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A lot of people don’t know this, but the Japanese language is actually a big mishmash of several not-Japanese languages put together. At one time though, a long long time ago, the Japanese language was a slightly less mishmashy combination of several languages. This is what’s known as “Yamato Kotoba” ー the real Japanese language from a time when there wasn’t so much outside language influence. Let’s find out where modern Japanese came from.

What Is Yamato?

First we have to take a look at the word “Yamato” if we want to learn what “Yamato Kotoba” is. The word “Yamato” is everywhere in Japan. There’s the WWII Yamato Battleship and even the (fictional) Space Battleship Yamato. There’s the name surname Yamato. There’s like 15 towns, cities, and villages called Yamato. Even the game Starcraft has the Yamato Canon (shoots a big concentration of people out at the enemy, I guess).

Oh, and did I mention there was an entire Yamato period and peoples? That’s where all this came from.

No matter where you look, you’ll start seeing references to “Yamato.” Why is the word “Yamato” so influential? What does it refer to? Let’s jump back a bunch-a-hundred years to see.

Yamato Period And The Yamato People

“Japanese or impostors?”

The “Yamato Period” (大和時代) refers to (approximately) the years 250 AD to 710 AD, though the actual start year isn’t totally clear (it was a long time ago, after all). By this time, a decent number of people had crossed over from Korea and China to Japan and started settling, bringing new technology like rice farming (a huge deal for keeping all the nomads in one place), metal, and more. The people who lived in Japan before this were known as the Jomon who lived in Japan from 8,000 BC to around 300BC. The Jomon are technically the “original” Japanese people, but things change and people from China and Korea migrate.

Anyways, the Yamato people were the people who became the dominant ethnic group of Japan at the time (and very dominant they were). While the actual phrase “Yamato People” (or, if you prefer Japanese 大和民族) isn’t really used anymore (kinda racist, I think) it was used at the time to differentiate the “Yamato” people from the ethnic minorities in Japan. There would have been a greater percentage of ethnic minorities back in the Yamato Period compared to now, but these groups include the Ainu, the Ryukyuan (though some thing you can combine these folks with the Yamato… I won’t get into that), the Koreans, and a few more. Remember, this was right after and around a time when Japan was still a bunch of tribes and kingdoms and it wasn’t until the Yamato period that one group became exceptionally powerful and combined together.

In fact, the Yamato “tribe” was only one of many tribes that made its way to Japan to colonize. Somehow, though, they managed to become way more powerful than the other tribes in Japan. It’s not totally known how this happened, but perhaps part of it was their government (which was based off the influential Sui and Tang states in China). The nagain, perhaps it was just luck. Either way, they became pretty buff in the Japan tribes circle and ended up eventually ruling a lot of Japan.

Not too shabby

They ruled a long time but really didn’t get going until around 300AD (at least according to the Chinese Book of Song). This is when large tombs started appearing for the Yamato emperors of the time.

Yamato. You some kind of keyhole or something? Because you just unlocked the door to my heart.

Around this time the Yamato people were very receptive to Chinese influence. This is where everything starts to change. First, though, let’s take a look at the Yamato Language in terms of how it was before this influx of Chinese culture migration.

The Yamato Language (i.e. Yamato Kotoba)

The word kotoba (言葉) in this situation means “language” or “dialect.” This is the language that the Yamato people spoke, and it’s still being spoken today though it only consists of part of the Japanese language (kind of like how English is a bunch of languages combined together, modern Japanese is a bunch of languages combined together).

The Yamato tribe spoke Yamato Kotoba (duh) – you can think of it as either its own language or as a sort of “Old Japanese” (has some parallels to how “Old English” works compared to regular English, in fact).

The really interesting part is how it is used now. Knowing about this might even help you with your kanji studies (you’ll find out more about this in a second). Either way, you can just think of this as the language (which is not entirely unlike regular Japanese) the Yamato people spoke back in the day before it started to change.

