Shigeru Miyagawa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Sounds of the Language
- Writing System
- History of the Japanese Language
- Varieties of Japanese
- Regional Dialects
- Social Styles of Speech
- Further Readings
The Japanese language is spoken by the approximately 120 millioninhabitants of Japan, and by the Japanese living in Hawaii and on theNorth and South American mainlands. It is also spoken as a secondlanguage by the Chinese and the Korean people who lived under Japaneseoccupation earlier this century.
Three categories of words exist in Japanese. The native Japanesewords constitute the largest category, followed by words originallyborrowed from China in earlier history, and the smallest but a rapidlygrowing category of words borrowed in modern times from Westernlanguages such as English. This third category also contains a smallnumber of words that have come from other Asian languages. Studies bythe National Language Institute show that the frequency of these threetypes of words varies according to the kinds of written materialexamined. In magazines, native Japanese words constitute more thanhalf of the total words, while the Chinese borrowed words averageabout 40%, and the rest drawn from the recently borrowed words fromWestern languages. In newspapers, the words of Chinese origin numbergreater than the Japanese native words.
Japanese has an open-syllable sound pattern, so that most syllablesend in a vowel -- the syllable may be composed solely of the vowel.There are five vowels, /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/. Vowel lengthoften distinguishes words, as in to for "door" and too for "ten." Thebasic consonants are: /k/, /s/, /t/, /n/, /h/, /m/, /y/, /r/, /w/, andthe syllabic nasal /N/. Many of these consonants can be palatalizedin front of the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/, for example, /kya/, /kyu/,/kyo/. When the two consonants, /s/ and /t/, occur with the vowel/i/, these consonants are automatically palatalized as /shi/ and/chi/. The consonant /t/ is pronounced as /ts/ in front of the vowel/u/.
Unlike English, which has stress accent, Japanese has pitch accent,which means that after an accented syllable, the pitch falls. Theword for "chopsticks," hashi, has the accent on the first syllable, soits pitch contour is ha shi. Without the accent on the firstsyllable, hashi may mean "bridge" or "edge." "Bridge" has accent onthe second syllable, which can be seen if a grammatical particle suchas the subject marker ga is attached to the word: hashi ga. "Edge"has no accent, so it would be pronounced without any fall in the pitcheven with a grammatical marker such as ga.
Every language has a basic word order for the words in a sentence. InEnglish, the sentence Naomi uses a computer has the order subject(Naomi), verb (uses), and object (a computer). In the correspondingJapanese sentence, the subject comes first, just as in English, butthen the object appears, followed finally by the verb: Naomi-ga(Naomi) konpyuuta-o (computer) tukau (use). The rule of thumb inJapanese is that in a sentence, the verb comes at the end. The twoword orders, subject-verb-object for English and subject-object-verbfor Japanese, are both common among the languages of the world. If welook again at the Japanese sentence, we see that the subject and theobject are accompanied by particles, ga with the subject "Naomi"(Naomi-ga) and o with the object "computer" (konpyuuta-o). These arecalled case markers, and a large number of the world's languages havethem. We can see a remnant of a case-marking system even in English:the pronouns in English change shape depending on where it occurs,he/she/they in the subject position, but him/her/them in the objectposition (e.g., She saw him). If we go back in history, the olderEnglish of five hundred to one thousand years ago had an extensivecase-marking system similar to modern Japanese. These case markersmake it possible for the words in Japanese to appear in differentorders and retain the same meaning. In the sentence we have beenlooking at, it is possible to place the object where the subjectnormally occurs, and the subject in the normal object position, andnot change the meaning: konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga tukau. If we do the samething to English, the meaning of the sentence is radically altered(The computer uses Naomi). If we have a more complex sentence, it isstill possible to change the order of all the words as long as theverb remains at the end. The sentence "Naomi gave a computer to Taro"has the subject-indirect object-object- verb basic order, Naomi-ga(Naomi) Taro-ni (to Taro) konpyuuta-o (computer) ageta (gave). Thissentence has the following word order possibilities, starting with thebasic order we just observed.
