Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Language Profile: Japanese

Ohaiyou Gozaimasu! This week's language profile is on Japanese, the native language of over 120 million people in Japan. It's a member of the Japonic language family. Japanese is a language with many dialects... the differences between them are found in pitch accent (used to distinguish similar words), vocabulary, and occasionally their consonant and vowel inventories! There are two main dialects: Eastern Japanese and Western Japanese. There's even a dialect used to make situations more humorous. The Western dialect of the Kansai region is thought by many to be more amusing than other dialects, especially due to a popular form of Japanese comedy called "manzai" that developed in the area.

It's "Nihongo", the Japanese word for Japanese, on the Japanese flag.

The Japanese government also considers the Ryukyuan languages (spoken on the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago) to be dialects of Japanese. However, linguistically, they're considered to be separate branches of the Japonic language family. There are six Ryukyuan languages, all of which are not mutually intelligible. They're all unintelligible to Japanese speakers as well. But governments can classify things however they want and ignore linguistic evidence, we suppose...

Some people mistakenly believe that Japanese is a language isolate (a language with no "genetic" relationship to other languages), but that isn't technically true since it is related to the aforementioned Ryukyuan languages. However, linguists have spent quite a lot of time trying find connections between Japanese and other world languages... so far with little success. So the origins of the Japonic language family are a bit mysterious!

In terms of vowels, they're all pure in Japanese... no diphthongs to be found! Pure vowel is just a fancy way to say monophthong, a sound whose articulation is relatively fixed at both the beginning and end of articulation.

Japanese is said to be one of the most difficult languages for people to learn as a foreign language, and we have a pretty good idea why! The language uses not one, not two, but five different writing systems!

Perhaps Japanese people just like having variety...
in writing systems as well as water temperature
and pressure in advanced no-paper toilets!

There was no writing system used in Japan until the 5th century, when they learned to write using Classical Chinese characters. Over the centuries, they've built on this and created a couple syllabaries (which use symbols to represent syllables of words) of their own. Here's a brief rundown of what they all are and when they're used:

Kanji -  A system of logographic Chinese characters used to write words borrowed from Chinese, as well as Japanese words with similar meanings.

Hiragana - A syllabary used to write words that are either not represented in kanji or have a kanji form that is too obscure or formal for the situation.

Katakana - A syllabary used to write foreign words, as well as technical and scientific terms such as plant and animal names.

Latin script - Sometimes referred to as romaji, it's a romanized version of Japanese used in advertising such as company names and logos. It's also the most common way to write Japanese using computers.

Arabic numerals - They're sometimes used for counting instead of kanji numerals, and are used more often in horizontal writing. 

If you think that's a lot to learn, it is! By around age twelve, Japanese children are expected to have learned over 1,000 "education kanji"... and after a few more years, they must learn another thousand!

So much studying to do when you'd rather play video games!

Because of all this (and other difficulties), Japanese used to be an extremely uncommon second language choice, but it has gained many speakers in the last few decades due to the popularity of Japanese culture such as anime and video games. Now, over 2 million people worldwide study Japanese, especially in South Korea, China, Australia and the United States!

If you'd like to read more about Japanese today, here's our post on Japanese loanwords in English! Sayonara!