Japanese language

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Japanese (日本語 [Nihongo])
Spoken in: Japan, Hawaii, Brazil, Guam, Marshall Islands, Palau,
Region: East Asia, Oceania
Total speakers: 127 million
Ranking: 8
Genetic classification: Unclassified

 Japonic languages or a language isolate   

Official status
Official language of: Japan (de facto), Angaur (Palau)
Regulated by: Japanese Government
Language codes
ISO 639-1ja
ISO 639-2jpn
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Japanese language is a spoken and written language used mainly in Japan. The Japanese name for the language is 日本語 Nihongo Template:Audio.


History and classification

Historical linguists who specialize in Japanese agree that it is one of the two members of the Japonic language family, but do not agree further about the origins of the language. An older view, still widely held by non-specialists, is that Japanese is a language isolate.

As for its relation to other languages, there are several competing theories (presented roughly in descending order of likelihood):

Specialists in Japanese historical linguistics all agree that Japanese is related to the Ryukyuan languages (including Okinawan); together, Japanese and Ryukyuan are grouped in the Japonic languages. Among these specialists, the possibility of a genetic relation to Goguryeo has the most evidence; relationship to Korean is considered plausible but is still up to debate; the Altaic hypothesis has somewhat less currency. Almost all specialists reject the idea that Japanese could be related to Austronesian/Malayo-Polynesian languages or Sino-Tibetan languages, and the idea that Japanese could be related to Tamil is given no credence at all.

It should be noted that linguistic studies, like all fields, can be strongly affected by national politics and other non-academic factors. For example, some linguists would say that Dutch is a dialect of German but is known as a language for political reasons. Japan's long-standing rivalries and enmities with virtually all of its neighbours make the study of linguistic connection particularly fraught with such political tensions. However, these tensions are less prevalent among non-Japanese researchers.

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and is still sometimes spoken in countries besides Japan. When Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, and various Pacific islands, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programmes. As a result, there are still many people in these countries who speak Japanese instead of or as well as the local languages. In addition, emigrants from Japan, the majority of whom are found in the United States (notably California and Hawaii), and Brazil also frequently speak Japanese. There is also a small community in Davao, Philippines. Their descendants (known as nikkei 日系, literally Japanese descendants), however, rarely speak Japanese fluently. There are estimated to be several million non-Japanese studying the language as well.

Official status

Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan, and Japan is the only country to have Japanese as an official working language. There are two forms of the language considered standard: hyōjungo 標準語 or standard Japanese, and kyōtsūgo 共通語 or the common language. As government policy has modernized Japanese, many of the distinctions between the two have blurred. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Because Japanese is spoken almost only by the Japanese, it is heavily tied to Japanese culture and vice-versa. There are many Japanese words describing certain Japanese cultural ideas, traditions, and customs (e.g., wa, nemawashi, kaizen, seppuku), which do not have corresponding words in other languages. However, this feature is hardly unique to Japanese; most languages have words for such cultural features that do not translate into certain other languages.


Main article: Dialects of the Japanese language

There are dozens of dialects spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to the mountainous island terrain and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, particle usage, and pronunciation. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

Extremely geographically separated dialects such as Tōhoku-ben and Tsushima-ben may not be intelligible to other dialect speakers (-ben is the term for "dialect"). The dialect used in Kagoshima (鹿児島) in southern Kyūshū (九州) is famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well.

The Ryukyuan languages are spoken in the islands of Okinawa (沖縄) Prefecture. Not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryukyuan languages. Due to the close relationship of Ryukyuan and Japanese, they are still sometimes said to be only dialects of one language, but modern scholars consider them to be separate languages.

Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide, due not only to TV and radio, but also to increased mobility within Japan due to its system of roads, railways, and airports. Young people usually speak their local dialect and the standard language, though in most cases, the local dialect is influenced by the standard, and regional versions of "standard" Japanese have local-dialect influence.


Main article: Japanese phonology

Japanese vowels are "pure" sounds, similar to their Italian or Spanish counterparts. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel , which is like , but unrounded. Japanese has five vowels (each one with short and long versions).

Some Japanese consonants have several allophones, which may give the impression of a larger inventory of sounds. Most instances of allophony are caused by palatalization (for example, is pronounced , approximately chi).

The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple; no consonant clusters are allowed within a syllable, and almost none within the word.


