who have moved and inhabited the archipelago from the early Jōmon from 14,000BC has contributed to this fact. Historical linguists studying Japanese and Korean generally accept a genealogical relation between the languages. Within Japan and Korea themselves, linguists have remained skeptical. It has been noted that although modern Korean and Japanese share so many similarities in typology that they allow for word-to-word translations, differences are greater when studying pre-modern Korean and Japanese, which would suggest, according to Russian-American Alexander Vovin, a pressure for linguistic convergence between two different languages rather than the typical divergence from a single mother tongue like we see between Latin and Romance languages (Spanish, French, Portugues, Italian, etc).

Linguistic studies, as many other areas of knowledge, can be strongly affected by national politics and other non-academic factors. Serbian and Croat, although once the same language and people have been divided for centuries because of historical and political issues. Croat uses the Latin script and Serbian usually the Cyrillic script and many differences could be considered dialectical but they have become independent languages of their own because of political factors, just like Czech and Slovak. However, national attitudes that are often incomprehensible to Westerners, have made it difficult to study and research the roots of the language. The historical enmity and rivalry of Japan with practically all of its neighbours tar the study of the linguistic connections with political tensions.

Japanese Temple at Beshoo Onsen

Japanese Temple at Beshoo Onsen

Japanese relation to other languages

Specialists in Japanese historical linguistics all agree that Japanese is related to the Ryukyuan languages (including Okinawan) which is spoken in the Southern Ryūkyū Islands. This theory favors a Southern origin for the language, noting that the Korean peninsula and other archipelagos could have played a part in migrations. Japanese and Ryukyuan are grouped together as “Japonic languages”.

Other plausible theories for the origin of the Japanese language claim that Japanese is, again, related to extinct languages spoken by cultures in what is nowadays the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. Among these, the best attested is a very likely relationship to the language of the kingdom of Goguryeo (also known as Koguryo), a kingdom that dominated the majority of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria between 37 BC – 668 AD, with the less-attested Southern languages of Baekje (also known as Paekche) and Buyeo (also known as Puyo). The hypothesis lies on the historic ties of the peninsula and the islans. This theory maintains that Japanese is related to other Asian languages and that it split from – or was strongly influenced by – other East Asian languages such as Korean (and possibly the Sino-Tibetan languages).

Statitics in 2015 show that Japanese is spoken by about 125 million speakers, primarily in Japan, where it is the national language (although it has no official status).

Features of the Japanese language

Japanese is an agglutinative, syllabic-timed language with simple phonotactics. It shares with Spanish a pure 5-vowel system, but pitch is important. This, added to phonemic vowel sounds and short consonant length, makes it sound like pure European Castilian sometimes, although, lexically, it has a significant pitch-accent.

Japanese translations - Japan a country where the modern meets tradition

Japanese translations – Japan a country where the modern meets tradition

Unlike Indo-European languages, word order usually follows Subject–Object–Verb, with particles marking the grammatical function of words, and sentence structure is topic–comment. Sentence-final particles are used to add emotional or emphatic impact, or make questions. Japanese nouns have no grammatical number or gender, and there are no articles either. Verbs are conjugated for tense and voice basically, but not person, which makes translation and particularly machine logic for machine translation a more complex actitivy than in other languages. Characteristically, Japanese equivalents of adjectives are also conjugated. Japanese shares with other Asian languages like Thai a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned.

Westerners used to identify Japanese and Chinese as one, but Japanese has no genetic relationship with Chinese. However, over the centuries, Chinese cultural influence has been deep and Chinese characters (kanji) are used extensively in Japanese writing system. Many words have been borrowed from Chinese. Japanese also uses two syllabic (or moraic) scripts, hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ). Latin script is used in imported acronyms, and the numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals, alongside traditional Chinese numerals.

Interestingly, Latin script is used for typing Japanese phonetically. For example, a user typing “ha” will be provided by the hiragana, katakana and kanji options. Thus, for typing and for Japanese translations, much word processing is a multiple keystroke exercise for even one writing symbol.

Japanese was little studied by non-Japanese before the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s. Since then, along with the spread of Japanese popular culture, the number of students of Japanese has reached the millions.

Spread of the Japanese language

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been spoken outside of Japan, too. Taiwanese and Koreans, as well as Chinese, Philippinos, and various Pacific islands, learnt Japanese as the language of the empire before and during World War II, through Japanese annexation. Although Japanese was kept as a second language by many elderly people in these countries, Japanese economic influence has made the language extremely popular in large cities in Asia.

Japanese emigration contributed to the creation of Japanese-speaking communities around the Pacific rim. There are:

  • more than 1.2M Japanese speakers in the United States, and 1.2% of the population has Japanese ancestry. Approximately 12% of Hawaii residents speak Japanese, with an estimated 12.6% of the population of Japanese ancestry in 2008.
  • Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially in the eastern states),
  • Canada (1.4% of the population in Vancouver has Japanese ancestry).

However, the largest Japanese community outside of Japan can be found in Brazil, with 1.4M – 1.5M Japanese immigrants and descendants, according to Brazilian IBGE data.

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