Japanese Language

Brief Overview of Japanese Language

Ancient Japanese Letters

Unique language consists of Ideogram and Phonogram
Japanese is a national language of Japan spoken by more than 124 million people, which is the 6th largest speaking population in the world. Other than Japan, some states in Republic of Palau speak Japanese as common language, and people in some part of Brazil uses Japanese due to the migration from Japan.
Phonology of Japanese have a strong personality of open syllable language that ends with a vowel, also many dialects, including the common language has a mora. Accent is pitch accent. Japanese consists of word order of "subject-modifier-predicate". Modifier is located in front of modifiee. Moreover, in order to show the case of noun is not alter the word order and ending, to add function words representing a grammatical function (particle) behind. Therefore, on the language typology, Japanese is the language of the SOV type in terms of word order, and in terms of form is classified as agglutinative language.

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Documentary of Hiragana Syllabic Scripts (38:34)

History of Japanese Language

History of Japanese Language

Evolving Language with Almost 2,000 Years History
Not much is recorded about the Japanese language’s prehistory or origin. In the 3rd century, some Chinese history books recorded a few Japanese words, but the description is not enough to understand well about the Japanese language of the day. Before Chinese characters were imported, Japanese language seems not to have a script, but it is said that during the Kofun period (3rd to 4th century), Chinese characters (hereinafter “Kanji”) were started to flow in along with the vocabulary and phonology. In Heian Period (794 - 1185), Japanese invented their own syllabic scripts called Hiragana and Katakana, and started to develop Japanese original literacy.
During the mid of Samurai period (1185 – 1600), Japanese language evolved into closer to the modern Japanese, and experienced the first appearance of European loanwords. The standard dialect moved from the Kyoto region to the Tokyo region in the early 17th century–mid-19th century. Following the end in 1853 of Japan's self-imposed isolation, the flow of loanwords from Western languages increased. English loanwords in particular have become frequent, and Japanese words from English roots have proliferated.

The model of former capital "Heian-kyo" in Heian Period

Writing System of Japanese Language

Writing System of Japanese Language

Chinese Writing System was Introduced to Ancient Japan
Chinese writing system was first introduced to Japan in the 5th century. It is said that this is the start of Japanese literacy. Japanese emperors at that time invited famous Chinese scholars to Japan in order to learn Chinese writing system from them.

The Beginning of Japanese Written Language
After the introduction of Chinese characters (Kanji), Japanese started to use Kanji with Japanese terms represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sound. During the 7th century, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was started to be used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose. However, some Japanese words were still written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when the history of Japanese as a written language begins.

This distinctive mixed style of writing can be found in the oldest history book of Japan, “Kojiki”, which was written in 7th century. Then, Japanese people started to use some Kanji to write Japanese as a syllabic script, for their sounds in order to transcribe the words of Japanese speech syllable by syllable. This style of writing is called “Manyogana”.

The Birth of First Syllabic Scripts: Hiragana
“Hiragana”, the first original syllabic script of Japan was invented from Manyogana. Instead of using Kanji to represent the pronunciation of Japanese, they developed Hiragana script originated from the cursive calligraphic style of Chinese.

Hiragana was not accepted by everyone when it was first developed. The elites or high ranked persons preferred to use only Kanji. Historically, the regular script (kaisho) form of Kanji was used by men, while the cursive script (sosho) form was used by women. Cursive Hiragana script became popular first among women, who were generally not allowed access to the same levels of education as men. And thus Hiragana was first widely used among women in palace for the writing of personal communications and literature. This is the reason why Hiragana some times called "women's writing". For example, The Tale of Genji and other early novels by female authors used only Hiragana. Later, male authors started to use Hiragana for literature, and then used for unofficial writing such as personal letters, while Kanji was used for official documents.

In contemporary Japanese language, Hiragana is used for words without Kanji representation, for words no longer written in Kanji, and also following Kanji to show conjugational endings. Because of the way verbs (and adjectives) in Japanese language are conjugated, Kanji alone cannot fully convey Japanese tense and mood, as Kanji cannot be subject to variation when written without losing its meaning. For this reason, Hiragana are suffixed to the ends of Kanji to show verb and adjective conjugations. Hiragana can also be written in a superscript called “Furigana” above or beside a Kanji to show the proper pronunciation of the Kanji.

The Birth of Second Syllabic Scripts: Katakana
Katakana was developed in the 9th century (during the early Heian period) by Buddhist monks originated from shorthand of Kanji. Unlike Hiragana, only men were using Katakana for official documents and documents imported from China.
In contemporary Japanese, Katakana is primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis.

