All You Need to Know About Japan’s Weirdest Dialect, Tohoku-ben

Learning Japanese is pretty tough on its own, but what lots of people don’t know is that there are a ton of different Japanese dialects, depending what part of the country you’re in. The way people talk in the northern part of Japan can be totally different than the way people sound in the south, which might be really confusing for people learning Japanese.

Thankfully we have a guest post from our friend Ken Cannon, who runs the site Japanese Through Anime. He’s here to teach us about the most difficult dialect in Japanese. Are you up for the challenge?

What’s a dialect?

A dialect is a version of a language that can have different accents, grammar, or sometimes even vocabulary. Japan has dozens of dialects! Some varying only a wee bit, and some others varying a lot. But most of the time, a dialect isn’t so different that native speakers can’t understand.

The 3 most notable Japanese dialects are:

1) Standard Japanese: Spoken in Tokyo, on TV, in anime, etc.. This is basically the official language of Japan, the one you all know and love. It’s also called Hyojungo.

2) Kansai Dialect: Spoken in the Western part of Japan, around Osaka. This type of Japanese is often associated with the weird combination of comedians and yakuza.

3) Tohoku Dialect: Usually associated with farmers and country folk. Cool, right?

What’s Tohoku-ben?

Tohoku-ben is a Japanese dialect that’s interesting because it’s known as the hardest dialect to understand. In fact, Tohoku-ben is so different from standard Japanese that even native Japanese speakers often can’t understand it and need subtitles whenever people speaking this dialect appear on TV or in movies.

Here’s an example of pronunciation in Tohoku-ben:

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAUHzjgI6Dg']

Tohoku-ben is spoken in the Tohoku region of Japan, which extends from slightly east of Tokyo all the way up to Hokkaido. And to get you really motivated, there isn’t just one Tohoku-ben, but about a dozen different versions of it spoken throughout the region.

Today we are going to be focusing on Tsugaru-ben in particular, which is spoken in Aomori, the northern most part of Tohoku. Tsugaru-ben is arguably the furthest sounding dialect from standard Japanese.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2fnAgnbp7c']

The Stereotype

One of the reasons Tohoku-ben is so hard for most people to grasp is that unlike Kansai-ben, most Tohoku-ben speakers hide their accents when speaking to anyone outside of Tohoku. Therefore it’s hard to get any practice with native Tohoku-ben speakers.

A big reason Tohoku-ben speakers are so shy is the negative nickname “zuu zuu ben” I mentioned in the video. Tohoku-ben is sometimes called “zuu zuu ben” because speakers avoid opening their mouths too much when speaking and in effect causes their speech to sound very slurred and lazy, kind of like they were saying “zuu zuu muu nuuu buu” instead of words.

This nickname brings a big, negative stereotype to Tohoku speakers with other Japanese. Tohoku speakers are seen as  lazy country bumpkins. Most speakers of this dialect don’t like to be seen speaking it outside of their hometowns, especially the younger crowds.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uiVZdEIscA']

This vending machine in Japan has a Tohoku-ben setting!

And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that Japan is currently trying to blotch out most dialects and create a single standard Japanese language by forcing all printed material and media to be in Hyojungo. This kind of goes hand in hand with Japan’s need for conformity or, if you don’t want to be a jerk about it, unity. But all the same, it is quite a shame.

Tsugaru-Ben Vocab

Now getting into some vocab I promised you in the video, we’ll start with my favorite Tsugaru-ben vocab:

1)  まいね – (maine) – bad

Maine is the Tohoku version of the standard Japanese dame or ikenai, which mean “bad.”

Let’s try an example sentence!

Tsugaru: Geimusho sa iganeba maine jya
Standard Japanese:
Geimusho ni ikenakucha ikenai
English:
I gotta go to prison/ If I don’t go prison it’ll be bad

You’ll notice in this sentence that sa is used in place of the standard ni.

Next, the two most common Tsugaru ben words.

2) わ + な – (wa and na) – (I and you)

These mean “I” and “you” respectively, and come from shortened versions of the standard watashi and anata.

Tsugaru: Wa shinobi da be
Standard Japanese: Watashi wa shinobi darou
English: I’m probably a ninja

Tsugaru: Na shinobi jya nee be
Standard Japanese:  Anata wa shinobi jya nai deshou
English: You’re probably not a ninja

3) んだ + んだが – (nda and nda ga) – (That’s right and really?)

If you didn’t know, sou desu and sou desu ka – or “that’s” right” and “really?” – are used all the time in Japanese. So as you can guess, the same goes for their Tsugaru-ben counterparts: nda and nda ga.

Tsugaru: Nda wa megoi jya
Standard Japanese: Sou da watashi wa kawaii yo
English: That’s right, I’m cute!

Tsugaru: Nda ga? Koichi-san, jikko ga?
Standard Japanese: Sou desu ka? Koichi-san wa ojiisan ka?
English: Really? Koichi is a grandpa?

And for our last bit of vocab for the day:

4) だはんで + はんで – (da hande) – (therefore)

Dahande is the Tohoku-ben equivalent of the standard dakara, or “therefore” in English. This word goes in between two clauses that you want to cite as being the cause of another.

Tsugaru: Wa sekushi da hande, Hashi-san wa no godo ni agogareru jya
Standard Japanese: Watashi wa sekushi dakara, Hashi-san wa watashi no koto ni akogareru yo!
English: I’m sexy, therefore Hashi yearns for me.

And if you want to hear more Tsugaru-ben, there’s a movie that was recently produced in Japan all in Tsugaru-ben, which is very rare for the reasons stated above. It’s called Bare Essence of Life Ultra-Miracle Love Story, and for the amount of self-inflicted brain damage it includes, it might make it on some people’s list of strange Japanese movies.

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