Naomi-ga Taro-ni konpyuuta-o ageta (subject-indirect object-object verb)Naomi-ga konpyuuta-o Taro-ni ageta (subject-object-indirect object verb)Taro-ni Naomi-ga konpyuuta-o ageta (indirect object-subject-object-verb)konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga Taro-ni ageta (object-subject-indirect object verb)Taro-ni konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga ageta (indirect object-object-subject verb)konpyuuta-o Taro-ni Naomi-ga ageta (object-indirect object-subject-verb)
Although the Japanese language allows a multitude of word orders, theone inflexible order is the verb, in that it must appear at the end ofthe sentence. This is no accident. The core element in a sentence isthe verb, because the verb expresses the action or the event involvingthe referents of the other words. Such a core is often referred to asthe "head" of a sentence or a clause, and Japanese always places thehead at the end of its clause. In a noun phrase, modifiers functionto modify the head, as in expensive computer, where expensive modifiesthe head of the phrase, computer. In Japanese, the modifier alwaysprecedes the head, as expected (takai (expensive) konpyuuta(computer)). This is not only true of simple modifiers, but formodifiers that involve an entire sentence. Note that in the Englishsentence the computer [that Naomi uses], the bracketed portionmodifies the head computer, and this modifier follows the head. InJapanese, the head-final order is invariably followed, so that thiswould be expressed with the modifier preceding the head: [Naomi-gatukau (that Naomi uses)] konpyuuta. With few exceptions, thelanguages of the world either follow the head-final order, just as inJapanese, or the head-initial order (for example, Indonesian). Withinthe same language, we might see one or the otheroption for differenttypes of clauses, as we saw for English simple modifiers (head-final)and sentence modifiers (head-initial). Japanese is consistentlyhead-final for all types of clauses.
The Japanese verb does not indicate number or gender. The same formfor the verb is used with singular and plural subjects, and no genderdistinction is made. The verb inflects for tense, negation, aspect,and mood. Following are some inflections for the verb "to push,"which has the root os-.
os-u (push) present/dictionary form os-ita (pushed) pastos-anai (not push) negationos-ite iru (is pushing) progressiveos-e (push) imperativeos-itara (if (you) push) conditional
These forms vary depending on whether the root of the verb ends in aconsonant or a vowel. While the root of the verb "to push" above isconsonant-final, a verb such as "to eat" has a vowel-final root(tabe-), and it takes a slightly different shape for each of theinflections: tabe- ru (present/dictionary form), tabe-ta (past),tabe-nakatta (negation), tabe-te iru (progressive), tabe-ro(imperative), tabe-tara (conditional). In languages such as Italianand Spanish, a rich verbal inflection that indicates both number andgender often allows the speaker not to express the subject if it isunderstood in the context, e.g., (Juan) vio ese film ((Juan) saw thatfilm) in Spanish. In Japanese, despite the lack of number and genderinflection on the verb, it is possible not only to leave the subjectout, but any other element in the sentence except the verb, so long asit is understood in the sentence. The Japanese counterpart of thesentence "Naomi uses the computer" may be expressed simply by sayingthe verb tukau (use), so long as it's clear to the hearer from contextthat the sentence refers to Naomi and to the computer.
In Japanese, ideas often expressed in other languages with separateclauses and sentences frequently take the shape of a word, albeit acomplex one. This is the agglutinative nature of the language. Forexample, the expression in English, Naomi was made to go purchase amore expensive computer by Mary, contains separate verbs was made, go,and purchase. In the Japanese counterpart, these verbs together formone complex verb (Japanese uses "come" for the English "go" in thiscontext) : katte-ko-sase-rare-ta (buy-come-made-was-past). Otherlanguages that have an agglutinative verb system include Korean,Navaho, and Turkish.
Japanese is traditionally written vertically, with the lines startingfrom the right side of the page. While this way of writing is stillpredominant, there is another way that is identical to English instarting from the top left hand side, with each line writtenhorizontally.
