is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is related to the Ryukyuan languages. There may exist relationships with other languages, but they have still remained undemonstrated. It is an agglutinative language and is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the hierarchical nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of speaker, listener and the third person mentioned in conversation whether he is there or not. The sound inventory of Japanese is relatively small, and it has a lexically distinct pitch-accent system. It is a mora-timed language.
The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: modified Chinese characters called kanji (漢字), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (平仮名) and katakana (片仮名). The Latin alphabet, rōmaji (ローマ字), is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when entering Japanese text into a computer. Western style Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace.
Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by loanwords from other languages. A vast number of words were borrowed from Chinese, or created from Chinese models, over a period of at least 1,500 years. Since the late 19th century, Japanese has borrowed a considerable number of words from Indo-European languages, primarily English. Because of the special trade relationship between Japan and first Portugal in the 16th century, and then mainly the Netherlands in the 17th century, Portuguese, German and Dutch have also been influential.
Formerly, standard was different from . The two systems have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. was the main method of writing Japanese until about 1900; since then gradually extended its influence and the two methods were both used in writing until the 1940s. still has some relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in , although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). is the predominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.
Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.
The main distinction in Japanese accents is between and , though Kyūshū-type dialects form a third, smaller group. Within each type are several subdivisions. Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also that type. The final category of dialects are those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijō-jima island and few islands.
Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Tsushima, may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects of Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū are famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well. This is probably due in part to the Kagoshima dialects' peculiarities of pronunciation, which include the existence of closed syllables (i.e., syllables that end in a consonant, such as /kob/ or /koʔ/ for Standard Japanese /kumo/ "spider"). A dialects group of Kansai is spoken and known by many Japanese, and Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy (See Kansai dialect). Dialects of Tōhoku and North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.
The Ryūkyūan languages, spoken in Okinawa and Amami Islands that are politically part of Kagoshima, are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family. But many Japanese common people tend to consider the Ryūkyūan languages as dialects of Japanese. Not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryūkyūan languages.
Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and increase of mobility networks within Japan, as well as economic integration.
All Japanese vowels are pure– that is, there are no diphthongs. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel /ɯ/ , which is like /u/, but compressed instead of rounded. Japanese has five vowels, and vowel length is phonemic, so each one has both a short and a long version.
Some Japanese consonants have several allophones, which may give the impression of a larger inventory of sounds. However, some of these allophones have since become phonemic. For example, in the Japanese language up to and including the first half of the twentieth century, the phonemic sequence /ti/ was palatalized and realized phonetically as [tɕi], approximately chi ; however, now /ti/ and /tɕi/ are distinct, as evidenced by words like tī [tiː] "Western style tea" and chii [tɕii] "social status."
The 'r' of the Japanese language (technically a lateral apical postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most English speakers to be something between an 'l' and a retroflex 'r' depending on its position in a word.
The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple: the only consonant clusters allowed within a syllable consist of one of a subset of the consonants plus /j/. These type of clusters only occur in onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are a nasal followed by a homo-organic consonant. Consonant length (gemination) is also phonemic.
The basic sentence structure is topic-comment. For example, (こちらは田中さんです). ("this") is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle -wa. The verb is , a copula, commonly translated as "to be" or "it is" (though there are other verbs that can be translated as "to be"). As a phrase, is the comment. This sentence loosely translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mr./Mrs./Miss Tanaka." Thus Japanese, like Chinese, Korean, and many other Asian languages, is often called a topic-prominent language, which means it has a strong tendency to indicate the topic separately from the subject, and the two do not always coincide. The sentence (象は鼻が長いです) literally means, "As for elephants, (their) noses are long". The topic is "elephant", and the subject is "nose".
