Japanese is a polysyllabic, highly inflected language but is not a tonal language like Chinese, with words that change meaning depending on the tone or pitch in which it is spoken. Japanese is grouped in the Altaic group of languages which includes Korean, Mongolian and Turkish but not Chinese.
Many say that in terms of hearing and speaking Japanese is not that difficult to learn. The hard part is reading and writing, especially the kanji (Chinese characters). People need to know three alphabets to read a newspaper in Japan. The difficult-to-master Japanese writing system consists of two phonetic alphabets---51-letter hiragana (for Japanese words) and 51-letter katakana (mostly for foreign words)---and Chinese characters known as kanji. Most Japanese understand around 2,000 kanji characters. Educated Chinese, by contrast, can read about 5,000 characters.
Websites and Resources
Language history Good Websites and Sources: Hirigana News About Studying Japanese hiraganatimes.com ; Language Guide.org languageguide.org/nihongo ; Language history Origin of the Japanese Language omniglot.com/writing/japanese ; History of the Japanese Language alsintl.com/resources/languages/Japanese ; Language Links Jim Breen’s Language Links csse.monash.edu.au ; Quick Look Language Links webgerman.com ; Super Links to Japanese Sites uni.edu/becker ; Japanese Language Land of Links landoflinks.com ; Dictionaries English-Japanese Online Dictionary englishjapaneseonlinedictionary.com ; Babylon Translation English-Japanese Online Dictionary freedict.com ; Jim Breen’s Online Dictinary csse.monash.edu.au Online Talking Dictionary dictionarist.com
Written Japanese Library of Congress Romanization Charts pdf file loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/japanese ; Omniglot omniglot.com ; Tool of Translating Japanese Websites rikai.com ;Joyo 96 Learning Written Japanese joyo96.org ; Proverbs The Japanese Page (Good Stuff for Learning Japanese) /thejapanesepage.com ; Pro-Researcher Japanese Proverbs pro-researcher.co.uk ;
History of Japanese Language
There are many theories about the origin of the Japanese language. A number of scholars believe that syntactically it is close to such Altaic languages as Turkish and Mongolian, and its syntactic similarity to Korean is widely acknowledged. There is also evidence that its morphology and vocabulary were influenced prehistorically by the Malayo- Polynesian languages to the south.
It is believed that the proto-Japanese language and proto-Korean languages separated around 6,700 years ago around the time the Jomon period (10,000 and 400 B.C.) people were firming up their grip in Japan. Korean has a sentence structure similar to that of Japanese. And, big Korean words are often similar to words in Chinese and Japanese the same that some big English words are similar to Latin-based words in French and Spanish.
Although Japanese is predominately an Altaic language it has some similarities to Austronesian, a linguistic group associated with Micronesia, Melanesia and Southeast Asia. Ural-Altaic languages include Korean, Finnish, Mongolian, Hungarian and Turkish. These languages are unrelated to any of the world's other major language groups and they originated from the Altaic region in Mongolia and Siberia.
