|Nihongo (Japanese) in Japanese script:
||Japan, Brazil, United States Japanesse Language (esp. Hawaii), Palau, Taiwan.
||130 million 
|Language Japanees Language family:
||Japanese logographs and syllabaries
|Official language of:
De facto in Japan
Japanese government plays Japanse Language major role
|Language Japannese Language codes
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Japaese Language Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.
Japanese (日本語, Nihongo ) is a language spoken by over 130 million people, mainly in Japanesee Language Japan, but also by Japnaese Language Japanese emigrant communities around the world. It is an agglutinative language and is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the Jpanese Language hierarchical nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of speaker, listener and the person mentioned in conversation. The sound inventory of Japanese is relatively small, and has a lexically distinct pitch-accent system. Early Japanese is known largely on the basis of its state in the 8th century, when the three major works of Old Japanese were compiled, but smaller amounts of material, primarily inscriptional, is of earlier date. The earliest attestation of Japanese is in a Chinese document from 252 C.E.
The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of glyphs: Chinese characters, kanji, and two syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet, rōmaji, is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when inputting Japanese into a computer. Western style Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numeral are also commonplace.
Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by loans 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 Holland in the 17th century, Dutch has also been influential, with words like bīru (from bier; "beer") and kōhī (from koffie; "coffee") being of Dutch origin.
- 1 Classification
- 2 Geographic distribution
- 2.1 Official status
- 2.2 Dialects
- 3 Sounds
- 4 Grammar
- 4.1 Sentence structure
- 4.2 Inflection and conjugation
- 4.3 Politeness
- 5 Vocabulary
- 6 Writing system
- 7 Learning Japanese
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 See also
- 10 External links
Historical linguists who specialize in Japanese agree that it is one of the two members of the Japonic language family, the other member being Ryūkyūan. (An older view, still held by many non-specialists, is that Japanese is a language isolate, of which the Ryūkyūan languages are dialects.)
The genetic affiliation of the Japonic family is uncertain. Numerous theories have been proposed, relating it to a wide variety of other languages and families, including extinct languages spoken by historic cultures of the Korean peninsula; the Korean language; the Altaic languages; and the Austronesian languages, among many others. It is also often suggested that it may be a creole language combining more than one of these. The various theories are detailed in the main article. At this point, no one theory is generally accepted as correct, and the issue is likely to remain controversial.
Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and is still sometimes spoken elsewhere. When Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of the Chinese mainland, and various Pacific islands during and before World War II, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programs. As a result, there are still many people in these countries who speak Japanese instead of, or in addition to, the local languages. Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil) frequently employ Japanese as their primary language. Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne), and the United States (notably California and Hawaii). There is also a small emigrant community in Davao, Philippines. Their descendants (known as nikkei 日系, literally Japanese descendants), however, rarely speak Japanese fluently. There are estimated to be several million non-Japanese studying the language as well; many schools, both primary and secondary, offer courses.
Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan, which is the only country to have Japanese as an official working language. There are two forms of the language considered standard: hyōjungo (標準語?) or standard Japanese, and kyōtsūgo (共通語?) or the common language spoken by the people in casual situations (ie, colloquial). As government policy has modernized Japanese, many of the distinctions between the two have blurred. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.
Standard Japanese can also be divided into bungo (文語?) or "literary language," and kōgo (口語?) or "oral language", which have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo was the main method of writing Japanese until the late 1940s, and still has relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Kōgo is the predominant method of speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo 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 dialects is between Tokyo-type (東京式 Tōkyō-shiki?) and Western-type (京阪式 Keihan-shiki?), though Kyūshū-type dialects form a smaller third group. Within each type are several subdivisions. The Western-type dialects are actually in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also Western-type. Dialects further west are actually of the Tokyo type. The final category of dialects are those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijojima, Tosa, and very few other locations.
Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Tsushima, may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects used in 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, 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"). The vocabulary of Kagoshima dialect is 84% cognate with standard Tokyo dialect. Kansai-ben, a group of dialects from west-central Japan, is spoken by many Japanese; the Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy.
