Japan’s OTHER Languages

A lot of people misunderstand Japan and think that it’s this place where everybody acts the same, does the same things, and all speak the language.

While Japan is no India (which has over 20 recognized languages), there’s more to the language than just regular ol’ Japanese. As I saw on Reddit earlier this week, it turns out that there are at least eight different languages that are completely unique to Japan (and even more that have gone extinct).

Even though Japan is a pretty small country, it has a ton of smaller islands that most people don’t even know exist. And sometimes those little islands developed languages of their own. Let’s take a look at some of those Japanese languages you might never have heard of before:

Standard Japanese

Standard Japanese or 標準語 (hyoujungo), the language we all know (or are getting to know) and love. It’s the national language, so you can speak this to anybody in Japan and they’d understand what you’re saying.

Of course, Japanese changes a bit depending on which part of the country you’re in but for the most part, standard Japanese is universally understood.

Japanese Sign Language (JSL)

Ever since I was exposed to American Sign Language, I’ve had an interest in sign language in general. People tend to think that sign language is just a culture’s spoken language translated into hand gestures, but it’s so much different than that.

JSL

While it does share some elements with spoken Japanese (like the characters shown above), it’s fair to say that JSL is an entirely different language altogether.

Ainu

The Ainu are Japan’s native people who mainly live in the north of the country whose culture is different than the ethnic group we now know as ethnic Japanese.

Ainu

Photo by Torbenbrinker

They have their own language too, which is completely unrelated to standard Japanese. Actually, there were a whole bunch of Ainu languages, but most of the variants have become extinct, leaving only Hokkaido Ainu.

Hachijo

Hachijo is spoken is the small set of islands just south of Tokyo, islands which include Hachijo and the beautiful Aogashima (which we’ve written about before.)

Apparently, the language is related to a much older form of Japanese but, being on such isolated islands, changed and grew differently than standard Japanese.

Amami

A lot of Japan’s languages emerge from the smaller island cultures that stretch down from the south of the country and are called Ryukyuan languages. First on that list is Amami, a set of about a dozen island south of Kyushu.

Like a lot of languages on this list, it splits up even more as you move through the islands. Different islands can have drastically different dialects, so learning it on one island doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to speak the language.

Miyako

Keep traveling south and you’ll bump into the Miyako islands, where you’ll find a language that sounds very different than standard Japanese. Just listen to this guy speaking in Miyako language:

If you know or are familiar with standard Japanese, then what he’s saying is probably completely indecipherable. But, believe it or not, it’s still a Japanese language — just not the one you’re used to.

Yaeyama

Keep on truckin’ down the Okinawan islands, and you’ll find yourself at Japan’s southernmost point, in a series of islands called the Yaeyama islands. They’ve somehow become associated with dietary supplements called “Yaeyama Chlorella.”

But more important is the Yaeyama language. The language spoken there is really different — instead of the five vowel sounds you find in standard Japanese (a, i, u, e, o), there’s only three (a, i, o). There are a ton of other differences too, but this one is the most glaring.

Yonaguni

In the Yaeyama islands, within spitting distance of Taiwan is Yonaguni. It’s a tiny little island with only about 2,000 people living there, but it’s famous for being Japan’s westernmost point, and for having underwater alien pyramids (f’reals).

Diver at Yonaguni

The spoken language shares a lot in common with the other Ryukyuan languages, but one more thing sets it apart from the others — the written language. Up until the 1930s, people in Yonaguni used a writing system called Kaidaa, characters that looked like pictures, a lot like hieroglyphics. You’ll still see them used around the area from time to time, but the written language has mostly fallen in line with the rest of the country.

Language is Always Changing

Sadly, most of these languages are endangered and will probably become extinct within our lifetimes as its last speakers die out. That’s not to say that Japan is becoming a place where everybody talks the same way.

Most people think that because we’re all so connected through the internet and other media now, that languages would start becoming more and more the same; but in some cases, languages are actually getting more different and distinct.

In the US, linguists are observing what’s known as the “Northern cities vowel shift,” a fundamental change in the way in how vowels are pronounced. Some say that it’s one of the biggest changes to English in 1,000 years.