The Modern Japanese Language Mishmash

When you’re outside the bathroom you’re Japanese, when you’re inside the bathroom European.

The Japanese language is made up of three main parts, some parts more influential than others. One of these parts, of course, is Yamato Kotoba, the original Japanese language. Let’s see how it fits into modern Japanese, then we’ll bounce back to how it got this way.

Yamato Kotoba (大和言葉):

This is the original / old Japanese language brought over by the Yamato tribe. Another (more modern) term for this is 和語 (wago). When it comes to kanji, wago is the kun’yomi portion of your kanji learning. Basically, the Japanese took the Chinese characters (kanji) and applied their own (Yamato) language to it. When learning kanji, you’ll notice that the kun’yomi often has some hiragana sticking out of it. Part of this is because Chinese characters only consisted of one or two syllables each, and Yamato Kotoba words consisted of (often) more syllables. If you think of an individual kanji as a box that only has enough space for one or two syllables, what would happen when you try to make it hold more? Well, those extra syllables would just stick out of the kanji box. That’s why you’ll see kun’yomi readings have hiragana sticking out of it (well, that and for grammar purposes, to indicate tenses, politeness levels, and more). Either way, Yamato Kotoba is just the language the Yamato people spoke during the Yamato period, way back starting in ~250BC.

Kango (漢語):

Kango, also known as “sino-Japanese,” and consist of words and grammatical sentence patterns that have come from China (lots of stuff came from China during this era – so influential!). This is what almost always makes up the on’yomi reading of kanji you’re learning (though some exceptions exist where Japan just made up their own on’yomi reading for some of their own made up kanji). On’yomi is the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji (or an approximation, at least) and usually consists of one, maybe two syllables. Kango is everywhere in Japanese. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of all words in modern Japanese consist of kango, so it’s no small fry or anything. That being said, kango only consists of 18% of Japanese speech, so that means you’ll mostly see kango in writing, though 18% is still quite a bit. This makes sense, though, since kango has always been considered sort of wordy and “intellectual.” People who use a ton of kango in speech are like the people who use big fancy words in English, and everyone just hates them (though they feel like they’re being really impressive). Gosh I hate those people.

Gairaigo (外来語)

Gairaigo are all the words that become Japanese loan words (but aren’t Chinese). These are mostly Western words that have come over from Europe and America, though some gairaigo come from other parts of the world. You’ll generally see these written in katakana to indicate their foreign-ness. Gairaigo make up a fairly small percentage of the Japanese language, though if you were to compare, say the number of Japanese words in an English dictionary to the number of English words in a Japanese dictionary, the number of English words in a Japanese dictionary would be wayyyy more. Still, compared to the rest of the language, gairaigo is pretty small. If I had to make a guess I’d give it 1%, though that’s just a guess.

What Happened With Yamato Kotoba?

Let’s jump back into the history lesson. The Yamato peoples became very influential in their time and they spoke Yamato Kotoba. But, as you can see above, Yamato Kotoba isn’t necessarily the “dominant” language anymore. It’s up there, sure, but Kango does a good job fighting back.

Back when the Yamato Period was taking off, Chinese influence was big. China was the big hooha. They were what everyone strove to be like. If you were smart, you could read kanji Chinese Characters. If you were cultured you acted like the Chinese. If your government was awesome, you modeled it after Sui and Tang. Basically, China was the bee’s knees, and the Yamato rulers wanted to be the bee’s knees as well, so a lot of China slipped in and became part of Japan and the Yamato.

While China was the source of Buddhism, literacy, and all kinds of architectural achievements, it is the language that we’re writing about at the moment. Basically, here’s what happened with that:

  1. Hey, cool! We’re Yamato! We have government. Let’s make it super Chinese like Sui and Tang so we can be cool too.
  2. Oh man, if we want the Chinese to pay attention to us, we’d better not look like idiots. Let’s get some Chinese Characters over here and start reading them.
  3. Oh crap, I guess we have to learn Chinese in order to read these things properly.
  4. Wait a sec! We have our own language. Let’s just take the meanings of these Chinese Characters and plop our own Japanese Yamato words onto them. That’d work, right?
  5. Oh jeesh. I forgot about this. One Chinese character can only fit like one syllable… let’s just stuff what we can into this character and then let the rest sort of hang out… it’ll be okay.