Japanese is a pro-drop language, meaning that the subject or object of a sentence need not be stated if it is obvious from context. In addition, it is commonly felt, particularly in spoken Japanese, that the shorter a sentence is, the better. As a result of this grammatical permissiveness and tendency towards brevity, Japanese speakers tend naturally to omit words from sentences, rather than refer to them with pronouns. In the context of the above example, would mean "[their] noses are long," while by itself would mean "[they] are long." A single verb can be a complete sentence: "[I / we / they / etc] did [it]!". In addition, since adjectives can form the predicate in a Japanese sentence (below), a single adjective can be a complete sentence: "[I'm] jealous [of it]!".
While the language has some words that are typically translated as pronouns, these are not used as frequently as pronouns in some Indo-European languages, and function differently. Instead, Japanese typically relies on special verb forms and auxiliary verbs to indicate the direction of benefit of an action: "down" to indicate the out-group gives a benefit to the in-group; and "up" to indicate the in-group gives a benefit to the out-group. Here, the in-group includes the speaker and the out-group doesn't, and their boundary depends on context. For example, (literally, "explained" with a benefit from the out-group to the in-group) means "[he/she/they] explained it to [me/us]". Similarly, (literally, "explained" with a benefit from the in-group to the out-group) means "[I/we] explained [it] to [him/her/them]". Such beneficiary auxiliary verbs thus serve a function comparable to that of pronouns and prepositions in Indo-European languages to indicate the actor and the recipient of an action.
Japanese "pronouns" also function differently from most modern Indo-European pronouns (and more like nouns) in that they can take modifiers as any other noun may. For instance, one cannot say in English:
This is partly due to the fact that these words evolved from regular nouns, such as "you" (君 "lord"), "you" (あなた "that side, yonder"), and "I" (僕 "servant"). This is why some linguists do not classify Japanese "pronouns" as pronouns, but rather as referential nouns. Japanese personal pronouns are generally used only in situations requiring special emphasis as to who is doing what to whom.
The choice of words used as pronouns is correlated with the sex of the speaker and the social situation in which they are spoken: men and women alike in a formal situation generally refer to themselves as (私 "private") or (also 私), while men in rougher or intimate conversation are much more likely to use the word (俺 "oneself", "myself") or . Similarly, different words such as , , and (お前, more formally 御前 "the one before me") may be used to refer to a listener depending on the listener's relative social position and the degree of familiarity between the speaker and the listener. When used in different social relationships, the same word may have positive (intimate or respectful) or negative (distant or disrespectful) connotations.
Japanese often use titles of the person referred to where pronouns would be used in English. For example, when speaking to one's teacher, it is appropriate to use (先生, teacher), but inappropriate to use . This is because is used to refer to people of equal or lower status, and one's teacher has allegedly higher status.
For English speaking learners of Japanese, a frequent beginners mistake is to include or at the beginning of sentences as one would with I or you in English. Though these sentences are not grammatically incorrect, even in formal settings it would be considered unnatural and would equate in English to repeatedly using a noun where a pronoun would suffice.
Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: past and present, or non-past, which is used for the present and the future. For verbs that represent an ongoing process, the -te iru form indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others that represent a change of state, the form indicates a perfect tense. For example, means "He has come (and is still here)", but means "He is eating".
Questions (both with an interrogative pronoun and yes/no questions) have the same structure as affirmative sentences, but with intonation rising at the end. In the formal register, the question particle is added. For example, (いいです。) "It is OK" becomes (いいですか？) "Is it OK?". In a more informal tone sometimes the particle (の) is added instead to show a personal interest of the speaker: "Why aren't (you) coming?". Some simple queries are formed simply by mentioning the topic with an interrogative intonation to call for the hearer's attention: "(What about) this?"; (名前は？) "(What's your) name?".
Negatives are formed by inflecting the verb. For example, (パンを食べる。) "I will eat bread" or "I eat bread" becomes (パンを食べない。) "I will not eat bread" or "I do not eat bread".
The so-called verb form is used for a variety of purposes: either progressive or perfect aspect (see above); combining verbs in a temporal sequence ("I'll eat breakfast and leave at once"), simple commands, conditional statements and permissions ("May I go out?"), etc.