In the same way, Japanese dialects can be extremely different from one another. Some dialects (like Tohokuben, which we wrote about last year), can be so unlike other dialects that native Japanese speakers might have a hard time understanding it.

While these Japanese dialects can’t replace the languages and cultures that are disappearing, it’s nice to see that different, unique cultures are still flourishing.


Read More: Japan: Eight endangered languages in the Japanese archipelago

Header photo by Franck GIRAL

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    Hashi Hachiko speaks Hachijo, honto?
    Tis’ a tongue twister

  • レオン ˘( O ¸o)/˘

    Hmm? I can say that with ease.
    This one, however, is. XD
    すももも ももも もものうち すももも ももも もう うれた

  • TheYoungMrWright

    Extra languages? struggling with normal Japanese- no, thank you. Perhaps after I can hold a decent conversation in Japanese, i’ll re-look at Ainu, though. The Ainu have always interested me.

  • http://profiles.google.com/shahiirosan shahiir mizune

    You forgot the okinawan language…..

  • mic

    i hear lots of nya’s in the miyako language. reminds me of neko girls.

  • roninred

    In the Ryukyuan Archipelago, there are six distinct languages. Amami, Northern Okinawan, Southern Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni. So you are probably more correct if you say there are ten languages. And actually you missed the language spoken in Ogasawara, so that’s eleven.

  • Jonathan Harston

    I challenge you to watch Trainspotting or Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

  • Robert Patrick

    I must add something about JLS : what you’ve shown is just the hiragana spelling, like when there is reading of a kanji to explain, but of course you don’t speak JLS just by flashing hiragana spelling with your hands like ninjas casting seals in Naruto. There is a whole combination of facial expressions and hand movements, like in other sign languages.
    And THAT’s where it becomes interesting : I’ve been studying Japanese for more than 10 years and served as an interpreter in a international reunion with deaf and non-deaf people : imagine my surprise when I saw an Isreali that had NEVER learned a single word of Japanese having a long and animated conversation with a Japanese that didn’t know a single word of Hebrew !
    Both were deaf and though there are some minor differences between different countries sign language, there is enough of a common base for these people to communicate.

    Deaf people from different countries were able to have conversations with each other that night whereas we, the speaking people, had to deal with our knowledge in each of the several languages we were facing (English does have that “international” purpose, but not everyone is actually fluent in English).

    My point is : JLS is actually an international language.

  • http://twitter.com/dosankodebbie dosankodebbie

    Great post. My sister is a JSL interpreter and has done academic research on at least one sign language in Japan that is linguistically distinct from JSL and not understood by those outside their community. I believe it formed spontaneously in a region that was once completely isolated from other regions of Japan and is still used there today. I don’t remember the details, but that means there is at least one more sign language other than the standardized JSL.

    Also, being a translator and researcher of Ainu folklore, I should mention that there is more than one dialect of Ainu language even in Hokkaido, which makes for some difficulty in efforts to unite the Hokkaido Ainu into a politically significant community with one voice.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > Some say that [the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is]
    > one of the biggest changes to English in 1,000 years.

    That’s a significant exaggeration. A thousand years ago puts you cleanly in the pre-Norman period. The “English” of that period (Old English) is arguably closer to modern German than it is to modern English. It’s certainly closer to Old Germanic than it is to modern English. Nouns inflected according to a five-case system, for crying out loud. The vowel pronunciations in Old English are closer to Latin than to modern English. Don’t even get me started on the pronouns.

    The Northern Cities accent is by comparison extremely subtle. You really only notice it if you hear short phrases in isolation, or if you’re paying close attention. It is nowhere near as distinctive as, for example, a Texan accent (which is also comprised mainly of vowel shifts, albeit different ones) or even a New England accent (which has shifted only two or three vowels, but in a very noticeable way).

  • Yaipon

    Actually there are more… There are more deep dialects in Okinawa – some eight if I am not mistaken. Also, the picture near “Hachijojima” depicts Aogashima island. Would be nice to change it. :)

  • Guest

    According to Wikipedia, Yaeyama’s vowels are actually ‘a’, ‘i’, and ‘u’ instead of ‘o’.

    Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaeyama_language