And then Japanese as we know it was born… or something similar to that. It took a while longer than it took you to read the above passage, I’m sure. It was more complicated than this too, but hopefully you got the gist of things. It was this period where “Japanese” stopped being “Old Japanese” (this isn’t a bad thing, it’s how all cultures are born, really). Through kanji, the Japanese language became more and more Chinese. Every time you’re reading something in Japanese, 60% of it is adopted Chinese (though in conversational Japanese, much more of it is Yamato Kotoba). Chinese language and influence is everywhere in the Japanese language which is kind of awesome. Just thinking about it, I don’t know what they would have done without it. The Japanese language would be so tiny (though it would have made it so much easier to learn, yeah?).

That being said, though, Yamato Kotoba still exists and is still pretty strong. It makes up some of the most important parts of the Japanese language from a linguistics standpoint. Knowing about it would help with your Japanese learning as well, I think. A lot of language mysteries are solved, at least partially, just with this knowledge.

Yamato Kotoba In Modern Japanese

Although there’s quite the mix going on in modern Japanese, Yamato Kotoba (i.e. wago) still plays a really important role… I’d say the most important role: grammar (oh, and other stuff too).

Names

Japanese names are one of the most frustrating things about learning Japanese. In most cases, when you combine two kanji together (jukugo… i.e. combo kanji) you do the on’yomi (Chinese) reading. With names, however, it seems like there are no rules and the Japanese language Gods just did this so they could laugh at you, probably in ateji just to be ironic (歯歯歯歯). Why is this? Because names tend to use this Yamato Kotoba we’ve been talking about for so long. 山下, for example, is read “yamashita” which are the kun’yomi readings. Other names get even crazier. 一男 is read as (kazuo)… two kun’yomi you probably never learned. Names are seriously like the bane of every Japanese learner. One of those things that you just sort of learn as you run into them, one at a time. You can thank the Yamato-folk for this.

Particles

Japanese particles also come from Yamato Kotoba. In fact, if you see something written in hiragana (like particles) it’s usually safe to assume it’s Yamato Kotoba, and particles make up a huge percentage of this. Oh, and speaking of difficult things… Particles, yeah… Seriously Yamato? C’mon… You some kind of language sadist, or sumpthin?

Kun’yomi

The kun’yomi readings of kanji are also from Yamato Kotoba. These are the Japanese pronunciations of words slapped onto Chinese Characters with the same meanings. For example:

食(しょく)→ On’yomi / Chinese reading

食べます(たべます)→ Kun’yomi, Yamato Kotoba reading

As you can see, the Chinese reading doesn’t have anything sticking out. The kun’yomi (Japanese Yamato) reading does. That’s why the kun’yomi reading is associated with the “Japanese” pronunciation. Though, that being said, not all kun’yomi readings stick out of kanji, just a lot of them (especially adjectives and verbs). Still, most kanji have kun’yomi readings you have to learn.

Okurigana

Okurigana is the hiragana that sticks out of kanji. Obviously, this is going to be the kun’yomi reading of a kanji so it’s already part of the Yamato Kotoba family, but it’s worth taking a closer look at. Some example words:

べます

The red kana indicates the okurigana. This okurigana actually indicates sort of the grammar of the word. For example, if you changed 高い to 高かった, you’d know that the word is “was tall” instead of “is tall.” The kanji, however, stays the same. You can do this with a ton of words (especially adjectives and verbs), and this is also all thanks to Yamato Kotoba.

Grammar

This is sort of a combination of okurigana and particles, but it goes beyond just a little. Anything that’s grammar based is probably going to be a part of the Yamato Kotoba. Anything that changes tenses, connects words, or does anything that’s not a word itself probably comes from Yamato Kotoba. Kango can only come from words themselves. Everything else? Thank Yamato.