Study of Dialects Yields New Insights on the Origins of the Japanese People
In May 2011, Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times, “Researchers studying the various dialects of Japanese have concluded that all are descended from a founding language taken to the Japanese islands about 2,200 years ago. The finding sheds new light on the origin of the Japanese people, suggesting that their language is descended from that of the rice-growing farmers who arrived in Japan from the Korean Peninsula, and not from the hunter-gatherers who first inhabited the islands some 30,000 years ago.” [Source: Nicholas Wade, New York Times, May 4, 2011]
“The result provides support for a wider picture, controversial among linguists, that the distribution of many language families today reflects the spread of agriculture in the distant past when farming populations, carrying their languages with them, grew in numbers and expanded at the expense of hunter-gatherers. Under this theory, the Indo-European family of languages, which includes English, was spread by the first farmers who expanded into Europe from the Middle East some 8,000 years ago, largely replacing the existing population of hunter-gatherers.” [Ibid]
“In the case of Japan, archaeologists have found evidence for two waves of migrants, a hunter-gatherer people who created the Jomon culture and wet rice farmers who left remains known as the Yayoi culture. The Jomon people arrived in Japan before the end of the last ice age, via land bridges that joined Japan to Asia’s mainland. They fended off invaders until about 2,400 years ago when the wet rice agriculture developed in southern China was adapted to Korea’s colder climate.” [Ibid]
“Several languages seem to have been spoken on the Korean Peninsula at this time, and that of the Yayoi people is unknown. The work of two researchers at the University of Tokyo, Sean Lee and Toshikazu Hasegawa, now suggests that the origin of Japonic---the language family that includes Japanese and Ryukyuan, spoken in the Ryukyu island chain south of Japan---coincides with the arrival of the Yayoi. The finding, if confirmed, indicates that the Yayoi people took Japonic to Japan, but leaves unresolved the question of where in Asia the Yayoi culture or Japonic language originated before arriving in the Korean Peninsula.” [Ibid]
“Mr. Lee is a graduate student studying language and the mind, not a historical linguist. He has used a statistical tree-drawing method that other biologists have applied successfully to language origins, despite some linguists’ skepticism. The method, called Bayesian phylogeny, depends on having a computer draw a large number of possible trees and sampling them to find the most probable. Each language is represented by a 200-word vocabulary composed of words known to change very slowly. If any fork in the tree can be linked to a historical event, all the other branch points can be dated. In this case, Mr. Lee knew dates for Old Japanese, Middle Japanese, and the split between the Kyoto and Tokyo dialects that began in 1603 A.D. when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, the early name for Tokyo.” [Ibid]
“Mr. Lee reasoned that Japanese would have originated with the Jomon if the root of the tree turned out to be very ancient, but with the Yayoi culture if recent. The computer’s date of 2,182 years ago for the origin of the tree fits reasonably well with the archaeological dates for the Yayoi culture, he reported in The Proceedings of the Royal Society.” John B. Whitman, an expert on Japanese linguistics who works at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, in Tokyo, and at Cornell University, called the new finding “solid and reasonable,” although the date of the Yayoi culture, he said, has now been pushed back to around 3,000 years after a recalibration of radiocarbon dates. That would open an 800-year gap with Mr. Lee’s date but not necessarily change his conclusion.” [Ibid]
“Quentin Atkinson, an expert on language phylogeny at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, said that Mr. Lee’s time scale was plausible but that if Japonic had spread through an agriculturally driven population expansion, his language tree should be much bushier at its root. Mr. Lee said that such earlier versions of Japanese might have disappeared when the island was politically unified about 1,000 years ago.” [Ibid]
“The question of Japanese origins has had political consequences, with the link to the Yayoi culture having been invoked to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria before World War II. After the war, the link with the Jomon culture was emphasized. Genetic studies have suggested interbreeding between the Yayoi and Jomon people, with the Jomon contribution to modern Japanese being as much as 40 percent. Apparently the Yayoi language prevailed, along with the agricultural technology.” [Ibid]
Most common first languages (number of speakers). 1) Mandarin Chinese (885 million); 2) Spanish (332 million); 3) English (322 million); 4) Arabic (220 million); 5) Bengali (189 million); 6) Hindi (182 million); 7) Portuguese (170 million); 8) Russian (170 million); 9) Japanese (120 million); 10) German (98 million). [Source: Worldwatch Institute 2001]
A 2009 survey by the Japan Foundation found that more than 3.65 million people worldwide were leaning Japanese, 672,000 more than in 2006. The survey found that Japanese was taught in 133 countries and territories with South Korea and China accounting for 26.4 percent and 22.7 percent respectively, of the global total, followed by Indonesia and Australia. A spokesperson for the foundation said, “We’re relieved to find the number of Japanese learners has increased, even though Japanese -language education has been facing such challenges as the global economic crisis and the increasing popularity of Chinese.”