The Ryūkyūan languages, while closely related to Japanese, are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family, and are not dialects of Japanese. They are spoken in the Ryūkyū Islands and in some islands that are politically part of Kagoshima Prefecture. 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 portions of the Ryūkyūan islands like Okinawa) due not only to television and radio, but also to increased mobility within Japan due to its system of roads, railways, and airports. Young people usually speak their local dialect and the standard language, though in most cases, the local dialect is influenced by the standard, and regional versions of "standard" Japanese have local-dialect influence.
Japanese vowels are "pure" sounds, similar to their Spanish, Greek or Italian counterparts. 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 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 paatii [paatii] "party" and chi [tɕi] "ground."
The r of the Japanese language (technically a lateral apical postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most Europeans' ears 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/. This type of clusters only occurs in onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are a nasal followed a homo-organic consonant. The consonant length (geminates) is also phonemic.
The basic Japanese word order is Subject Object Verb. Subject, Object, and other grammatical relations are usually marked by particles, which are suffixed to the words that they modify, and are thus properly called postpositions.
The basic sentence structure is topic-comment. For example, Kochira-wa Tanaka-san desu. Kochira ("this") is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle -wa. The verb is desu, a copula, commonly translated as "to be" (though there are other verbs that can be translated as "to be"). As a phrase, Tanaka-san desu is the comment. This sentence loosely translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mr./Mrs./Ms. 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 Zō-wa hana-ga nagai (desu) literally means, "As for elephants, (their) noses are long". The topic is zō "elephant", and the subject is hana "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 that the shorter a Japanese sentence is, the better (a quality called "iki" in Japanese). 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, hana-ga nagai would mean "[their] noses are long," while nagai by itself would mean "[they] are long." A single verb can be a complete sentence: Yatta! "[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: Urayamashii! "[I'm] jealous [of it]!".
While the language has some words that are 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 an action: "down" to the speaker or persons related to the speaker, or "up" to the listener or other person. For example, setsumei shite moratta (literally, "[I/we] obtained explaining") means "[he/she] explained it to [me/us]". Similarly, oshiete ageta (literally, "teach-handed up") is commonly used to mean "[I/we] told [him/her]". Such "directional" 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:
- *The big he ran down the street. (ungrammatical)
But one can grammatically say essentially the same thing in Japanese:
- Ōkii kare-wa michi-o hashitte itta. (grammatically correct)
This is partly due to the fact that these words evolved from regular nouns, such as kimi "you" (君 "lord"), anata "you" (貴方 "that side, yonder" or 貴女 "that woman"), and boku "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 watashi (私 "private") or watakushi (also 私), while men in rougher or intimate conversation are much more likely to use the word ore (俺 "we", "myself") or boku. Similarly, different words such as anata, kimi, and omae (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 sensei (先生, teacher), but inappropriate to use anata. This is because anata is used to refer to people of equal or lower status, and one's teacher has higher status.
It is very common for English speakers to include watashi-wa or anata-wa at the beginning of every Japanese sentence. Though these sentences are grammatically correct, they sound terribly strange even in very formal situations. It is roughly the equivalent of using a noun over and over in English, when a pronoun would suffice: "John is coming over, so make sure you fix John a sandwich, because John loves sandwiches. I hope John likes the dress I'm wearing..."
Inflection and conjugation
Japanese has no grammatical number or gender. The noun hon (本) may refer to a single book or several books; hito (人) can mean "person" or "people"; and ki (木) can be "tree" or "trees". Where number is important, it can be indicated by providing a quantity (often with a counter word) or (rarely) by adding a suffix. Words for people are usually understood as singular. Thus Tanaka-san usually means Mr./Ms. Tanaka. Words that refer to people and animals can be made to indicate a group of individuals through the addition of a collective suffix (a noun suffix that indicates a group), such as -tachi, but this is not a true plural: the meaning is closer to the English phrase "and company". A group described as Tanaka-san-tachi may include people not named Tanaka. Some Japanese nouns are effectively plural, such as hitobito "people" and wareware "we/us", but these are sporadic and irregular.
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 -te iru form indicates a perfect tense. For example, kite iru means "He has come (and is still here)", but tabete iru 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 -ka is added. For example, Ii desu "It is OK" becomes Ii desu-ka "Is it OK?". In a more informal tone sometimes the particle -no is added instead to show a personal interest of the speaker: Dōshite konai-no? "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: Kore-wa? "(What about) this?"; Namae-wa? "(What's your) name?".
