Japanese is the language of Japan
and of ethnic Japanese
people. Outside of Japan itself, Japanese is spoken by older people in Tawain
(who were raised under Japanese occupation), in US-controlled former Japanese territory, such as the islands of Guam
, and in parts of Peru
, the western United States
, and Hawaii
, which saw large influxes of Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century
. Japanese is considered a very difficult language to learn, and thus has very few non-native speakers (less than 5%). Nevertheless, Japanese is one of the largest languages in the world and its approximately 125 million fluent speakers make it the ninth most spoken language on Earth.
The origins of Japanese are uncertain, and Japanese remains the only major language whose genetic affiliation remains significantly in dispute. Grammatically, Japanese is most similar to Korean, a fact which has produced tentative attempts to connect it to the Altaic language group. But Japanese also appears to share some common vocabulary with Austronesian languages, such as Maori, and debates surrounding the origins of the Ainu tongue and people must also be considered. The best answer to the questions surrounding the origins of Japanese is that it is most likely a mixture of various influences, shaped by its location on an large archipelago that witnessed intermittent periods of contact with the outside world sandwiched between long periods of isolation.
The linguistic history of Japanese can only be extended as far back as the oldest extant example of written Japanese, the Kojiki ("Record of Ancient Matters"), a mythologized history of Japan composed in AD 712. Japanese from this time forward is generally broken into four periods: Late Old Japanese (8th–11th centuries), Middle Japanese (12th–16th centuries), Early Modern Japanese (17th–18th centuries), and Modern Japanese (19th century to the present), with "Old Japanese" referring to the largely unknowable state of the language before the composition of the Kojiki. Japanese grammar remained remarkably stable across these periods, however, at least up until modern times, such that a modern reader trained in Classical Japanese grammar can just as readily appreciate works as old as the Tale of Genji (ca. AD 1011) as works composed in the late 19th century. For this reason, Japanese linguistic history is often gainfully divided into just two periods: Classical and Modern.
Unlike in many other languages, which are based on the syllable, the most important suprasegmental unit in Japanese is the mora - a rhythmical unit that dictates the length of syllables. In standard Japanese, each mora is perceived to be identical in length (although the true length of morae often varies in practice and across dialects). This is true of the special morae in Japanese: long vowels, syllabic nasals, and doubled consonants. Thus, while Tokyo has two syllables (to-kyo) it has four morae, due to long vowels (to-o-kyo-o). Similarly, Nihon ("Japan") has three morae (ni-ho-n), as does itta ("went"; i-t-ta).
Each mora has a pitch accent of either high (H), or low (L) and in Japanese pitch changes occur at the mora, rather than the syllabic, boundary. Japanese is replete with homonyms (for reasons that shall be discussed below), and thus pitch becomes crucial for distinguishing words. In the Tokyo dialect for example, the word hashi pronounced with a high-low (HL) tone denotes "chopsticks," but with a low-high (LH) tone it denotes "bridge." These tone rules vary across dialects however, and thus in the Kansai dialect, the situation is reversed, with the high-low tone denoting "bridge" and with a low-high tone denoting "chopsticks."
An understanding of the mora is crucial to appreciating so-called "syllabic" forms in Japanese poetry - such as the haiku and the tanka, which are actually based on the mora. (e.g. a strict haiku would have 17 morae, not 17 syllables).
Japanese has 21 distinct phonemes: five vowels, /i, e, a, o, u/, and 16 consonants, /p, t, k, b, d, g, s, h, z, r, m, n, w, j, N, Q/. The high back vowel /u/ is unrounded, and along with the other high vowel, /i/, tends to be devoiced between voiceless consonants or in final position after a voiceless consonant, as in the copula desu, often pronounced /des/. Another pervasive phonological phenomenon in Japanese is the palatalization and affrication that affects /t/, /s/, and /h/ when they precede /i/.
Grammar and Syntax
Japanese is a mildly agglutinative language, and thus makes extensive usage of relational particles to modify nouns. Verbs, however, are conjugated for both tense and aspect. There are two types of adjectives - those that are marked for tense and aspect like verbs ("adjectival verbs"), and those that are marked with particles line nouns ("adjectival nouns"). Nouns and the noun-like adjectives are accompanied by a copula when used as predicates.