According to the Japan Foundation and Tokyo’s Marubeni Research Institute, three million people were studying Japanese abroad in 2003, compared to only 127,000 in 1997. Some 12,200 institutions in 120 countries offer Japanese classes. About 900,000 of those studying Japanese are in South Korea.
Characteristics of the Japanese Language
Sentence structure in Japanese is often reverse that of English and the subject and pronouns are often not present. Hence an English sentence like "I'm going to Tokyo" when said in Japanese results in "Tokyo to going."
The Japanese and Chinese languages are very different. They have no similarities in syntax and vocabulary. Chinese is a monosyllable language while Japanese is polysyllabic, meaning that Chinese words are usually represented by a single syllable while most Japanese words have two syllables or more. Chinese words generally do not change their form while Japanese words do.
The Japanese and Korean languages are related. Both have similar sentence structures and both were influenced by Chinese and have incorporated Chinese words. But Japanese is so different from English that word-for-word translations often result in mind-numbing indecipherable sentences.
In Japanese there are many homophones (word with the same or similar sounds but different meanings).
Speakers of Spanish and Italian will find that the short vowels of Japanese---a, i, u, e, o”are pronounced very similarly to the vowels of those languages. Long vowels---aa, ii, uu, ei or ee, oo---are produced by doubling the length of the short vowels (although ei is often pronounced as two separate vowels). The distinction between short and long vowels is crucial, as it changes the meaning of a word. The consonants are k, s, sh, t, ch, ts, n, h, f, m, y, r, w, g, j, z, d, b, and p. The fricative sh (as in English “shoot”), along with the affricates ch, ts, and j (as in English “charge,” “gutsy,” and “jerk,” respectively) are treated as single consonants. The g sound is always the hard g of English “game,” not that of “gene.” [Ibid]
“A major difference from English is that Japanese has no stress accent: equal stress is given each syllable. And whereas English syllables are sometimes elongated, in Japanese, strings of syllables are spoken with the regularity of a metronome. Like English, Japanese does have a system of high and low pitch accents. [Ibid]
As for basic structure, the typical Japanese sentence follows a pattern of subject-object-verb. For example, Taro ga ringo o tabeta literally means “Taro an apple ate.” Japanese often omit the subject or the object---or even both---when they feel that it will be understood from the context, that is, when the speaker or writer is confident that the person being addressed already has certain information about the situation in question. In such a case, the sentence given above might become, ringo o tabeta (“ate an apple”) or simply tabeta (“ate”). In Japanese, unlike English, word order does not indicate the grammatical function of nouns in a sentence. Nor are nouns inflected for grammar case, as in some languages. Grammatical function is instead indicated by particles that follow the noun, the more important ones being ga, wa, o, ni, and no. The particle wa is especially important, because it flags the topic or theme of a sentence. [Ibid]
“There is no indication of either person or number in Japanese verbal inflections. In the modern language, all verbs in their dictionary forms end in the vowel u. Thus in English it would be said that the verb taberu means “to eat,” although actually it is the present tense and means “eat/eats”or “will eat.” Some other inflectional forms are tabenai (“does not eat”or “will not eat”), tabeyo (“let’s eat”or” someone may eat”), tabetai (“want/wants to eat”), tabeta (“ate”), tabereba (“if someone eats”), and tabero (“eat!”). [Ibid]
The Tokyo dialect is the standard Japanese hear in news broadcasts an in the Tokyo area. Kansai-ben (Kansai dialect) is the dominant form on owari bangumi entertainment programs as many comedians and entertainers are from the Kansai and make many jokes in the Kansai dialect.
The dialects spoken by the people of Kyoto and Osaka, in particular, continue to flourish and maintain their prestige. The Osakan dialect is almost like the Japanese equivalent of cockney English. It is full of colorful expressions and is the source of amusement in many comedy routines. The preferred insult in the Tokyo area is “baka.” It roughly translates to “idiot.” In Osaka the preferred word is “ahoya,” which roughly means “foolish,” as in making mistakes that all people make at one time or another.
