The Japanese language is a spoken and written language used mainly in Japan. The Japanese name for the language is Nihongo (日本語).
History and classification
Historical linguists agree that Japanese is a Japonic language, but do not agree further about the origin of the Japanese language; there are several competing theories (presented roughly in descending order of likelihood):
- Japanese is a relative of extinct languages spoken by historic cultures in what are now the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. The best attested of these is the language of Goguryeo (a.k.a. Koguryo), with the less-attested languages of Baekje (a.k.a. Paekche) and Buyeo (a.k.a Puyo) hypothesized to also be related, because of all these cultures' historic ties.
- Japanese is a relative of other Asian languages. This theory maintains that Japanese split from - or had large influences from - other East Asian languages such as Korean (and possibly the Sino-Tibetan languages).
- Japanese is a relative of the Altaic language family. Other languages in this group include Mongolian, Tungusic, Turkish, and sometimes, Korean. Evidence for this theory lies in the fact that like Turkish and Korean, Japanese is an agglutinative language. Japanese also has (phonologically distinctive) pitch (called pitch accent in linguistics), similar to Serbian/Croatian. Additionally, there are a suggestive number of apparently regular correspondences in basic vocabulary, such as ishi "stone" to Turkic daş, yo "four" to Turkic dört.
- Phonological and lexical similarities to Austronesian languages have been noted.
- Japanese is a kind of creole, with an Altaic grammatical substructure, and core Austronesian vocabulary.
- Japanese is related to southern Asian languages. Some researchers have suggested a possible relationship between Japanese and Tamil, a member of the Dravidian language family spoken in southern India.
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 not demonstrated; 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.
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.
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.
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, morphology of the verb and adjectives, particle usage, vocabulary and in some cases 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. The dialect used in Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū is famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects in northern Kyūshū as well.
The Ryukyuan languages used in and around Okinawa bilingually mostly by the elderly are related to Japanese, but the two are mutually unintelligible. Due to the close relationship they are still sometimes said to be only dialects of Japanese, but linguists consider them to be separate languages.
Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide, partially because of TV. Young people usually speak a mixed language of Standard Japanese and local dialects.
If considered as a system of morae instead of syllables, (as the katakana and hiragana phonetic writing systems explicitly do) the sound structure is very simple: The language is made of morae (or moras), each with the same approximate time value and stress (stress, here, being correlated with loudness, not pitch). The Japanese mora may consist of either a vowel or one of the two moraic consonants, /N/ and /Q/. A vowel may be preceded by an optional (non-moraic) consonant with or without a palatal glide /j/.
| Mora Type
|| Morae per word
|| i 胃 'stomach'
|| 1-mora word
|| te 手 'hand'
|| 1-mora word
|| cha 茶 'tea'
|| 1-mora word
|| /N/ in /jo.N/
|| yon 四 'four'
|| 2-mora word
|| /Q/ in /mi.Q.tu/
|| mittsu 三つ 'three'
|| 3-mora word
For the most part consonantal morae are restricted from occurring word initially. Vowels and consonants may be geminate (doubled). Geminate consonants are most commonly a sequence of /Q/ plus an obstruent. Each kana corresponds to a mora. The moraic /Q/ is indicated by a small "tsu" symbol (subscript ツ in katakana, or っ in hiragana) which precedes a kana to double the consonant. Geminate vowels are sometimes indicated by a horizontal long dash following the first vowel, as in sābisu サービス 'service'.
In English, stressed syllables in a word are pronounced louder and longer while unstressed syllables are compressed in duration. In Japanese, all morae are pronounced with equal length and loudness. Japanese is therefore said to be a mora-timed language.
On the other hand, since all syllables have equal stress in Japanese, some unstressed syllables in European languages tend to be inaudible to the Japanese ear, leading to confusion.
(Compare to the syllable system of Finnish and Italian.)