The word (plain), (polite) is the copula verb. It corresponds approximately to the English be, but often takes on other roles, including a marker for tense, when the verb is conjugated into its past form (plain), (polite). This comes into use because only adjectives and verbs can carry tense in Japanese. Two additional common verbs are used to indicate existence ("there is") or, in some contexts, property: (negative ) and (negative ), for inanimate and animate things, respectively. For example, "There's a cat", "[I] haven't got a good idea". Note that the negative forms of the verbs and are actually i-adjectives and inflect as such, e.g. "There was no cat".
The verb "to do" (polite form ) is often used to make verbs from nouns ("to cook", "to study", etc.) and has been productive in creating modern slang words. Japanese also has a huge number of compound verbs to express concepts that are described in English using a verb and a preposition (e.g. "to fly out, to flee," from "to fly, to jump" + "to put out, to emit").
Both and may predicate sentences. For example,
Both and form adverbs, by following with in the case of :
Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.
Most relationships are not equal in Japanese society. The differences in social position are 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 they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. See uchi-soto.
Whereas (丁寧語) (polite language) is commonly an inflectional system, (尊敬語) (respectful language) and (謙譲語) (humble language) often employ many special honorific and humble alternate verbs: "go" becomes in polite form, but is replaced by in honorific speech and or in humble speech.
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/her group. For example, the suffix ("Mr" "Mrs." or "Miss") is an example of honorific language. 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 honorific register to refer to the in-group superior and his or her 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 his or her 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. For this reason, the Japanese system for explicit indication of social register is known as a system of "relative honorifics." This stands in stark contrast to the Korean system of "absolute honorifics," in which the same register is used to refer to a particular individual (e.g. one's father, one's company president, etc.) in any context regardless of the relationship between the speaker and interlocutor. Thus, polite Korean speech can sound very presumptuous when translated verbatim into Japanese, as in Korean it is acceptable and normal to say things like "Our Mr. Company-President..." when communicating with a member of an out-group, which would be very inappropriate in a Japanese social context.
Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of or as a prefix. is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas 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 'cooked rice; meal.' Such a construction often indicates deference to either the item's owner or to the object itself. For example, the word 'friend,' would become 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 'water' as 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.
The original language of Japan, or at least the original language of a certain population that was ancestral to a significant portion of the historical and present Japanese nation, was the so-called (大和言葉 or infrequently 大和詞, i.e. "Yamato words"), which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as (和語 or rarely 倭語, i.e. the words"). In addition to words from this original language, present-day Japanese includes a great number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots following Chinese patterns. These words, known as (漢語), entered the language from the fifth century onwards via contact with Chinese culture. According to a Japanese dictionary Shinsen-kokugojiten (新選国語辞典), Chinese-based words comprise 49.1% of the total vocabulary, Wago is 33.8% and other foreign words are 8.8%.
Like Latin-derived words in English, words typically are perceived as somewhat formal or academic compared to equivalent Yamato words. Indeed, it is generally fair to say that an English word derived from Latin/French roots typically corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Yamato equivalent.
A much smaller number of words has been borrowed from Korean and Ainu. Japan has also borrowed a number of words from other languages, particularly ones of European extraction, which are called . This began with borrowings from Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by borrowing from Dutch during Japan's long isolation of the Edo period. With the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, borrowing occurred from German, French and English. Currently, words of English origin are the most commonly borrowed.
In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using Chinese roots and morphology to translate Western concepts. The Chinese and Koreans imported many of these pseudo-Chinese words into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their kanji in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, 政治 ("politics"), and 化学 ("chemistry") are words derived from Chinese roots that were 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 are shared among modern European languages, although many academic words formed from such roots were certainly coined by native speakers of other languages, such as English.
In the past few decades, (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as ワンパターン (< one + pattern, "to be in a rut", "to have a one-track mind") and スキンシップ (< skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in most non-Japanese contexts; exceptions exist in nearby languages such as Korean however, which often use words such as skinship and rimokon (remote control) in the same way as in Japanese.
