Japanese Language

Japanese Language Infographic Thumbnail

Click to view full Infographic

The mountainous and island-based nature of the country has historically led to many pockets where dialects of the Japanese language developed in relative isolation. According to the Japanese government, all native languages spoken in Japan are dialects of Japanese and not separate languages. Many linguists, however, have classified the dialects of Okinawa and the Amami Islands (the Ryukyuan languages) as distinct enough to be a branch unto themselves, as they are often not mutually intelligible with other types of Japanese. Due to the prevalence of mass media, Standard Japanese is well understood throughout the entire archipelago of Japan, regardless of what is spoken locally.

Roots of the language: Because the people of Japan do not appear to have had a writing system in their most ancient days, much of what is known about this period of language development comes from guesses and reconstructions. Evidence exists to suggest that Old Japanese had many more syllables than modern Japanese, and the leading theory proposes that this is because there were a greater number of vowels, but it is as yet impossible to know for certain.

Japanese has been influenced by other Asian languages, especially Chinese, since early on in its development. European and Middle Eastern impact was minimal until the European Renaissance age, when the kingdoms of Japan began to interact heavily with the colonial powers of Portugal and Great Britain. Since the close of World War II, English words are more frequently borrowed into Japanese than ever before, especially terms related to technology or mass media.
Language characteristics: Japanese has an unusually large number of grammatical structures dedicated to conveying or acknowledging social status. This is known as “polite” or “honorific” speech, and it is crucially important to grasp it in order to learn the language. Different pronouns, vocabulary, and modifications of verbs are used depending on the relationship that the speaker and the listener have to one another. Generally, polite speech is used between individuals who have just met, while common speech denotes a more intimate relationship. Many of the language structures in Japanese are designed with respect to uchi-soto, or the difference between “inside” groups and “outside” groups. For example, when one Japanese person is speaking to someone from an “outside” group (not a part of their family or business organization), the outsider is generally honored and the insider speaks in a humble fashion.

Written form: There is no proven evidence that a native Japanese writing system existed before Chinese characters were introduced to them in the fourth century. The Korean kingdom of Baekje was trading extensively with both China and Japan, and is believed to have brought written language (and other developments, such as Buddhism) to the island nation. The combination of Chinese writing and the native Japanese languages gave rise to a complicated system that is used for modern Japanese.

Japanese writing is normally rendered with a combination of adapted Chinese characters (kanji), an alphabet for native Japanese words (hiragana), an alphabet for foreign words (katakana), and a form of Romanized Japanese (romaji). Unlike written Chinese, in which each character represents a word or concept, Japanese script is largely phonemic (with each letter representing a sound). Romanized Japanese is used mostly with computer input devices, but can also be used to make something seem fashionably foreign.

Last Updated : April 20, 2015