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Japanese Language

Kanji, Kana & Pronunciation

Romaji nihongo
Kanji 日本語
Kana にほんご
Audio Coming Soon
(n) Japanese language

Japanese language (日本語) is spoken by over 130 million people, mainly in Japan[1] It is a member of the Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan family, but its relationship with other languages is as yet undetermined.[2] Japanese is agglutinative, which means that information such as negation, passive voice, tense, and honorific degree are added to the verb form.[3] It has a relatively few sounds, and is distinguished by a complex system of politeness and honorifics reflecting the nature of Japanese society.

Japanese is written with a combination of three scripts: Chinese characters called kanji (漢字), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana and katakana. In addition, the Latin alphabet, rōmaji, is also frequently used in modern Japanese as well as to represent Japanese in many foreign languages. Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers.



The ancestor of Japanese is thought to have been taken to Japan by settlers from the mainland and/or from nearby Pacific islands sometime in the early- to mid-2nd century BCE, replacing the language(s) of the original Jōmon inhabitants,[4] including the ancestor of the modern Ainu language. Very little is known about language and people of this period because writing had yet to be introduced.

Old Japanese

Old Japanese is the first written form of Japanese. The earliest text (the Kojiki) dates to the early 8th century CE. The end of Old Japanese coincides with the end of the Nara period in 794. Old Japanese uses the Man'yōgana system of writing, which uses Chinese characters for both sound and meaning. Based on the Man'yōgana system, Old Japanese is thought to have had 88 distinct syllables; texts written with Man'yōgana use two different kanji for each of the syllables now pronounced き ki, ひ hi, み mi, け ke, へ he, め me, こ ko, そ so, と to, の no, も mo, よ yo and ろ ro.[5] This set of syllables shrinks to 67 in Early Middle Japanese.

Due to these extra syllables, it has been hypothesized that Old Japanese had as many as eight vowels, as opposed to the five in modern Japanese.[6] The vowel system would shrank some time between this period and the invention of the kana in the early 9th century CE.

Early Middle Japanese

Early Middle Japanese is the Japanese of the Heian period, from 794 to 1185, and shows a significant Chinese influence.

Late Middle Japanese

Late Middle Japanese covers the years from the end of the Heian to the start of the Edo period, and is normally divided into two sections, roughly equivalent to the Kamakura period and the Muromachi period, respectively. The later forms of Late Middle Japanese are the first to be described by non-native sources, in this case the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. Some forms more familiar to Modern Japanese speakers begin to appear. Late Middle Japanese has the first loanwords from European languages, such as pan (bread) and tabako ("tobacco", "cigarette"), both from Portuguese.

Modern Japanese

Modern Japanese is considered to have begun in the Edo period, and Edo dialect became Standard Japanese. Several Old Japanese grammatical elements remain in the modern language.

Japanese is now spoken mainly in Japan, but before and during World War II, when Imperial Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands, people in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programs. As a result, many elderly people in these countries can speak Japanese in addition to their local language.

Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazi,[7] sometimes speak Japanese as their primary language. Many residents of Hawaii speak Japanese, with an estimated 12.6% of the population of Japanese ancestry in 2008. Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia, Canada, the United States, and the Philippines. However, their descendants, known as nikkei (日系) often do not speak Japanese fluently.

Standard Japanese has become prevalent throughout modern Japan due to education, mass media, and increased mobility, but dozens of dialects are still spoken. The main distinction is between Tokyo-type and Kyoto-Osaka-type, though Kyūshū-type dialects form a smaller group. Within each type are several subdivisions. Many dialects are mutually unintelligible, but those of the Kansai region are spoken or understood by many Japanese.


Basic sounds of Japanese
k s t n h m y r w
a a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa
i i ki shi chi ni hi mi ri wi
u u ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru
e e ke se te ne he me re we
o o ko so to no ho mo yo ro wo
n n

Japanese has five vowels, a, i, u, e, and o, each having both a short and a long version. There are also 39 consonant-vowel combinations (always starting with a consonant and ending with a vowel); one consonant-vowel union that is pronounced as a vowel and used as a particle (を o); and one stand-alone consonant (ん n). In addition there are two consonant-vowel unions that are pronounced as vowels and are obsolete in modern Japanese, wi and we. These basic sounds, which are represented by hiragana or katakana syllables, can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten or tenten ( ゛), a voiceless consonant is turned into a voiced consonant: k→g, s→z, t→d, and h→b. Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker ( ゜) changing the h to a p. A small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo may be added to hiragana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide to a, u or o (for example chi plus a small a becomes cha). A small tsu っ indicates that the following consonant is doubled. Na, ni, nu, ne, no syllables' consonants are doubled using the singular n (ん).


Sentence structure

Japanese word order is classified as Subject Object Verb (SOV). However, the only strict rule is that the verb must be placed at the end of the sentence; other elements in the sentence may be in various orders or even omitted.[8] This is because the sentence elements are marked with particles that identify their grammatical functions.

