NILS Fukuoka Times

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Fun Facts about the Japanese Language


japanese proverb

1. There’s very little evidence of Japanese prehistory

Historians believe that old Japanese and 琉球語派 (りゅうきゅうごは) — Ryukyuan languages, the indigenous dialects of the Ryukyu islands off mainland Japan, were derived from travellers that came from Asia and various Pacific Islands nearby during the 弥生時代 (やよいじだい) — Yayoi period around 200 BC.

Unfortunately, there’s little to no evidence of this as fact. We just don’t know very much about Japan during the Yayoi period at all. Anthropologists have deduced that the earliest recorded text that contains writing similar to 漢字 (かんじ ) — kanji wasn’t found until around the 8th century.

How the language developed before that is truly a mystery!

2. The Japanese language is only recognised as the official language of Japan

Of course, Japanese is the de facto language of Japan, and it’s also the only place where Japanese is the official language. However, that doesn’t mean Japan is the only place where the language is spoken!

Japanese is recognised as a minority language in the Republic of Palau, where the island state of Angaur speaks primarily Japanese. As of 2010, around 1% of Californians and 15% of Hawaiian residents speak Japanese as well.

3. While many Asian languages are tonal, Japanese is not

A “tonal” language is one that uses less distinct syllables and unique words, opting for the use of inflection to differentiate between words. Japanese isn’t a tonal language. This is actually pretty odd, since many East Asian languages are tonal in nature: Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, for instance, all rely on tone to convey meaning. Considering its location, it’s interesting that Japan didn’t adopt a similar language system.

For the Japanese learner, especially one that grew up speaking a Latin or Germanic language, this is a welcome relief. Tones can be very difficult for some learners to get used to. Like all languages, though, Japanese does have a certain rhythm and cadence to its words and sentences. The best way to learn the unique music of the Japanese language is by listening to authentic speech.

4. Japanese is one of the most fast-paced spoken languages in the world

This is, of course, a bit hard to measure. Speakers of any language have their own dialects, accents and personalities that affect how quickly they speak. (We all have that one friend, am I right?)

A group of French linguists conducted a recent study and tackled the task of measuring average language speed the best they could. Interestingly enough, Japan has a spoken syllable rate of nearly eight syllables per second. That beats out Spanish, French and Italian. However, there are some more interesting takeaways from the study.

While Japanese has the fastest spoken rate, it also has the lowest amount of information density per second. That means that while a lot of stuff is being said, not a lot of information is being given. (Which is not too surprising when you think about it—it takes almost all eight syllables just to say “not.”)

In contrast, they found that Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and English had the highest rates of information shared per second while maintaining some of the slowest spoken syllables per second. Languages are amazing, aren’t they?

5. The Japanese language boasts a specific alphabet system for writing foreign words

We’ve already established that Japanese is a pretty unique language. But when two worlds collided and the Japanese were presented with new information and languages through international exposure and trade, it wasn’t a matter of just learning a word in its native tongue.

Many words in Japanese are adopted and “Japanified” into the language so that it’s easier for Japanese people to say them. Similarly, many pronouns and names in English and other foreign languages were tweaked to be easier to say in Japanese. To accommodate this, the Japanese alphabet 片仮名 (かたかな) — katakana was officially adapted for this new need.

Daring as far back as 951 AD, katakana was originally used by Buddhist monks to annotate Chinese writing for Japanese readers—sort of like furigana is used for foreign and young readers today. Over time, it became a way for Japanese officials to communicate with foreign traders and is used to this day to denote foreign or borrowed words (unless they come from China), onomatopoeia and foreign names.

When it was originally conceived, katakana contained many different symbols to represent each syllable sound and was primarily used by men. Today, the katakana system consists of 48 unique syllables and is an accepted part of the language, used by everyone. Thank goodness for that!

6. Despite popular belief, Japanese has no genetic relation to Chinese

We know that 漢字 (kanji) is adopted from Chinese characters and used as a Japanese writing system. We also know that Japanese“borrows”quite a few phrases and words from Chinese. The Japanese language as a whole, however, isn’t derived from the same language family as Chinese and has no genetic relation to it whatsoever.

In fact, Japanese is considered one of the most unique languages in the world with no direct derivative language that birthed it. Other such languages include Sumerian, Korean and many Native American languages.

How crazy is that?

7. ローマ字 (ローマじ) — Romaji, a.k.a. the Romanisation of Japanese words, has interesting origins

One would think romaji would have come about during trade relations and early interactions with European countries in the 16th century. This, however, is not entirely the case. Romaji has its roots in Christianity. Romaji was developed in the 1500s by a Japanese Catholic who wanted to help European missionaries evangelize and promote their Jesuit religion in Japan without having to learn the complex character systems of Japanese.

The oldest form of Japanese romanisation is based on Portuguese. Later on, as more and more people began to visit Japan, romaji became refined as a tool for aiding non-Japanese learners verbally sound out Japanese characters.

The first Japanese-English dictionary to feature romaji was published by James Curtis Hepburn in the 1800’s. Hepburn is also the namesake of the romaji writing system we use today: Hepburn Romanization.

8. Japanese is the ninth most commonly spoken language in the entire world

Around 130 million people speak Japanese. It’s the most space-concentrated of all the most-spoken languages, with a vast majority of its speakers living exclusively on the island of Japan. This seems to be changing, however. People outside of Japan are becoming more and more interested in learning the language.

In fact, the number of people learning Japanese outside the country in schools went up over 9% from 2009 to 2012. People are more interested in Japanese culture and thus want to learn the language.


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