Negatives are formed by inflecting the verb. For example, Pan-o taberu "I will eat bread" or "I eat bread" becomes Pan-o tabenai "I will not eat bread" or "I do not eat bread".
The so-called -te verb form is used for a variety of purposes: either progressive or perfect aspect (see above); combining verbs in a temporal sequence (Asagohan-o tabete sugu dekakeru "I'll eat breakfast and leave at once"), simple commands, conditional statements and permissions (Dekakete-mo ii? "May I go out?"), etc.
The word da (plain), desu (polite) is the copula verb. It corresponds approximately to the English be, but often takes on other roles. Two additional common verbs are used to indicate existence ("there is") or, in some contexts, property: aru (negative nai) and iru (negative inai), for inanimate and animate things, respectively. For example, Neko ga iru "There's a cat", Ii kangae-ga nai "[I] haven't got a good idea".
The verb "to do" (suru, polite form shimasu) is often used to make verbs from nouns (ryōri suru "to cook", benkyō suru "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. tobidasu "to fly out, to flee," from tobu "to fly, to jump" + dasu "to put out, to emit").
There are three types of adjective (see also Japanese adjectives):
- keiyōshi, or i adjectives, which have a conjugating ending i (such as atsui, "to be hot") which can become past (atsukatta - "it was hot"), or negative (atsuku nai - "it is not hot"). Note that nai is also an i adjective, which can become past (atsuku nakatta - it was not hot).
- atsui hi "a hot day".
- keiyōdōshi, or na adjectives, which are followed by a form of the copula, usually na. For example hen (strange)
- hen na hito "a strange person".
- rentaishi, also called true adjectives, such as onaji "the same"
- onaji hi "the same day".
Both keiyōshi and keiyōdōshi may predicate sentences. For example,
- Gohan-ga atsui. "The rice is hot."
- Kare-wa hen da. "He's strange."
Both inflect, though they do not show the full range of conjugation found in true verbs. The rentaishi in Modern Japanese are few in number, and unlike the other words, are limited to directly modifying nouns. They never predicate sentences. Examples include ookina "big" and onaji "the same" (although there is also a noun onaji that can be followed by da, as in onaji da).
Both keiyōdōshi and keiyōshi form adverbs, by following with ni in the case of keiyōdōshi:
- hen ni naru "become strange",
and by changing i to ku in the case of keiyōshi:
- atsuku naru "become hot".
The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions, also called particles. These include for example:
- ga for the nominative case. Not necessarily a subject.
- Kare ga yatta. "He did it."
- Tanaka-san ni kiite kudasai "Please ask Mr. Tanaka."
- no for the genitive case, or nominalizing phrases.
- watashi no kamera "my camera"
- Sukī-ni iku no ga suki desu "(I) like going skiing."
- o for the accusative case. Not necessarily an object.
- Nani o tabemasu ka? "What will (you) eat?"
- wa for the topic. It can co-exist with case markers above except no, and it overrides ga and o.
- Watashi wa tai-ryōri ga ii desu. "As for me, Thai food is good." The nominative marker ga after watashi is hidden under wa. (Note that English generally makes no distinction between sentence topic and subject.)
Note: The difference between wa and ga goes beyond the English distinction between sentence topic and subject. While wa indicates the topic, which the rest of the sentence describes or acts upon, it carries the implication that the subject indicated by wa is not unique, or may be part of a larger group.
- Ikeda-san wa yonjū-ni sai da. "As for Mr. Ikeda, he is forty-two years old." Others in the group may also be of that age.
Absence of wa often means the subject is the focus of the sentence.
- Ikeda-san ga yonjū-ni sai da. "It is Mr. Ikeda who is forty-two years old." This is a reply to an implicit or explicit question who in this group is forty-two years old.
Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.
Broadly speaking, there are three main politeness levels in spoken Japanese: the plain form (futsūgo 普通語), the simple polite form (teineigo 丁寧語) and the advanced polite form (keigo 敬語).