The subject or object of a sentence need not be stated if it is obvious from context; Japanese speakers tend to omit pronouns if they can be inferred from the context or previous sentence. A single verb can be a complete sentence: Yatta! (やった!) "[I / we / they / etc] did [it]!". A single adjective can also be a complete sentence: Urayamashii! (羨ましい!) "[I'm] jealous [of it]!".

When used, the choice pronoun is correlated with the sex of the speaker and the social situation, among other things: both men and women in a formal situation generally refer to themselves as watakushi or watashi (私), while men in casual or intimate conversation are much more likely to use ore (俺) or boku (僕). Similarly, different words such as anata, kimi, and omae may be used to refer to a listener depending on the listener's relative social position and the degree of familiarity between speaker and 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.

Japanese relies on special verb forms and auxiliary verbs to indicate the direction of benefit of an action: "down" to indicate that the out-group gives a benefit to the in-group; and "up" to indicate the in-group gives a benefit to the out-group. The boundaries of in- and out-groups depend on context.

Nouns, verbs and adjectives

Japanese nouns have no grammatical number or gender, thus the noun hon may refer to a single book or to several books. Where number is important, it can be indicated by providing a quantity (often with a counter word) or, less commonly, by adding a suffix. Verbs are conjugated for tense, of which there are two: past and non-past, the latter used for both the present and the future. Verbs are also conjugated ("inflected") for negatives (I will not eat: tabemasen) and for mood (speculative, presumptive, and so on). The verb "to do" suru, is often used to transform nouns into verbs (benkyō suru, "to study", etc).

There are three types of adjectives: i adjectives, which have a conjugating ending i; na adjectives, which are followed by na; and true adjectives, such as ano "that." Adjectives are conjugated for tense and negative/positive inflection.


The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by particles. These include ni, which marks direction or time; no, which connects related nouns or indicates the possessive; and wo, which marks the direct object.

Questions (both with an interrogative pronoun and yes/no questions) have the same structure as affirmative sentences, but with rising intonation. Formally, the question particle -ka is added. In a more informal tone sometimes the particle -no is added instead.

Politeness and honorifics

Japanese has an extensive and complicated grammatical system to express politeness and formality. Differences in social position are determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or background. The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the person in the higher position is entitled to use a less polite form. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they reach their teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. New job recruits are often given special training in honorific language. In short, the register used in Japanese to refer to the person, speech, or actions of any particular individual varies depending on the relationship (in-group or out-group) between the speaker and listener, as well as on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents.

There are three types of honorific speech in Japanese: "polite language" (丁寧語, teineigo), "respectful language" (尊敬語, sonkeigo), and "humble language" (謙譲語, kenjōgo). Strangers generally use polite language, which is characterized by use of the masu form and is the most common form of daily speech in public situations (that is, with persons other than one's close friends and family), but can be made extra polite with the addition of honorific prefixes like o- and go-. The difference between honorific and humble speech, however, is particularly pronounced.

Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own in-group (company, family). Humble forms lower the speaker's position with respect to the listener's. Respectful language is used when describing the listener and their group. Respectful forms elevate the listener's position vis-a-vis the speaker's.

For example, the -san suffix ("Mr", "Master," "Mrs." or "Miss") is an honorific. It is not used to refer to oneself or when talking about someone from one's family or company to an external person. When speaking directly to one's superior in one's company or when speaking with other employees within one's company about a superior, honorific vocabulary and inflections are used. When speaking to a person from another company (i.e., a member of an out-group), however, a the plain or the humble register are used to refer to the speech and actions of in-group superiors.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but as a relationship becomes more intimate, they switch to more casual forms. Excessive politeness among people in close relationships may be used to indicate distance or anger.


The language of the ancient Yamato people has supplied many words to the Japanese language. Besides this, modern Japanese includes a large number of Sino-Japanese words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots from the 5th century onwards via contact with China. These comprise some 49% of the total modern vocabulary, whilst indigenous Japanese words make up about 34%, and other foreign words (mostly from English) and hybridized words form most of the remainder[9] A small number of words came into Japanese in ancient times from Ainu language. Words of different origins occupy different registers in Japanese. Like Latin-derived words in English, Chinese-derived words are typically perceived as somewhat formal or academic compared to equivalent indigenous words. Japanese is also known for its rich sound symbolism, both onomatopoeia for physical sounds (like "splash"), and sound-based terms for more abstract ideas.

In recent decades, wasei-eigo ("made-in-Japan English") has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpatān (one + pattern: "to be in a rut" or "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu (skin + -ship: "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are unintelligible in non-Japanese contexts. Conversely, the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports has made some native Japanese words and Japanese-derived words familiar to English speakers, including geisha, manga, anime, kimono, futon, haiku, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw, samurai, sumo, sushi, and tsunami.

Writing system

Literacy was introduced to Japan in the form of the Chinese writing system around the 5th century.[10] Japanese emperors gave an official rank to Chinese scholars[11] and spread the use of Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese. During the 7th century CE the history of Japanese as a written language begins in its own right, and over time the modern writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write words borrowed from Chinese or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Kanji were also simplified and eventually became the two syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana.[12] However this hypothesis "Manyogana from Baekje" is denied by other scholars. Modern Japanese is mostly written in a mixture of kanji, hiragana and katakana.