Japanese is written using two systems of orthography, Chinesecharacters and syllabaries. Chinese characters, or kanji, werebrought in from China starting about 1,500 years ago. Prior to theirintroduction, Japanese was strictly a spoken language. Chinesecharacters are by far the more difficult system because of the sheernumber of characters and the complexity both in writing and readingeach character. Each character is associated with a meaning; forexample, the character $B9T(B has the basic meaning "to go." There aretens of thousands of characters attested, but in 1946, the Japanesegovernment identified 1,850 characters for daily use. In 1981, thelist was increased in number to 1,945 characters, and given the nameJoyo Kanji List (Kanji for Daily Use). The characters in the DailyUse List must be learned in primary and secondary schools, andnewspapers generally limit the use of characters to this list. Mostcharacters are associated with at least two readings, the nativeJapanese reading, and the reading that simulates the original Chinesepronunciation of the same character. If the same character came intoJapan at different periods or from different dialect regions of China,the character may be associated with a multitude of Chinese readingsthat represent different historical periods and dialectal differences.For example, the character , "to go," has four different readings,the Japanese reading and three distinct originally Chinese readings.The second system of wriiting are syllabaries, or kana, which weredeveloped by the Japanese from certain Chinese characters about 1,000years ago. Each syllabary represents a syllable in the language, and,unlike Chinese characters, it represents a sound but not meaning.There are two types of syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, eachcontaining the same set of sounds. For example, the sound "ka" inJapanese may be represented by the hiragana or the katakana , both of which were developed from the Chinese character . Hiraganais often used in combination with a Chinese character, in such a waythat, for example, the character represents roughly the root of averb, and the inflection is written with hiragana. Katakana is usedto write loan words from Western languages such as English, French,and German. It is not uncommon to find kanji, hiragana, and katakanaused in the same sentence. Along with Chinese characters andsyllabaries, Roman alphabets are sometimes employed for such things asnames of organizations. For example, companies such as Honda, Toyota,and Sony often use Roman alphabets for their name in advertisements.
Through painstaking research, we now have conclusive evidence for thegenetic relationships of the major languages of the world. English,along with a host of languages spoken in Europe, Russia, and India,belong to the Indo-European family of languages. In contrast, thereis no conclusive evidence relating Japanese to a single family oflanguages. The most prominent hypothesis places Japanese in theAltaic family, which includes Turkish, Tungusic, Mongolian, andKorean, with the closest relationship to Korean. According to RoyAndrew Miller, the original Altaic language was spoken in theTranscaspian steppe country, and the speakers of this languageundertook massive migrations before 2,000 B.C., spreading thislanguage family from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east.However, this hypothesis is inconsistent with some major features ofJapanese, leading some scholars to turn to the languages of the SouthPacific in the Austronesian family for clues of genetic relationship.A hypothesis that has currency among a number of Japanese historicallinguists is a "hybrid" theory that accepts the relationship to theAltaic family, but also hypothesizes influence from Austronesianlanguages possibly through heavy lexical borrowing. It is alsoimportant to note that in the northern island of Hokkaido, the Ainupeople, who are physically and culturally different from the rest ofthe Japanese, speak a language that has even more successfully escapedattempts to relate it to a single language family.
With the introduction of the writing system from China starting about1,500 years ago, the Japanese people began to extensively record theirlanguage through poetry and prose. The language of that era, calledOld Japanese, had a number of features that have been lost throughtime. For example, Susumu Ono has argues that Old Japanese had eightvowels instead of the five that we see today. There were also anumber of grammatical and morphological features that no longer exist.The transition from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese took place fromabout the twelfth century, A.D., to the sixteenth century, A.D.
There are a large number of dialects throughout the four main islandsand the smaller islands of Okinawa and others. Some dialects such asthose spoken in the southern parts of Japan (Kyushu, Okinawa) arevirtually incomprehensible to the speakers of other dialects,requiring the use of the standard (or "common") dialect forcommunication. The two dialect families with the largest number ofspeakers are the dialect spoken in and around Tokyo, which isequivalent to the "common" dialect, and the dialects of the Kansairegion spoken in western Japan in cities such as Kyoto, Osaka, andKobe. Due to the spread of the common dialect through television andradio, most people outside the Tokyo region speak the common dialectas well as the dialect of their area.