The Kyoto dialect is so formal it is almost like the Japanese equivalent of Shakespearean English. People from Miyazaki are known for speaking with a particular accent and those from Tohuku are regarded as speaking in a funny peculiar way.
Politeness and Language in Japan
Map of Japanese dialects Department store elevators girls tell shoppers: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for favoring us by paying an honorable visit to our store. I will stop at the floor your honorable self is kind enough to use, and then I will go to the top floor." [Source: New York Times]
The Japanese probably say "thank you," “excuse me”and “I’m sorry”more than any people. Not only do they offer thanks for all kinds of situations they also say thanks many times in regard to one thing. Japanese are also constantly saying things like the equivalent of “thanks so much for your effort”for doing mundane things like offering them a tissue or “it was a feast” when you give them some tea and cookies. The goal is maintaining social harmony by ensuring recognition and appreciation for good deeds. The custom of gift giving also rooted in this desire.
The singer and songwriter Bonnie Pink, who writes songs in both English and Japanese told the Daily Yomiuri, “When I use Japanese, I get too serious sometimes, so with English there is more room for me to play around and be honest in a way. If I wrote truly and honestly in Japanese, it’s too direct for Japanese ears.”
Some say Japanese politeness is rooted in the Japanese language. There are countless ways to excuse oneself and say "I'm sorry" and elaborate verbal rituals that have been devised to avoid coming off as too direct or rude. There are also numerous honorifics (polite ways of addressing people). Many Japanese begin written correspondence, for example, with the honorific hankei, which literally means "your enlightened worship." Sentences that offer a suggestion are often left hanging to leave open a polite refusal from the person being talked to.
A Cornell-trained Japanese-language teacher wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “People say Japanese is indirect and more polite than English. I disagree---all people everywhere have a need to be indirect and polite in communications. Every language has polite ways of saying things; it’s just that each language achieve this universal goal differently.”
The Japanese have developed an entire system of honorific language, called keigo, that is used to show a speaker’s respect for the person being spoken to. This involves different levels of speech, and the proficient user of keigo has a wide range of words and expressions from which to choose, in order to produce just the desired degree of politeness. A simple sentence could be expressed in more than 20 different ways depending on the status of the speaker relative to the person being addressed. [Ibid]
“Deciding on an appropriate level of polite speech can be quite challenging, since relative status is determined by a complex combination of factors, such as social status rank, age, gender, and even favors done or owed. There is a neutral or middle-ground level of language that is used when two people meet for the first time, are not aware of each other’s group affiliation, and whose social standing appears to be similar (that is, no obvious differences in dress or manner). In general, women tend to speak a more polite style of language than men, and to use it in a broader range of circumstances. [Ibid]
“Mastery of keigo is by no means simple, and some Japanese are much more proficient in it than others. The almost countless honorific terms are found in various parts of speech---nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. So-called exalted terms are used when referring to the addressee and things directly associated with him or her, such as relatives, the house, or possessions. By contrast, there are special humble terms that one uses as the speaker, when referring to oneself or things associated with oneself. It is the distance created by these two contrasting modes that expresses the proper attitude of respect for the person being spoken to. [Ibid]
Politeness, Rank and Language in Japan
Developed during the feudal period, keigo (the Japanese language of respect) stresses respect for the person being talked to and emphasizes the humility of the person doing the speaking. Sometimes even things like lunch and tea have an "honorable" thrown in front of them to soften them up. The younger generation doesn't use traditional polite Japanese as much as their elders did.
The language that is used is often defined by the relationship between the speakers, their social status and the content of the conversation. It is not uncommon for one speaker to say “yes” but actually mean “no” with the other speaker---unless he is a foreigner---immediately picking up on it.
Employees talking to their superiors will generally use honorific language and humble language when referring to themselves. But when talking about the same superiors outside the office they will use humble language. By the same token a person may call a close friend by his or her name without attaching the polite -san but will use it when talking about the friend to the friend parents.