Main article: Japanese grammar

Certain aspects of Japanese grammar are highly controversial. Japanese grammar can be characterized by the following prominent features:

  • The basic sentence structure of a Japanese sentence is topic-comment. For example, consider the sentence kochira wa Tanaka san desu こちらは 田中さんです。. Kochira こちら is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle wa は (Note: ha は is pronounced wa when it is a "topic marker"); literally, it means "as for this direction," but here, it means "as for this person." The verb is desu です ("be"). As a phrase, Tanaka san desu 田中さんです is the comment. This sentence loosely translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mr./Mrs./Ms. Tanaka". So Japanese, like Chinese and Korean, is often called a topic-prominent language, which means it indicates the topic separately from the subject, and the two do not always coincide. For example, the sentence zoo wa hana ga nagai 象は 鼻が 長い literally means, "as for elephants, the nose is long." The topic is zoo 象 "elephant," and the subject is hana 鼻 "nose."
  • Japanese nouns have neither number nor gender. Thus hon 本 "book" can be used for the singular or the plural. However, it is possible to explicitly indicate more than one, either by using numbers or by using certain forms that refer to groups. There are several noun suffixes that indicate groups; the most common are -tachi, -ra, and -domo. These collective suffixes are not true plurals; rather, they indicate groups, one member of which is chosen as representative. Their use is optional, and restricted to animate beings. Furthermore, their exact meaning is contextual: oneesan-tachi お姉さん達, literally "big sister (and her) group," could refer to someone's older sisters; an older sister and her friends; or an older sister and her family. Another example is Saitoo-san-tachi. This does not refer to a group of people named "Saito"; rather, it refers to a group of people that includes at least one person named "Saito." Also, there is a small number of native words that indicate the collective through reduplication. For example, hito 人 means "person" while hitobito 人人/人々 means "people"; ware 我 is an archaic form of "I," while wareware 我我/我々 means "we."
  • Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: past and present (also called non-past tense, since the same form is used for the present and the future). The present tense in Japanese serves the function of the simple present and the future tense, while the past tense (or perfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple past tense. The distinction is between actions which are completed (perfect) or are not yet completed (imperfect). The present perfect, present continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect, future continuous, and future perfect continuous are usually expressed as a gerund (-te form) plus the auxiliary form imasu/iru. Similarly, the past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous are usually expressed with the gerund plus the past tense of imasu/iru. For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the -te iru form regularly indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others, that represent a change of state, the -te iru form regularly indicates a perfect tense. For example, kite imasu 来ています regularly means "I have come", and not "I am coming", but tabete imasu 食べています regularly means "I am eating", and not "I have eaten". Note that in this form the initial i of imasu/iru is often not voiced, especially in casual speech and the speech of young people. The exact meaning is determined from the context, as Japanese tenses do not always map one-to-one to English tenses. In addition, Japanese verbs are also conjugated to show various moods.
  • There are three types of words that correspond to adjectives in English: stative verbs (also called i-adjectives), copular nouns (na-adjectives), and the limited set of true adjectives in Japanese. Both copular nouns and stative verbs may predicate sentences, and both inflect, though they do not show the full range of conjugation found in other verbs. There is a regular way to turn the stative verbs into adverbs. The true adjectives are few in number, and unlike the other words, are limited to modifying nouns. Adjectives never predicate sentences. Example include ookina 大きな "big" and onaji 同じ "same."
  • The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions. These include possession (no の), subject (ga が), direct object (o を) (Note: wo を is pronounced o when it is used as a direct object marker), indirect object (ni に) and others. The topic is marked by the particle (wa は). These particles play an extremely important function in Japanese, though some can be elided in casual speech.
  • Japanese has many ways to express levels of politeness. These strategies include the use of special verbal inflection, the use of separate nouns and verbs indicating respect or humility, and certain affixes.
  • The word desu/da is the copula verb. It does not correspond exactly to the English be verbs, and often takes on other roles. In the sentences above, it has played the copulative function of equality, that is: A = B. However a separate function of "to be" is to indicate existence, for which the verbs aru ある and iru いる are used for inanimate and animate things, respectively.
  • Strictly speaking, desu です is a contraction of de で, the particle indicating subject complement (see copula), and arimasu あります (the polite form of the existential verb aru). An alternative (though seldom seen) parsing of Kochira-wa, Sumisu-san desu is Kochira-wa, Sumisu-san-de su.
Kochira-wa This person, subject
Sumisu-san-de Mr Smith, subject complement
su (=gozaimasu) is, (animate)
  • The verb "to do" (suru, polite form shimasu) is often used to make verbs from nouns (aisuru "to love", benkyōsuru "to study", etc.). Japanese also has a huge number of compound verbs (e.g. tobidasu "to fly out, to flee," from tobu "to fly, to jump" + dasu "to go out").
  • Japanese has many words that are translated as pronouns in English. However, none of these words are grammatically pronouns in Japanese, but may be thought of instead as referential nouns. Referential nouns are all regular nouns, in that they may be modified by adjectives, whereas true pronouns may not be. For example, a Japanese speaker can say manuke na kare wa nani mo shinai "stupid (copula) he (topic) nothing does", but in English this would have to be broken into two statements, as we cannot say "lazy he": "he's stupid and doesn't do anything". Which one of these referential nouns is used depends upon many factors, including who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and the social setting. Their use is often optional, since Japanese is described as a so-called pro-drop language, i.e., one in which the subject of a sentence does not always need to be stated. For example, instead of saying Watashi wa byōki desu "I am sick," if the speaker is understood to be the subject, one could simply say Byōki desu "Am sick." A single verb can be a complete sentence: yatta! "(I / we / they / etc) did it!".


Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Broadly speaking, there are three main politeness levels in spoken Japanese: the plain form (kudaketa 砕けた), the simple polite form (teinei 丁寧/叮嚀) and the advanced polite form (keigo 敬語).

Since most relationships are not equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favour tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. See uchi-soto

The plain form in Japanese is recognized by the shorter, so-called dictionary (jisho 辞書) form of verbs, and the da form of the copula. At the teinei level, verbs end with the helping verb -masu (-ます), and the copula desu (-です) is used. The advanced polite form, keigo, actually consists of two kinds of politeness: honorific language (sonkeigo) and humble (kenjōgo) language. Whereas teineigo is an inflectional system, keigo often employs many special (often irregular) honorific and humble verb forms.

The difference between honorific and humble speech is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) whilst honorific language is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and his group. For example, the -san (-さん) suffix ("Mr", "Mrs" or "Ms") is an example of honorific language. It should not be used to talk about oneself. Nor should it be employed when talking about someone from one's own company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group".

Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of お o- or ご go-; as a prefix. o- is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas go- is affixed to words of Chinese derivation. In some cases, the prefix has become a fixed part of the word, and is included even in regular speech, such as gohan 'rice, meal.' Such a construction often indicates deference to either the item's owner or to the object itself. For example, the word tomodachi 'friend,' would become o-tomodachi when referring to the friend of someone of higher status, though mothers often use this form to refer to their children's friends. On the other hand, a female speaker may sometimes refer to mizu 'water' as o-mizu merely to show politeness; this contrasts with the more abrupt speech of men (though men may also use very polite forms when speaking to superiors). See Japanese honorifics.

Many researchers report that since the 1990s, the use of polite forms has become rarer, particularly among the young, who employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but as a relationship becomes more intimate, they speak more frankly. This often occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender. Needless to say, many older people disapprove of this trend. Many recent college graduates receive extensive training in the "proper" use of polite language when they start to work for a company.


Historically, Japanese has a large number of words that are borrowed from Korean, Ainu, and Chinese (see Japanese writing system). Japan also borrowed a number of words (gairaigo) from Portuguese in the 16th century, and then with the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, borrowed from Dutch, and after the Meiji Restoration, from German, French, and most recently English.

In the Meiji era, the Japanese elite also coined many neologisms (in kanji; called wasei-kango) to translate Western concepts. The Chinese and Korean elite re-imported many of these to Chinese and Korean via characters in the late 19th and early 20th century. These include 政治 (politics), 化学 (chemistry), etc. As a result, Japanese, Chinese and Korean share a large common corpus of vocabulary in the same way a large number of Greco-Roman words is shared among European languages.

In the past few decades, wasei-eigo (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpataan (< one + pattern = to be in a rut; to have a one-track mind) and sukinshippu (< skin + -ship = physical contact), although coined from English, are nonsensical in a non-Japanese context. A small number of such words, such as anime and cosplay, has been borrowed back into English.