Hiragana are used to write Japanese words for which there are no kanji, for words no longer written in kanji, and also for grammatical elements (okurigana). Hiragana can also be written in a superscript called furigana or ruby characters above or beside a kanji to show the reading. This is done to facilitate learning, as well as to clarify obscure (or sometimes invented) readings. Katakana are primarily used to write foreign words, scientific names, and for emphasis. Rōmaji is primarily used for non-Chinese loan words.

Hiragana (left) and katakana (right)
k s t n h m y r w
a あ ア か カ さ サ た タ な ナ は ハ ま マ や ヤ ら ラ わ ワ
i い イ き キ し シ ち チ に ニ ひ ヒ み ミ り リ ゐ ヰ
u う ウ く ク す ス つ ツ ぬ ヌ ふ フ む ム ゆ ユ る ル
e え エ け ケ せ セ て テ ね ネ へ ヘ め メ れ レ ゑ ヱ
o お オ こ コ そ ソ と ト の ノ ほ ホ も モ よ ヨ ろ ロ を ヲ
n ん ン


Kamon of the Kyoto hanamichi with the kanji 甲 kan, meaning highest in rank.

Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese. Many are the same as or substantially similar to traditional (that is, not simplified) Chinese characters, but many are used with different meanings, and there is also a small number of made-in-Japan Chinese characters. The pronunciation of a Chinese character is called its "reading" (yomi). There are three types of readings: the on reading, which is derived from Classical Chinese; the kun reading, which is the indigenous Japanese pronunciation; and the nanori, which is the way the character is read when used in names. Nearly all kanji have at least one on and one kun reading, but unlike in Chinese, where within a given dialect single characters normally have a single pronunciation, some common kanji have ten or more possible readings, while a few have forty or more.

Japanese children begin learning kanji from their first year in elementary school and are expected to be able to read and write from memory 1,006 characters by the end of the sixth grade. A further 1136 kanji are studied in junior high and high school, for a total of 2136 kanji, known as the jōyō or daily-use kanji, which are required for basic literacy. An additional set of 983 kanji, known as the jinmeiyō (name-use) kanji, are approved by the government for registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration, however families whose names include old kanji not on the approved list are permitted to continue using those forms. While knowledge of at least the jōyō should enable one to understand most written materials, a great many more non-standard kanji (such as old or variant forms, or kanji with unusual readings) are in use in various contexts. Their readings are sometimes, but not always, given with furigana. The kanji kentei, a standardized test of kanji ability, has twelve levels, the highest of which tests the ability to read and write approximately 6000 kanji, with their on readings and kun readings.

Japanese as a foreign language

Many major universities throughout the world offer Japanese language courses, and secondary and even some primary schools worldwide offer courses in the language. An estimated 2.3 million people studied Japanese as a foreign language worldwide in 2003, and more than 90,000 foreign students studied at Japanese universities and language schools.

The Japanese government provides standardized tests to measure proficiency in Japanese for foreign learners; the most prominent is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which features 5 levels ranging from elementary to advanced.

Common words and phrases

Good morning
Hello, good day
Good evening
Good night
Good bye
さようなら (literally, "if it must be so"; used for long or permanent goodbyes)
Thank you
ありがとう、ありがとうございます、おおきに (Kyoto dialect)
Japanese person

See also


  1. [url=http://web.mit.edu/jpnet/articles/JapaneseLanguage.html]
  2. Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 94.
  3. An example is the word hatarakaseraretara (働かせられたら), which combines causative, passive or potential, and conditional conjugations to arrive at two meanings depending on context: (1) "if (subject) had been made to work," and (2) "if (subject) could make (object) work." Another is tabetakunakatta (食べたくなかった), which combines desire, negation, and past tense conjugations to mean "(subject) did not want to eat."
  4. [1] Finding on Dialects Casts New Light on the Origins of the Japanese
  5. Shinkichi Hashimoto (1917)「国語仮名遣研究史上の一発見―石塚龍麿の仮名遣奥山路について」『帝国文学』26-11(1949『文字及び仮名遣の研究(橋本進吉博士著作集 第3冊)』(岩波書店)。
  6. 大野 晋 (1953)『上代仮名遣の研究』(岩波書店)p.126
  7. IBGE traça perfil dos imigrantes
  8. [2]
  9. 新選国語辞典, 金田一京助, 小学館, 2001, ISBN 4-09-501407-5
  10. "Korean Buddhism Basis of Japanese Buddhism," Seoul Times, June 18, 2006; "Buddhist Art of Korea & Japan," Asia Society Museum; "Kanji," JapanGuide.com; "Pottery," MSN Encarta; "History of Japan," JapanVisitor.com. Archived 2009-10-31.
  11. Nihon shoki Chapter 30
  12. [3] John R. BENTLEY, "The origin of Manyogana", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2001), 64: 59-73, Cambridge University Press.

External links