Additionally, many native Japanese words have become commonplace in English, due to the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports. Words such as futon, haiku, judo, kamikaze, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw (from 人力車 ), samurai, sayonara, sumo, sushi, tsunami, tycoon and many others have become part of the English language. See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.
At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, during the seventh century CE, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose (comparable to Akkadian's retention of Sumerian cuneiform), but 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 in its own right. By this time, the Japanese language was already distinct from the Ryukyuan languages.
The Korean settlers and their descendants used Kudara-on or Baekje pronunciation (百済音), which was also called Tsushima-pronunciation (対馬音) or Go-on (呉音).
An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in 712 AD. They then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as , a syllabic script which used Chinese characters for their sounds in order to transcribe the words of Japanese speech syllable by syllable.
Over time, a writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters were also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana.
Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main systems: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet is also sometimes used. Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as 統一 ("unification").
Hiragana are 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 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 used in this way are called okurigana. Hiragana are also written in a superscript called furigana above or beside a kanji to show the proper reading. This is done to facilitate learning, as well as to clarify particularly old or obscure (or sometimes invented) readings.
Katakana, like hiragana, are a syllabary; katakana are primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis. For example "Australia" has been adapted as (オーストラリア), and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into (スーパー). The Latin alphabet (in Japanese referred to as Rōmaji (ローマ字), literally "Roman letters") is used for some loan words like "CD" and "DVD", and also for some Japanese creations like "Sony".
Historically, attempts to limit the number of kanji in use commenced in the mid-19th century, but did not become a matter of government intervention until after Japan's defeat in the Second World War. During the period of post-war occupation (and influenced by the views of some U.S. officials), various schemes including the complete abolition of kanji and exclusive use of rōmaji were considered. The ("common use kanji", originally called [kanji for general use]) scheme arose as a compromise solution.
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 ("education kanji", a subset of ), specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 939 characters in junior high school, covering in total 1,945 . The official list of was revised several times, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged.
As for kanji for personal names, the circumstances are somewhat complicated. and (an appendix of additional characters for names) are approved for registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of , criteria for inclusion were often arbitrary and led to many common and popular characters being disapproved for use. Under popular pressure and following a court decision holding the exclusion of common characters unlawful, the list of was substantially extended from 92 in 1951 (the year it was first decreed) to 983 in 2004. Furthermore, families whose names are not on these lists were permitted to continue using the older forms.
Many major universities throughout the world provide Japanese language courses, and a number of secondary and even primary schools worldwide offer courses in the language. International interest in the Japanese language dates from the 1800s but has become more prevalent following Japan's economic bubble of the 1980s and the global popularity of Japanese pop culture (such as anime and video games) since the 1990s. About 2.3 million people studied the language worldwide in 2003: 900,000 South Koreans, 389,000 Chinese, 381,000 Australians, and 140,000 Americans study Japanese in lower and higher educational institutions.
In Japan, more than 90,000 foreign students study at Japanese universities and Japanese language schools, including 77,000 Chinese and 15,000 South Koreans in 2003. In addition, local governments and some NPO groups provide free Japanese language classes for foreign residents, including Japanese Brazilians and foreigners married to Japanese nationals. In the United Kingdom, studies are supported by the British Association for Japanese Studies. In Ireland, Japanese is offered as a language in the Leaving Certificate in some schools.
The Japanese government provides standardised tests to measure spoken and written comprehension of Japanese for second language learners; the most prominent is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The Japanese External Trade Organisation JETRO organises the Business Japanese Proficiency Test which tests the learner's ability to understand Japanese in a business setting.
When learning Japanese in a college setting, students are usually first taught how to pronounce romaji. From that point, they are taught the two main syllabaries, with kanji usually being introduced in the second semester. Focus is usually first on polite (distal) speech, as students that might interact with native speakers would be expected to use. Casual speech and formal speech usually follow polite speech, as well as the usage of honorific.