Fusion of Three Different Letter Systems
Contemporary Japanese language is written in a mixture of three main systems: Kanji, and two syllabic scripts: Hiragana and Katakana. The Latin script is also sometimes used, mostly in acronyms and other abbreviations. Arabic numerals are also common as the Kanji numerals for counting the numbers.

Japanese Writing System in Education
Japanese students begin to learn Kanji from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of Kyoiku Kanji ("education Kanji"), specifies the 1,006 simple Kanji characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 1,130 Kanji characters in junior high school, covering in total 2,136 Joyo Kanji ("common use Kanji").

Hiragana and Katakana
Hiragana top, Katakana in the center and Romanized equivalents at the bottom

Vocabulary of Japanese Language

Vocabulaly of Japanese Language

Incredible Openness to Other Languages
The original language of Japan was the so-called Yamato Kotoba (or "Yamato words"). Other than this Yamato Kotoba, contemporary Japanese language includes a number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots. These words are known as Kango, they blend into Japanese language from the 5th century onwards through the contact with Chinese culture. According to the Dictionary of Japanese language, 49% of the vocabulary in Japan is originated from Kango, while 30% is from Yamato Kotoba, and other 16% is from Western language and mixture of several languages.

Japanese words of different origins are used in different registers in the language. Kanji is typically used comparatively for formal or academic words, while Yamato Kotoba is used more in the daily words. It is very similar to that of the English language, where Latin-derived words are used in formal or academic way, and simpler Anglo-Saxon words are used in daily conversation.

In the 16th century, Japanese words originated from Western language especially Portuguese arose, followed by words from Dutch during Japan's long isolation of the Samurai period. After the Meiji Restoration with the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, many words from German, French and English blended into Japanese.

The Japanese Invented Words became Widespread in the World
In the 19th century to early 20th century, Japanese coined many neologisms to translate western ideas and concepts; these are known as Wasei Kango (Japanese-made Kanji). Many of these words were then imported into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their Kanji. For example, 政治 ("politics"), and 化学 ("chemistry") are words first created and used by the Japanese, and only later borrowed into Chinese and other East Asian languages. As a result, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese share a large common corpus of vocabulary, in the same way a large number of Greek- and Latin-derived words – both inherited or borrowed into European languages, or modern coinages from Greek or Latin roots – are shared among modern European languages.

In the past few decades, the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports has made some native Japanese words familiar in English, including Haiku, Judo, Kamikaze, Tsunami, Karaoke, Karate, Ninja, Origami, Samurai, Sayonara, Sudoku, Sumo, Sushi and so on. See the list of English words of Japanese origin for more.

Landing of U.S. Commodore Perry at Yokohama, 8 March 1854
Landing of U.S. Commodore Perry at Yokohama, 8 March 1854

Politeness in Japanese Language

Politeness of Japanese

"Politeness", the Heart of Japanese Language
As Japanese people give weight to the politeness and formality, Japanese language has an comprehensive grammatical system to express them. In Japanese language, there are three forms to express politeness and formality. While Teineigo (polite form) is commonly an inflectional system, Sonkeigo (respectful form) and Kenjogo (humble form) often employ many special honorific and humble alternate verbs: “Iu” (“say”) becomes “Iimasu” in polite form, but is replaced by “Ossyaru" in respectful form and “Mousu” or “Moushimasu” in humble form.

It is depends on the differing levels of social status to use each form. The social status are determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or 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, while the other person might use a plainer form. Strangers will also use polite form of the language when they speak to each other. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

The difference between respectful and humble form is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble form is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) while respectful form is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and their group. For example, the -san suffix ("Mr" "Mrs." or "Miss") is an example of respectful form. It is not used to talk about oneself or when talking about someone from one's company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group". When speaking directly to one's superior in one's company or when speaking with other employees within one's company about a superior, a Japanese person will use vocabulary and inflections of the respectful register to refer to the in-group superior and their speech and actions. When speaking to a person from another company (i.e., a member of an out-group), however, a Japanese person will use the plain or the humble register to refer to the speech and actions of their own in-group superiors. In short, the register used in Japanese to refer to the person, speech, or actions of any particular individual varies depending on the relationship (either in-group or out-group) between the speaker and listener, as well as depending on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents.

Every Nouns can be made Polite in Japanese Language
Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of o- or go- as a prefix. o- is generally used for words of Yamato Kotoba, while go- is affixed to words of Kango. In some cases, the prefix has become a fixed part of the word, and is included even in regular speech, such as gohan 'cooked 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 polite speaker may sometimes refer to mizu 'water' as o-mizu in order to show politeness.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but if a relationship becomes more intimate, they no longer use them. This occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.

Hospitality of Omotenashi in Ryokan inn
Hospitality of "Omotenashi" in Japanese Ryokan Inn
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Encyclopedia of Japan