The vowels of Japanese are:
Japanese vowels are "pure" sounds, similar to their Italian or Spanish counterparts. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel, which is indicated as /u/ in the diagram. This vowel is often described as unrounded, but is actually pronounced with "compressed lips", which is a different articulatory gesture from either rounded or unrounded lips: it is unrounded, but with spreading. The "u=" to the right of the diagram are possible narrow transcriptions using IPA, as suggested by Okada (1999).
In some English dialects, Japanese vowels can be approximated as follows:
- /a/ as in father
- /i/ as in feet
- /u/ as in soup
- /e/ as in get
- /o/ as in go
Vowels have a phonetic length distinction (short vs. long). Cf. contrasting pairs of words like ojisan ("uncle") vs. ojiisan ("grandfather"), or tsuki ("moon") vs. tsūki ("airflow").
In most phonological analyses, however, all vowels are treated as occurring with the time frame of only one mora. Phonetically long vowels, then, are, treated as a sequence of two identical vowels, i.e. ojiisan is /oziisaN/ not /oziːsaN/.
In addition, Japanese has no diphthongs instead having sequences of two different vowels. These sequences of two vowels are perceptually (to the Japanese speaker) and phonetically different from the diphthongs that occur in languages like English. In English a diphthong such as in eye is pronounced as a vowel with a following off-glide: or [aj]; while in Japanese the sequence in ai 愛 'love' is pronounced as [ai] (as in naïve) where each vowel segment is of equal length. Glide plus vowel is analyzed as a sequence of consonant and vowel.
Japanese allows long sequences of vowels without intervening pauses or consonants, as in [toooooooɯ] tōō wo ōu 東欧を覆う 'to cover Eastern Europe'.
In post- and pre-pausal environments (i.e. at the beginning or end of an utterance), Japanese vowels may be preceded and followed by a glottal stop, respectively. So, the word /u/ u 鵜 'cormorant' uttered in isolation is realized as [ʔɯʔ]. When a pre-pausal word is uttered with emphasis, this glottal stop is very audible and is often indicated in the writing system with a small letter tsu っ.
The consonant /ɺ/ (an Alveolar lateral flap) is tricky for some English speakers. To an English speaker's ears, its pronunciation lies somewhere between an "r" /ɹ/, an "l", and a "d". The sound may be made by lightly placing the tongue on the back of the upper set of teeth and producing the sound /l/. Japanese "r" is somewhat close to the Spanish "r" or the flap in American English, i.e. the "t"s in be[tt]er and the "d"s in la[dd]er. Japanese "r" is rather close to Korean "l".
The consonant sound /ɰ/ transliterated "w" in Romaji, is not quite a /w/ since it is performed without lip rounding.
Note that this table does not cover all sounds in the Japanese language. Please refer below for the details of pronunciation.
Japanese contains a number of allophonic processes which greatly alter its phonetic realization. This sometimes causes its phonemic inventory to appear larger than it actually is.
- /g/ becomes nasal [ŋ], when it is not initial, and not compound word. But when it's emphasised, still hard.
The palatal /i/ and /j/ palatalize (and affricate) the consonants they follow:
- /s/, /z/, and /n/ become alveolo-palatal [ɕ], [ɟʑ]/[ʑ], and [ȵ], respectively. /t/ is additionally affricated to [cɕ].
- /h/ becomes the palatal fricative [ç], as in German "mich";
- other consonants are noticeably palatalized: [pʲ], [mʲ], [gʲ], etc.
The vowel /u/ also causes frication on consonants that it follows:
- /h/ becomes bilabial [ɸ] (like English "f" but considerably softer: it is not made by pressing the teeth against the lips; rather, it is made by closing one's lips slightly and lightly blowing);
- /t/ becomes [ts] and /d/ & /z/ both become [z] or [dz].
Archiphoneme /Q/, the moraic obstruent, assimilates to the following obstruent, resulting in an unreleased geminate (i.e. double) consonant. /Q/ cannot occur before vowels or nasal consonants. This archiphoneme has a wide variety of phonetic realizations, such as [pː̚] before [p], [pʲː̚] before [pʲ], [sː] before [s], [cː̚] before [cɕ], etc.