Since most relationships are not equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is 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
The plain form in Japanese is recognized by the shorter, dictionary form of verbs, and the da form of the copula. At the teinei level, verbs end with the helping verb -masu, and the copula desu is used. The advanced polite form, keigo, actually consists of two kinds of politeness: honorific language (sonkeigo 尊敬語) and humble (kenjōgo 謙譲語) language. Whereas teineigo is an inflectional system, keigo often employs many special honorific and humble verb forms: iku "to go" becomes ikimasu in polite form, but is replaced by mairimasu in humble speech and irasshaimasu in honorific 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 -san suffix ("Mr" or "Ms") 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 o- or go- as a prefix. o- is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas go- 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 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 female speaker may sometimes refer to mizu 'water' as o-mizu merely to show politeness; this contrasts with the more abrupt speech of rude men (though men may also use very polite forms when speaking to superiors). See Gender differences in spoken Japanese.
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.
Many researchers report
that since the 1990s, the use of polite forms has become rarer. Needless to say, many older people disapprove of this trend. Young people usually receive extensive training in the "proper" use of polite language when they start to work for a company.
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 yamato kotoba (大和言葉 or 大和詞, i.e. "Yamato words"）, which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wa-go (倭語 or 和語, i.e. the "Wa language"). 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 kango, entered the language from the fifth century onwards via contact with Chinese culture, both directly and through the Korean peninsula. According to some estimates, Chinese-based words comprise as much as seventy percent of the total vocabulary of the modern Japanese language and form as much as thirty to forty percent of words used in speech.
Like Latin-derived words in English, kango 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 gairaigo. 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 characters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, 政治 seiji ("politics"), and 化学 kagaku ("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, wasei-eigo (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpataan (< one + pattern, "to be in a rut", "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu (< skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in a non-Japanese context. A small number of such words have been borrowed back into English.
Additionally, many native Japanese words have become commonplace in English, due to the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports. Words such as sushi, judo, karate, sumo, karaoke, origami, tsunami, samurai, haiku, ninja, sayonara, rickshaw (from 人力車 jinrikisha), futon, and many others have become part of the English language. See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.
Before the 5th century, the Japanese had no writing system of their own. They began to adopt the Chinese writing script along with many other aspects of Chinese culture after their introduction by Korean monks and scholars during the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, this latter principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose; however, some Japanese words were written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. 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 man'yōgana, 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 characters when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as 統一 tōitsu ("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 Ōsutoraria, and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into sūpā. Rōmaji (ローマ字), literally "Roman letters," is the Japanese term for the Latin alphabet. Rōmaji are used for some loan words like "CD", "DVD", etc., and also for some Japanese creations like "Sony."
Japanese students begin to learn kanji characters from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of kyōiku kanji, 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 jōyō kanji ("common use kanji") characters, which is generally considered sufficient for everyday life, although many kanji used in everyday life are not included in the list. An appendix of 290 additional characters for names was decreed in 1951. Various semi-official bodies were set up to monitor and enforce restrictions on the use of kanji in the press, publishing, in television broadcasts, etc. Thereafter, the official list of kyōiku kanji was repeatedly revised, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged.
A different list of officially approved kanji is used for purposes of registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of kyōiku kanji, 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 "approved" characters was substantially extended. Furthermore, families whose names are not on these lists were permitted to continue using the older forms.
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 kyōiku kanji scheme arose as a compromise solution.
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 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.
The Japanese government provides standardized 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 Organization JETRO organizes the Business Japanese Proficiency Test which tests the learner's ability to understand Japanese in a business setting. See also British Association for Japanese Studies.
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- Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). Japanese. In B. Comrie (Ed.), The major languages of east and south-east Asia. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04739-0.
- Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36070-6 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-36918-5 (pbk).
- Shibamoto, Janet S. (1985). Japanese women's language. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-640030-X. Graduate Level
- Tsujimura, Natsuko. (1996). An introduction to Japanese linguistics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-19855-5 (hbk); ISBN 0-631-19856-3 (pbk). Upper Level Textbooks
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Wikibooks has more about this subject:
- Romanization of Japanese
- Common phrases in Japanese
- Ryūkyūan languages
- Japanese culture
- Japanese dialects
- Japanese language and computers
- Japanese literature
- Japanese name
- The lists of Japanese words and words in other languages that have been derived from Japanese at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project
- Swadesh list of Japanese words
- Japanese dictionaries
Japanese language edition of Wiktionary, the free dictionary/thesaurus
Japanese language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Ethnologue report for language code JPN
- Jim Breen's dictionary and translation server
- Video lectures from York University
- Kana Copybook (PDF)
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