Numbers

Numbers are one of those things that confuse a lot of Japanese learners. There’s the on’yomi reading (いち、に、さん、し、etc) and there’s the kun’yomi readings (ひとつ、ふたつ、etc). Then there’s the whole issue of knowing when to use which, as well as needing to know which friggin’ counter to use in which situation. It’s definitely something that takes practice (and sometimes lots of it). A lot of number woes come from the battle between Chinese and Yamato and knowing which one ot use. Then there’s the issue of knowing when to switch. For example, days in a calendar use Yamato Kotoba up to ten (ついたち、ふつか、etc), then it switches over to kango for the rest (じゅういちにち、じゅうににち、etc) and then has the exception of twentieth day (はつか) which goes right back to Yamato Kotoba. It’s definitely not easy, but it really shows how the two languages combined into one mega-hard-to-understand modern Japanese language.

Future Japanese?

So, as you can see, Yamato Kotoba is still alive and kicking in the Japanese language – you just have to know where to look. There’s been so much Chinese influence (during the Yamato period, especially) and now a lot of European and American influence (I wonder how crazy the Japanese language will be 1300 years from now?).Will it be like 20% English at any point? Do I dare say 50% English or more, with the whole English-becoming-the-global-language sort of thing? I suppose there’s only one way to find out, and I am not very good at time travel.

But, that’s how languages are. They’re always adapting, changing and becoming new things (while keeping the same name). There’s no way to fight it with any language, and I think it’s pretty interesting when you know it’s there.

Speaking of which, what’s up with all this LOLSPEAK going on? Is that the future we’re heading towards in English? :/ Oh god, I hope not.

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  • Just_the_mo

    Plus the katana Yamato from Devil May Cry 3 and 4 :)

  • nagz

    i devoured a bowl of ramen soup while reading this most useful article. thanks, Koichi

  • Vitor

    Japanese language history, Yay!

    “The kun’yomi readings of kanji are also from Yamato Kotoba. These are
    the Japanese pronunciations of words slapped onto Chinese Characters
    with the same meanings.”

    Mostly, but there are exceptions here. The classic example is 頁、 which has ページ as one possible kun’yomi. This is kanjified gairaigo, but it’s not ateji because it’s not using kanji for the on’yomi, but for the meaning.
    Wikipedia FTW: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Single_character_gairaigo

    “[Kango] is what almost always makes up the on’yomi reading of kanji you’re
    learning (though some exceptions exist where Japan just made up their
    own on’yomi reading for some of their own made up kanji)”

    Interesting, had forgotten that kokuji could sometimes have on’yomi too. Again, Wikipedia FTW:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokuji#Kokuji

    “Numbers are one of those things that confuse a lot of Japanese learners.”

    So true!

    “Japanese names are one of the most frustrating things about learning Japanese.”

    SO TRUE!!!

  • Kintaro

    Wow, koichi, great article! I have used a lot of what you spoke of, but never knew why or how it all came about….fantastic!!

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIHpudeX-Xg 田中キック

    I hate to be a Grammarai, but… “The Yamato peoples became very influential in there time”

    Also, everyone in that picture is Japanese, except the one in the top right picture. I doubt that guy has even been to Japan.

  • http://www.callistospatches.com Callisto

    So. These history posts are kind of my favourite.

    “…those extra syllables would just stick out of the kanji box” — Don’t know why, but that line made me giggle.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    You get like +434324234 points for saying grammarai, that’s kind of awesome :D Fixed.

    For picture… just grabbed it off wikipedia under “japanese people.” Wait, what!? Wikipedia isn’t always accurate?! P.S. Who’s the top right guy?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    P.S. Tom Cruise starring in… “The Last Grammarai”

    Katsumoto: Perfect… Their all… perfect…
    Cruise: Uh, actually, it’s They’re, as in ‘They Are’ – c’mon, you call yourself a grammarai?