The Japanese language employs an extensive system of politeness andhonorific markers. It is often the case that in order to utter anykind of expression, the speaker must keep in mind his/her socialstanding to the person addressed, and the person being talked about.These markers appear on verbs, adjectives, and even nouns. Forexample, the informal form of the verb "to go," iku, is used whenspeaking with someone close to the speaker, but if the personaddressed is a stranger or is older than the speaker, the politenessmarker -masu appears: iki- masu. If the person being talked about issocially superior to the speaker, the honorific form of the verb "togo," irassyaru, is may be employed, even if this person is notpresent. In using this honorific form to talk about asocially-superior person, if the person addressed doesn't have a closerelation to the speaker, such as a relative or a friend, or is older,the politeness marker appears on the honorific form: irassyai-masu.Thus, this form, irassyai-masu, simultaneously allows the speaker tobe polite to the person addressed and show respect to the person beingtalked about. The prefix o- (go- in some contexts) may be used withnouns and adjectives to show politeness or respect to the personaddressed or spoken of, as in o-tuskue (desk) and o-suki (like).
The use of pronouns varies according to social context and also oftenaccording to gender. The first person pronoun boku is used by a malein relatively informal situations, while watashi is used by a femalein informal situations and by both male and female in formalsituations. There are a large number of ways to expressed "you"according to social context and gender, including using the actualname of the person addressed. Aside from pronouns, the choice of somesentence-final particles varies by gender in informal speech.
The use of politeness and honorific markers and the various pronounsreflect the prominent role that in-group/out-of-group factors play inJapanese. If the person addressed is not within the "group" of thespeaker in personal relationship or age, the speaker uses the politestyle of speech. Familial words also reflect this. The word for yourown mother is haha, but okaasan for the mother of others. We see thesame bifurcation for the terms for father, sister, brother, and soforth.
Masayoshi, Shibatani. The Languages of Japan. CambridgeUniversity Press. 1990.
Miller, Roy Andrew. Origins of the JapaneseLanguage. University of Washington Press. 1980.
Text from Microsoft Incarta, Permission given by MicrosoftCorporation for use by JP NET.
Date last modified: 13-Oct-1999
Copyright 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The most widely spoken language in Japan is Japanese, which is separated into several dialects with Tokyo dialect considered standard Japanese. In addition to the Japanese language, Ryūkyūan languages are spoken in Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima in the Ryūkyū Islands.What are the 3 parts of Japanese language? ›
These three systems are called hiragana, katakana and kanji. If that sounds overwhelming, don't worry! Hiragana and katakana are easy enough to learn – and will be a big help if you're thinking about travelling to Japan, or learning basic Japanese.How old is Japanese language? ›
Written records of Japanese date to the 8th century, the oldest among them being the Kojiki (712; “Records of Ancient Matters”).
what specific language do the Japanese speak? 4… it's 4 system, not 3. Hiragana, katakana, kanji and latin alphabet. After all japanese people use the latin alphabet keyboards.What is the hardest language to learn? ›
Interestingly, the hardest language to learn is also the most widely spoken native language in the world. Mandarin Chinese is challenging for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the writing system is extremely difficult for English speakers (and anyone else) accustomed to the Latin alphabet.
Japanese is ranked by the U.S. Foreign Services Institute as the most difficult language for native English speakers to learn. The institute uses the time it takes to learn a language to determine its difficulty 23-24 weeks for the easiest and 88 weeks for the hardest.Why do Japanese read right to left? ›
The right-to-left order was considered a special case of vertical writing, with columns one character high, rather than horizontal writing per se; it was used for single lines of text on signs, etc. (e.g., the station sign at Tokyo reads 駅京東).Which Japanese alphabet is used most? ›
Hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. It's used on its own or in conjunction with kanji to form words, and it's the first form of Japanese writing that children learn.What is my name is Japanese? ›
私の名前は [name]です。 watashi no namae wa [name] desu. My name is [name].Which is first language in world? ›
All the universities and educational institutions spread across the world consider Sanskrit as the most ancient language. It is believed that all the languages of the world have originated from Sanskrit somewhere. The Sanskrit language has been spoken since 5,000 years before Christ.