Over time Japan has become less formal. Parents and teachers no longer expect their children to use honorific language. Some companies have even issued orders to their employees to stop addressing one another by their titles but to simply add the suffix -san to their names.
Difficulty Communicating in Japanese
Once described as the "greatest barrier to human communication ever devised," Japanese has a word order that is difficult for Westerners to master; information is often is exchanged in indirect ways rather than direct ways; and separate sets of words are used when speaking to friends, people of higher status and people of lower status. Former United States Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale gave up learning Japanese but after only one lesson.
Many Japanese have problems with their own languages. Politicians often don’t understand the kanji (Chinese characters) in their own speeches and students have difficultly expressing what they really mean. A study in 2000, found that 81 percent of Japanese adults surveyed were confused by Katakana words. Studies have also shown that many Japanese do not know what common proverbs mean.
Some foreigners that speak Japanese well say that what makes Japanese so difficult to learn is not so much the language itself but the subtle way Japanese communicate. The Japanese people, for example, love to abbreviate or slightly alter phrases to express multiply meanings and "encapsulate a variety of nuances in a single word or phrase." Longtime resident of Japan John David Morely, once wrote, he "was accepted as a speaker of Japanese only as he became to his own ears, progressively inarticulate." He described a typical Japanese question as "suggestive, full of loopholes, offering escape hatches, and in fact unlike a question as it was possible to be" and said answering a question was "aiding and abetting the person who had asked the question" and "an accessory to the answer."
In his book Japanese Beyond Words , Andre Horvat wrote, "The essence of Japanese-style communication consists of avoiding the equivalent of English pronouns as much as possible and configuring other parts of speech, such as verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs---even interjections’so that these other parts of speech transmit the clues as to who is talking to whom and about whom."
The longest word in Japanese has 12 letters (compared to 45 for English). There are 93 Japanese equivalents for the pronoun "I".
Banzai! ("May You Live 10,000 Years") was the Samurai equivalent of "Charge!." It is now shouted at the completion of a task, when a mountain top is reached, when salarymen take on new positions and when newlyweds leave on their honeymoon.
The Japanese word for thank you, arrigato, comes from the 16th-century Portuguese word obrigado. Pan, the Japanese word for bread, is also derived from Portuguese.
In Japan dogs go "wan wan wan" instead of bow wow wow; cats go "Nyaah-nyaah;" frogs croak "kero kero"; and roosters bello "ko-kek-ko-ko." The noise of pig in Japanese is "buubuu." Japanese often confuse blue and green. In the past they used the word aoi to cover a range of colors from blue to purple.
There are no real swear words in Japanese and few strong insults aside from kuso (‘smelly”) and baka (“fool”). Verbs without the appropriate polite endings are considering insulting. About the worst scolding one can receive is ul sai na (“you are noisy”).
It has been said that there are more words for rice in Japanese than for love and that the Japanese language has no equivalent of "I love you." "Like" is used in place of "love. One market researcher told the New York Times, "Traditionally Japan is an unromantic country, and people don't express love’so they buy expensive presents. That's an exaggeration, but you get the point."
Around 6,000 new words and phrases are coined very year. A five-inch- thick book, Basic Knowledge of Japanese Contemporary Words, attempts to record them all. The is also an awards ceremony for best new expressions of the year in December. In 2001, the ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Koizumu, whose expression was selected as the year's best. In 2008, the chosen word was the Japanese word for “change.”