  • piratus

    The top right picture? You mean Emperor Akihito?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    thought I recognized him… haha.

  • Moshimoshi

    hi this probably doesn’t matter but there’s a spelling mistake. in the “numbers” paragraph, 6th line, the word “to” is spelled as “ot”.

  • C J

     歯歯歯歯 made me 母母!!

  • Sam

    I can’t tell if you’re being serious…

  • 田中キック

    Yeah, that guy. I don’t even think he’s Asian. I can’t think of a less Japanese person than this Akihito fellow.

  • John Smith

    I’m surprised at the lack of mention of Korea

  • John Smith

    I’m surprised at the lack of mention of Korea

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    He’s too Yamato to be Japanese, obviously

  • John
  • Garciajuan64

    Great article, thanks!  I already knew that kango made up about 60 percent of the written language, but I didn’t know that it only made up about 18 percent of the spoken language!  Where did you find that information?  I’m always trying to find a balance between wago and kango. It’s very difficult.  Kango is much more straightforward and simpler to use.  For me anyways.  Also, there was an interesting study I read about a little while ago.  It said that Yamato Kotoba was most likely a dialect of old Korean.  If I can find it, I’ll post it. 

  • Jon E.

    So how does “Yamato Nadeshiko” fit into all this? Does that refer to, literally, beauty like that of the original people of Japan?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That was an old NHK study, apparently. Never found the original study, just people mentioning it / talking about it.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    that’s it’s own bag of worms, but totally related in that since Yamato = Original Japanese / “Pure” Japanese, Yamato Nadeshiko (ideal Japanese woman, at least that’s what the WWII propaganda went on about) is like the “traditional” and “ideal” Japanese woman.

    Lots of Yamato references tied in with “tradition” in Japanese, and this is just one of them, though it’s a pretty big one. Might be an interesting future post, come to think of it, so thanks for that!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I dont’ know much of this, but wouldn’t the Korean language be more like pre-Yamato language / where Yamato kotoba came from before Yamato Kotoba was a thing? Then… before that would be some Chinese dialect, since Korea comes from China… I wonder how far back it can go…?

    But yeah, don’t know much about this part – what did you think was missing, at least in terms of post Yamato + Korean language integration?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    頬頬

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    thanks!

  • Jon E.

    こちらこそ、先生!:-) どうもありがとうございました!
    I will impress with my (very attractive) female Japanese friend by calling her this word lol :-P

  • http://twitter.com/dimius Dianna-maree Morgan

    WHY DO THEY HAVE SO MANY COUNTERS!!!!

  • http://profiles.google.com/jonadab.theunsightlyone Jonadab the Unsightly One

    > Speaking of which, what’s up with all this LOLSPEAK going> on? Is that the future we’re heading towards in English?

    That’s an interesting question.  The more I think about it, the more I want to equivocate.

    Upon careful consideration, I believe the English language has been, for several hundred years at least, accumulating a gradually increasing amount of difference between the formal and informal versions of the language.

    On the one hand, there is undeniably some mixing.  Casual structures — not all of them, but some of them — creep upward into ever more formal settings.  Who would have imagined a hundred years ago that contractions like “I’m” and “shouldn’t” would routinely appear in nationally syndicated columns?  They still have a ways to go before reaching the upper echelons of academia, but they’ve come quite a long way already.  Simultaneously, there’s a steady trickle of (what used to be) esoteric formalisms drifting down into casual speech — medical jargon (e.g., “carpal”), SI prefixes that used to be the domain of theoretical physicists because they were too large for everyday use (courtesy of today’s massive hard drive sizes), the occasional odd bit of Latin handed down into the mainstream by a legal or medical drama, the word “citation” (thanks to Wikipedia), …

    OTOH, u got 57/Ff 1iek dis, contrasted with the manifest proliferation of circumspectly obnubilatory discourse.

    Perhaps eventually such distinctions in the level of formality will be as pervasive in English as the distinctions of politeness and deference are in Japanese.