There are minor languages in the Japonic language family such as Ryukyuan that are the closest relatives to Japanese. Otherwise, while Korean is in a different language family, it is most similar to Japanese in grammar.Why does Japan have 3 alphabets? ›
Q. Why does the Japanese language have to use three different types of script; Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana? A. This is because each of the three types of script, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, has its own specific role.Does Japan speak English? ›
Tokyo is definitely the place where English in Japan is most ubiquitous. In addition to bilingual signage in the Tokyo Metro, JR Lines and in popular areas like Asakusa and Shinjuku, a large percentage of people in Tokyo speak some English, even those who don't work in foreigner-facing professions.How do Japanese people say Japan? ›
You want to say "Japan" (日本 or にほん) in Japanese. Pronounce it as "Nippon" or "Nihon." There is no single "correct" pronunciation, so try to take your cues from those around you.Which language is most spoken in the world? ›
- English (1,132 million speakers) Native speakers: 379 million. ...
- Mandarin (1,117 million speakers) ...
- Hindi (615 million speakers) ...
- Spanish (534 million speakers) ...
- French (280 million speakers) ...
- Arabic (274 million speakers) ...
- Bengali (265 million speakers) ...
- Russian (258 million speakers)
- English. It's the most widely spoken language in the world, making practice possible. ...
- French. French has over 100 million native speakers and is – as the official language in 28 countries – spoken on almost every continent. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Italian. ...
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English natives to learn. It doesn't have many similarities in structure to English. They estimate it takes 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to reach fluency.Is Japanese worth learning? ›
Understanding the Japanese language will open your eyes to Japanese history, martial arts, entertainment, culture and fashion. Learning Japanese will help you to appreciate your own culture as well as your own language because it improves your communication and cognitive skills.Is Korean easier than Japanese? ›
Unlike other East-Asian languages, Korean isn't a tonal language. This means, that the meaning of the word doesn't change, regardless of what your accent is like. This makes learning Korean much easier than Japanese. Japanese has 46 letters in its alphabet.
The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.How many letters are there in Japanese? ›
How Many Letters are in the Japanese Alphabet? There are 46 basic characters in the Japanese alphabet and additional characters/sounds that can be made from the basic 46. Each of the alphabet symbols forms one syllable made of the 21 romaji, which is phonetic and always read the same way.How many letters are in the Japanese alphabet? ›
The Japanese alphabet consists of 99 sounds formed with 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and 14 consonants (k, s, t, h, m, y, r, w, g, z, d, b, p, and n), as is shown in the hiragana chart.Do you write up and down in Japanese? ›
Traditionally, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean are written vertically in columns going from top to bottom and ordered from right to left, with each new column starting to the left of the preceding one.What is the most common Japanese name? ›
|1||蓮 (1)||陽葵 (1)|
|3||湊 (2)||陽菜 (12)|
To write your name in Japanese, the easiest way is to find a Katakana letter that corresponds to the pronunciation of your Japanese name. For example, if your name is “Maria,” look for the Katakana character for Ma, which is マ, then the character for Ri, which is リ, and then character for A, which is ア.Do Japanese read right to left? ›
Japanese is not read right-to-left, at least not in the way of languages like Arabic. It is read top-to-bottom, then right-to-left OR left-to-right then top-to-bottom. FWII the former is the more traditional way and still used in many contexts, but the latter is more common (probably in part thanks to computing(?)).Can guys say Watashi? ›
In formal or polite contexts, “watashi” is gender neutral. However, when it's used in informal or casual contexts, it is usually perceived as feminine. “Boku” is used by men and young boys.What's Nani mean? ›
The word nani 何 (なに) in Japanese means "what." And depending on the situation, you might, instead, use nan (なん). Which term you use depends on the context, in particular, whether you are speaking or writing formally or informally.What is your age in Japan? ›
Since the solar calendar is used in Japan now and the Japanese calendar corresponds to the Christian calendar, the method of counting a person's age in the traditional Japanese system will be as follows: 'traditional Japanese system = your age + two' as for the period from the New Year's Day until the day before ...