Japanese follows SOV word order (i.e. subject+object+verb). The headword of a phrase usually appears in the final position, and thus objects, adverbs, and adverbial phrases precede the verbs or adjectives the modify, adjectives in turn precede the nouns they modify, and noun phrases precede relational particles, which are always deployed postpositively.
In addition to analysis by subject and predicate, Japanese sentences can frequently be broken down into a topic and a comment. The topic, marked by the particle wa (は), appears in the initial position of a sentence or sequence of related sentences. Topics can be, and frequently are, nested.
The predicate is the only part of the sentence that must be present. Other sentence components such as topic, subject, and object(s) can be omitted whenever they may be considered understood from context. Moreover, Japanese culture prizes implied meaning over direct or forceful speech, so context becomes even more crucial to understanding. The result is that Japanese can often acquire an overwhelmingly passive character. To take a simple example, although either can be said, Japanese will almost always say Fujisan ga mieru (富士山が見える), or "Mount Fuji is visible," rather than Fujisan o miru (富士山を見る), "I see Mount Fuji."
Interestingly, there is no obligatory distinction between singular and plural nouns. The word yama (山), for example, can mean "mountain" or "mountains," depending on context, while similarly hito (人) can mean "person," "man," or "people." In certain cases however, nouns can be reduplicated to indicate "many," as in yamayama (山々), "many mountains," or hitobito (人々), "many people," or "everybody." Meanwhile, numbers are usually marked with a byzantine system of counters, which classify and categorize the objects being counted (often with cultural overtones).
Of course one of the most famous distinguishing features of Japanese grammar is the elaborate system for marking speech styles to express varying degrees of politeness, and to mark gender and junior-senior relations. A plentitude of honorific forms may take shape in markers, distinct words, or even syntactically, with greater length and complexity generally connoting greater politeness.
Japan did not possess a native writing system prior to the 8th century, when Chinese ideographs were imported and appeared in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, however, were written largely in Classical Chinese using Classical Chinese syntax, with the exception of a few Japanese songs, which were phonetically transcribed using crude Chinese character readings. The reason was that Chinese characters are almost peculiarly unsuited for writing Japanese for a multitude of reasons, foremost of which are that Chinese is a tonal language whereas Japanese is not, and that Japanese is inflected, whereas Chinese is not. Japanese vocabulary seems also to have been, even in early times, larger and more diverse than in Chinese, and certainly is today after centuries of word-borrowing by the Japanese. The result of this maladaptivity has been one of the most difficult-to-master writing systems ever constructed. Today, with less than 2,500 Chinese-derived characters, or kanji, in common usage, it takes most Japanese their entire educational career through high school to learn how to read their own language, and most younger people cannot write it without the assistance of dictionaries or electronic aids. And yet Modern Japanese has the most simplified writing system yet; prior to the introduction of the Joyo Kanji in 1941, there were approximately 10,000 characters in common usage, and some dictionaries listed over 50,000.
The first systematic attempt to use Chinese ideographs to represent Japanese phonology appeared in Japan's first written collection of poetry, the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), compiled around AD 759. Under this system of writing, now known as manyogana after the title of the collection, Chinese character readings were used to approximate Japanese phonemes. This system became the basis of what we now know as the Japanese writing system, and manyogana characters would later evolve into the two Japanese syllabaries in use today - hiragana, used for particles, verb inflections, and by children, and katakana, used for foreign loanwords and onomatopoeia.
In later centuries, the Japanese readings of Chinese characters were adopted as loanwords, especially by elites who viewed anything Chinese as more sophisticated. This added a new layer of complexity to the writing system, in which each kanji character usually has at least two readings, the on-yomi, or Chinese caracter reading, and the kun-yomi, which is the native Japanese word that Chinese ideograph is denotatively associated with. Moreover, successive borrowings of the same Chinese characters from different parts of China in different time periods produced multiple Chinese character readings for some characters, while the phonological characteristics of Japanese added further readings when characters were deployed in certain combinations, with the result that many kanji have three or four readings, while some have more than ten. Lastly, there are the nanori, or special readings used for family, personal, or place names, some of which can be quite bizarre, and often had their origins in regional dialects.