(Archi-)phoneme /N/, the moraic nasal, always follows vowels (never consonants) and undergoes a variety of assimilatory processes. Its "default" pre-pausal pronunciation varies considerably from dialect to dialect, and is sometimes realized as bilabial [m], uvular [ɴ], or dental [n] (among other realizations). Within words, it variously becomes:
- bilabial [m] before /p/ and /b/ (like English "ample", "umber);
- dental [n] before coronals /d/ and /t/ (like English "and" and "ant");
- velar [ŋ] before /k/ and /g/ (like English "sunk" and "sung");
- [Ṽ] (a nasalized vowel) before vowels, approximants (/j/ & /ɰ/), and fricatives (/s/, /z/, & /h/).
Elision is also a major factor in Japanese pronunciation, with /i/ and /u/ tending to be elided when between unvoiced consonants or at the end of sentences, except when they are in accented or lengthened syllables (as in inu or kami, for example). Often, preceding fricatives will replace the vowel altogether. For example, Matsushita is pronounced "MaTSUshta", and the common sentence-ending copula desu is pronounced "dess". Gender roles also play a part: it is regarded as effeminate to pronounce elided vowels, particularly the terminal "u" as in "arimasu". Basilectic varieties of Japanese can sometimes be recognized by their hyper-elision, and formal or archaic dialects by their tendency to pronounce every syllable.
In Japanese, an accented mora is pronounced with higher pitch than the following mora. This is part of the Japanese intonation pattern.
See also Japanese pitch accent.
Japanese does have a distinct intonation pattern. This pattern can be heard not only in individual words, but also in whole sentences. Intonation is produced by a rise and fall in pitch over certain syllables. In the case of questions, the Japanese intonation patterns bear little resemblance to the English ones. This is a large source of confusion for many non-native speakers.
The Japanese intonation pattern varies with regional dialect.
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. Kochira is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle wa; literally, it means "as for this direction," but here, it means "as for this person." The verb is desu ("be"). As a phrase, Tanaka san desu 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 literally means, "as for elephants, the nose is long." The topic is zoo "elephant," and the subject is hana "nose."
- Japanese nouns have neither number nor gender. Thus hon "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, 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 means "person" while hitobito means "people"; ware is an archaic form of "I," while wareware 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 regularly means "I have come", and not "I am coming", but tabete imasu 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 "big" and onaji "same."
- The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions. These include possession (no), subject (ga), direct object (o), indirect object (ni) and others. The topic is marked by the particle (wa). 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 and iru are used for inanimate and animate things, respectively.
- Strictly speaking, desu is a contraction of de, the particle indicating subject complement (see copula), and arimasu (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), the simple polite form (teinei) and the advanced polite form (keigo).
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 their 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) form of verbs, and the da form of the copula. At the teinei level, verbs end with the helping verb -masu, and the copula desu 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 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 carry Western concepts. By the elite of the Chinese and Korean, many of these were re-imported to Chinese and Korean via characters, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Those were 電車 (a train), 化学 (chemistry), etc.
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.
- See main article: Japanese writing system
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 usually prove to be difficult to master. A background in another language which uses Chinese characters may enhance the study of kanji. As for culture-specific terminology, study of translated works in Japanese philosophy and arts will simplify comprehension.
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).
The motivation to learn Japanese is usually due to a job opportunity in a Japanese organization, access to Japanese pop culture and its subcultures, or interest in traditional Japanese arts. Study of the language is enhanced by study of specific vocabulary and kanji used in such situations. Those with an interest in a specific aspect of Japanese culture usually have more success in learning the language than those with only a generalized interest in Japan.
Unlike languages like Italian in which knowledge of the standard language is sufficient for communication in almost any circumstance, it may be necessary to be familiar with local dialects of Japanese on some occasions. Many learners testify that reading manga and watching anime helps quite a lot, however the benefits of this are disputed.
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