The Japanese Language

The Japanese language is spoken by more than one hundred and thirty million people.  It belongs to the Japonic (Japanese-Ryukyuan) family of languages.  Although many people  assert that it has ties to various other languages, none of these assertions have ever been accepted unanimously.  The language of Japanese is agglutinative, meaning most words are formed by joining morphemes together.  The complex honorific system (keigo) distinguishes it from other languages.  It uses distinct vocabulary and verb forms that indicate a relative status that is held by the listener, the speaker, and whoever is mentioned in the conversations.

There is a fairly small inventory of sounds in the language, and the system of pitch-accents is lexically significant. The written language uses three scripts.  These are the kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (for Japanese words), and the katakana (for foreign “loan” words), which are syllable scripts that use modified Chinese characters.  Romaji (Latin alphabet) also gets frequent use in modern usage of Japanese for things like logos, entering text into computers, advertising, and company names.

There are dozens of different dialects that are spoken within Japan.  Many factors contributed to the proliferation of dialects.  These include the time that people have lived on the mountainous archipelago and the lengthy history of isolation.  It is typical for Japanese dialects to have different inflectional morphologies, pitch accents, particle usages, and vocabularies.  Some dialects also differ in consonant and vowel inventories, but not many.  The two main groups of Japanese accents are Tōkyō-shiki (Tokyo-type and Keihan-shiki (Kyoto-Osaka-type).  Kyūshū-type is a third group of dialects that is much smaller.  Several subdivisions exist within each type.

Interestingly, speakers throughout most of Japan may not be able to understand speakers who use dialects that are spoken on the country’s periphery.   Several dialects are spoken in Kagoshima and are well-known to be unintelligible to speakers even in the local Kyūshū area.  The main reason for the difficulty is because of the peculiar pronunciations that the dialect uses.  It also uses closed syllables or words that end with consonants.  The recent prevalence of mass media, standardized education, economic integration, and increased mobility networks have contributed to the standard Japanese dialect enjoying nationwide usage.  Japanese is a complex language, so much so that is often a source of pride for the Japanese.