Writing system

See main article: Japanese writing system

Learning Japanese

Learning Japanese involves understanding grammar, pronunciation, the writing system, and acquiring adequate vocabulary. While the sound system is simple compared with other languages, the writing system and certain words that have a close connection with Japanese culture can be difficult to master. Knowledge of the language and culture of China and Korea can facilitate learning the Japanese language.

Major universities in the world provide Japanese language courses as well as Chinese. Moreover, South Korea, Australia, France, Canada, and some states of the United States provide the language course at high schools or lower level schools. About 2.3 million people studied the language worldwide in 2003. 900,000 South Koreans, 389,000 Chinese, 381,000 Australians, 140,000 Americans study Japanese in higher or lower educational institutions. The Japanese government provides standard tests to measure spoken and written comprehension of Japanese for second language learners; the most prominent is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

In Japan, more than 90,000 foreign students study at Japanese universities and Japanese language schools, including 77,000 Chinese and 15,000 South Koreans in 2003. Futhermore, local governments and some NPO groups provide free Japanese language classes for foreign residents, including Japanese Brazilians and foreign wives married to Japanese nationals.

See also


External links



  • Akamatsu, Tsutomu. (1997). Japanese phonetics: Theory and practice. Mnchen: LINCOM EUROPA. ISBN 3-8958-6095-6.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1946). Studies in colloquial Japanese I: Inflection. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 66, 97-109.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1946). Studies in colloquial Japanese II: Syntax. Language, 22, 200-248.
  • Bloch, Bernard. (1950). Studies in colloquial Japanese IV: Phonemics. Language, 26, 86-125.
  • Chafe, William L. (1976). Giveness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view. In C. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 25-56). New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-1244-7350-4.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1977). The tone pattern of Japanese: An autosegmental theory of tonology. Tokyo: Kaitakusha. ISBN 0-8704-0371-0.
  • Haraguchi, Shosuke. (1999). Accent. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 1, p. 1-30). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20504-7. ISBN 0-6312-0504-7.
  • Kubozono, Haruo. (1999). Mora and syllable. In N. Tsujimura (Ed.), The handbook of Japanese linguistics (Chap. 2, pp. 31-61). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-6312-0504-7.
  • Kuno, Susumu. (1973). The structure of the Japanese language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-2621-1049-0.
  • Kuno, Susumu. (1976). Subject, theme, and the speaker's empathy: A re-examination of relativization phenomena. In Charles N. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 417-444). New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-1244-7350-4.
  • Martin, Samuel E. (1975). A reference grammar of Japanese. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-3000-1813-4.
  • McCawley, James D. (1968). The phonological component of a grammar of Japanese. The Hague: Mouton.
  • McClain, Yoko Matsuoka. (1981). Handbook of modern Japanese grammar: 口語日本文法便覧 [Kōgo Nihon bumpō]. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press. ISBN 4-5900-0570-0; ISBN 0-8934-6149-0.
  • Miller, Roy. (1967). The Japanese language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, Roy. (1980). Origins of the Japanese language: Lectures in Japan during the academic year, 1977-78. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-2959-5766-2.
  • Mizutani, Osmau; & Mizutani, Nobuko. (1987). How to be polite in Japanese: 日本語の敬語 [Nihongo no keigo]. Tokyo: Japan Times. ISBN 4-7890-0338-8; ISBN 4-7890-0338-9.
  • Okada, Hideo. (1999). Japanese. In Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the usage of the International Phonetic Alphabet (pp. 117-119). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-5216-5236-7; ISBN 0-5216-3751-1 (pbk).
  • Sawashima, Masayuki; & Miyazaki, S. (1973). Glottal opening for Japanese voiceless consonants. Annual Bulletin of the Research Institute of Logopedics and Phoniatrics, University of Tokyo, Faculty of Medicine, 7, 1-10.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). Japanese. In B. Comrie (Ed.), The major languages of east and south-east Asia. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-4150-4739-0.
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  • Shibamoto, Janet S. (1985). Japanese women's language. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-1264-0030-X. Graduate Level
  • Tsujimura, Natsuko. (1996). An introduction to Japanese linguistics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-6311-9855-5 (hbk); ISBN 0-6311-9856-3 (pbk). Upper Level Textbooks
  • Tsujimura, Natsuko. (Ed.) (1999). The handbook of Japanese linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-6312-0504-7. Readings/Anthologies
  • Vance, Timothy J. (1987). An introduction to Japanese phonology. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-8870-6360-8; ISBN 0-8870-6361-6 (pbk.).ar:يابانية

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