  • Anonymous

    Hey thanks for explaining that Koichi. I had always wondered why Yamato Nadeshiko meant what it means. 

  • Anonymous

    Koichi: Love the 歯歯歯歯 joke! 

  • José Antonio Lanz

    >>the destroyer of the Japanese Language Learning Industry.
    were you in one of these epic scanning/ripping groups?
    if so, what are you waiting to scan the book 2 of “an introduction to modern japanese 2″

  • Anonymous

    I like particles! They’re consistent, easy to understand, etc. There’s the matter of not always knowing which ones to use, but I still like them.

  • Komesouba

    Most Japanese songs are used in Yamato kotoba
    it feels so emotionaly  in Yamato kotoba 
    English words became Japanese because of Katakana.
    Even if  large numbers of  foreign wordenters in Japanese , it does not change as Japanese at all.

    and one more thing ,your Japanese historically things are wrong

  • Komesouba

     most of migrants could not write chinese character at that time..
      D2Y Chromosome are kept more than 40%  in Japan that the korean and the Chinese dont have it at all. it mean Migrant were not large number.

    It is more natural to think that Japanese people went to China to study conversely at the time. 
     like Japanese missions to Tang China
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_missions_to_Tang_China
    The Korean Peninsula was subjected by Japan at the time. 
    then
     Japan was withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula after this battle.
    the Battle of Baekgang
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Baekgang
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwanggaeto_Stele
    recently it was discovered in China Silla was Japan’s Vassal at that time.

    this is so interesting 
    sorrr it is  only in Japanese
    http://www2.odn.ne.jp/~had26900/topics_&_items2/nihongo_chosengo.htm

    If there were  many migrants, Korean and Japanese will have more the same similar word nore than okinawa

  • Picky

    Thanks for this interesting article.
    I wonder if the ‘Yamato’ people could be the people described in the following webpage: http://www5.ocn.ne.jp/~magi9/isracame.htm

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  • http://ogijima.com David @ Ogijima

    Fascinating article.
    I find it interesting how the “relationship” between Yamato Kotoba and Kango sort of reflects the relationship between French words and Germanic words in the English language (French words forming the vast majority of words in modern English, but those are the ones used the less, Germanic words being the ones used in everyday conversation).

    Concerning the future of the Japanese language, well, it’s impossible to say (after all, it’s the future) but I doubt that English will have a strong influence again. The spread of English language in the world has kinda plateaued and is even slowly receding.

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  • Infinitysreflection

    My understanding from living in Japan for ten years and not being so successful with learning Japanese (teaching a lot for one thing) is that Katakana was created for foreign words to in particularly point them out as not really being part of Japanese culture and has to do with the whole outsider insider mentality.  Otherwise, they could have just used Hiragana.

  • KaragAlex

    Interesting article!
    I’ve been learning Japanese for almost 2 years, and I really wondered how far Chinese and archaic Japanese influence reach into the modern Japanese language, respectively. It’s impressive when you think how many foreign borrowings actually exist in Japanese, apart from the gairaigo, which always stand out.

  • サビウスアウグストゥス

    There are Portuguese word on Japanese language, such as pan, botan, kirishitan, etc.

  • サビウスアウグストゥス

    Also, French words like patowa, metoro, bagetto

  • Sarah

    Very informative read. This helped me to clearly distinguish on’yomi, kun’yomi. One thing though: What’s with all this hatred for people who like big words? There’s plenty of that to go around elsewhere, but why on Tofugu which is all about learning new things and words? I’m sure this was meant in jest, but I still take great offence when a joy of extending one’s vocabulary is chastised. Opening up one’s mind to a wider range of words in any language is so valuable in that it allows for speaking with a greater level of accuracy as to the intended sentiment. It allows for poetry and prose which stands the test of time. Let’s not go around making it uncool to learn new words, what’s the point in encouraging everyone else to set themselves back just because one person decided to stop expanding their vernacular at a different point than they did? I say kudos for relentlessness in one’s studies. No?