|Rank||Language||Number of Speakers in Japan (estimates)|
While traditional Japanese Kanji is the same as traditional Chinese characters, simplified Japanese Kanji (shinjitai, new character forms) might be different from simplified Chinese characters. Most Japanese Kanji has a similar meaning to Chinese characters but not always.Which Japanese language is used in anime? ›
Most anime is spoken in standard Japanese, the one they always speak on TV. Most places in Japan have their own variety of Japanese, but everybody understands TV Japanese. A few feature other accents: Osaka accent is quite popular for comedic purposes.Does Japan speak English? ›
Tokyo is definitely the place where English in Japan is most ubiquitous. In addition to bilingual signage in the Tokyo Metro, JR Lines and in popular areas like Asakusa and Shinjuku, a large percentage of people in Tokyo speak some English, even those who don't work in foreigner-facing professions.Why is Japan's flag a red dot? ›
The Japanese flag is made up of a red circle, symbolizing the sun, against a white background. It is known as the hinomaru in Japanese, meaning "circle of the sun." Because Japan lies at the far West of the Pacific Ocean, the sun rises spectacularly over the sea to the East.Why does Japan have 2 flags? ›
Both the Rising San Flag and Hinomaru were adopted in 1870 by the new Meiji government, which overthrew the feudal government in 1868 and ushered Japan into modernity. The former became the official flag of the Japanese Army (and later Navy, as well), and the latter the national flag.Why does Japanese have 3 alphabets? ›
Q. Why does the Japanese language have to use three different types of script; Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana? A. This is because each of the three types of script, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, has its own specific role.What symbolizes love in Japan? ›
Using the Kanji Character Ai
Writing love in Japanese is represented as the kanji symbol 愛 which means love and affection.
Even though there's a lot of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese into Japanese and a little bit Japanese into Chinese, only in writing are the two languages somewhat intelligible because of the Chinese characters that are used. Others (Chinese) may have the ability to read Japanese writings.Can Chinese people read Japanese? ›
No Chinese can read Japanese aloud or viceversa, but they can understand some of what is being said in the text. Because of the kanas, Chinese people are slightly in a disadvantage, so Japanese normally understand a bit more written Chinese than the other way round.
Hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. It's used on its own or in conjunction with kanji to form words, and it's the first form of Japanese writing that children learn.How do you say hello in anime? ›
[5 Best Words for Anime Lovers] How to Say Hello in Japanese! - YouTubeCan you learn Japanese in 3 months? ›
How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese on Average? With consistent studying and speaking, for about 30 minutes to an hour a day, you could speak at a conversational level in Japanese in about 3 months. It's all about using the right method, and I'll say it again: speak from day one!Can I go to Japan if I don't speak Japanese? ›
The truth is, you do not need to speak any Japanese to have a successful, wonderful trip to Japan (and if you're looking for travel inspiration, check out our favorite destinations in Japan). However, learning a few key Japanese phrases can make your trip just that much better.How Safe is Tokyo Japan? ›
Tokyo has again been named the world's safest city by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in a ranking of the digital, health, infrastructure and personal security of 60 major metropolitan areas. Singapore came in second, followed by Osaka in third place in the Safe Cities Index 2019.Can you survive in Japan with English? ›
In conclusion, you can live comfortably in Japan without speaking Japanese. This is because of various provisions that are available to make life easier for foreigners. However, you may some challenges with a few things, such as finding works, fulfilling some adult responsibilities, and building a strong social circle.