Chinese Words in Japanese
Japanese has not only an abundance of native words but also a large number of words whose origin is Chinese. Many of the Chinese loanwords are today so much a part of daily language that they are not perceived to have come from outside Japan. The cultural influence of China over the centuries was such that many words used in an intellectual or philosophical context are of Chinese origin. [Ibid]
“When new concepts were introduced from the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were often translated by making up new combinations of Chinese characters, and such words represent a significant body of intellectual vocabulary used by modern Japanese. To these loanwords are added many words borrowed from English and other European languages. [Ibid]
Japanese Proverbs and Expressions
The Japanese equivalent of “look before you leap” is “check the bridge before you cross it.” The equivalent of “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” is “don’t think about the pelt until you have the animal.” Instead of saying “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again” the Japanese say “if you fall seven times, get up eight times.” And rather than saying “he who hesitates is lost” the Japanese say “If you want the tiger cub you have to go into the cave.”
In Japan, "a difficult labor bode wells" describes how good things arise from bad beginnings. "My teeth float out" means “I'm embarrassed.” “You don’t feel spicy food after it passes your throat” means “out of sight, out of mind.” “An arrow is easily broken, but when three are put together, they are difficult to break," was reportedly first said by the 16th century lord Mori Motonari.
Nsake wa hito no tame narazu ( literally "charity is a good investment") means "what goes around comes around." The Japanese equivalent of “don’t cry over spilt milk” is “water running out of the vessel doesn’t return to it” but has a slightly different meaning.
Other Japanese proverbs include “time flies like a proverb,” “if you keep your distance from the devil he can do nothing to you,” “Sympathy is not merely for others’ sake” and “yesterday’s enemy is today friend.” Among the expressions used to promote conformity are: "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down," "we are all are one silk sheet," and "the head that stick up above the others gets lopped off."
New words created in the cell phone and Internet era include azasu, short hand for airgato gozaaimasu (“Thank you”); ochiru, to sign off from an Internet chat line; jimi, secretly or shrewdly, GHQ, “Go Home Quickly, a word that describes one who does not stay after school for school activities; nikochi, or “two people,” meaning close friends.; soji, a modest way of describing one’s own speech; baku-baku, a state of ongoing nervousness; and tsubo, being in a pleasurable state.
Insulting Acronyms in Japanese
The use of acronyms is becoming increasingly common. Many have their origin in shorthand used in cell phone text messages but now are so widely embraced there is game in which young people carry yellow cards and pull them out if an acronym is used and someone present doesn’t know what it means. Many of the acronyms are insults and using them make those in the know able to say insulting things abut those not in the know.
Common acronyms: KY (kuki yomenai, “clueless for reading situations”); NTT (nimotsu tantosha, “a guy carries around the bags of his girlfriend while shopping”); MM (maji mukatsu, “a couple disgusted with each other”); MK5 (maji kikeru 5 byo mae, “Someone who is about to blow his top in five seconds”); HR (hitori ranchi, “eat by oneself”); MB maiku ga betobeto, “Sticky microphone, or someone who hogs the microphone at a karaoke). [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, December 21, 2008]
Others include ATM (ahona teishu mo iranai, “the idiot man in my life I don’t need anymore”); AB (amai mon ws betsurbara, “the kind of woman who has a separate stomach for puddings”); GM (Gyudon no hou ga mashi, even gyudon---a cheap fast food---is better than this crap”); FK (fander koi, “Someone with too much make up”); ND (Noge to shite douyo, “what kind of person is this?”); OBM (okubyoumono, a guy too chicken to ask a girl for a date”); DD (daredemo daisuki, “Some who falls for anyone”); and NS (noroyoku yori siekaku, “Someone promoted way beyond his level of competence”).
The Japanese number system is based on hundreds not thousands. Japanese often have difficulty working with large American and European numbers such as hundred thousands, millions and billions and sometimes have to write the number down and count the zeros and insert the commas to get the numbers straight.
The counting system in Japanese is quite complex. For example, “mai” is used for counting flat objects such as paper, glass and coins; “hon” is used for counting long objects such as pens, strings and movies(because they are shown on long reals); “Satsu” for bound objects such as books and magazines; “hiki” for small animals such as cats and small dogs; and “to” for bigger animals.
Image Sources: 1) cell phone pictures, Ray Kinnane, 2) hiragana and katagana, Online Languages Info, 3) old picture, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2012