The Mysterious Origins of the Japanese Language How the language came to be (probably)

    One of the weirdest things about Japanese is that nobody really knows where it comes from. The languages spoken in Japan aren't related to any other language on earth.

    Obviously the written language (i.e. kanji) pulls a lot from Chinese, but where the spoken language comes from is more or less a complete mystery for everybody.

    The Japonic language family isn't related to any other language families, which has prompted intense curiosity over the origin of Japanese.

    Unfortunately, historical records are lacking in the development of Japanese, so the best we can really do is make educated guesses. Or, as some have done, wildly speculate.

    The Crazy Theories

    In lieu of a definitive theory about how Japanese came about, people have cooked up some pretty bizarre ideas about why Japanese is so unique.

    First of all, there are the extreme "Nihonjinron" theories. The idea is that because Japan is an island nation, its people evolved in a unique way, and that the Japanese language was developed exclusively in Japan.

    Of course, this theory super problematic because it often goes hand-in-hand with overt racism. Fortunately though, this kind of Japanese exceptionalist thought it very rare.

    Or, as Ancient Aliens has taught us, it could be advanced beings from beyond. I mean, there's no conclusive evidence against aliens, right? As Donald Rumsfeld taught us, the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

    Oddball theories aside though, linguists, anthropologists, and historians have been working hard for years to try to give us more credible theories and unravel the mystery of Japanese for us once and for all.

    The Credible Theories

    There are three leading theories at the moment that don't have anything to do with pseudo-racism or aliens.

    Natural Evolution

    The first theory is that people have just lived in Japan for so long that the language just naturally, over time, grew and evolved into what it is today.

    stages of human evolution

    It makes sense that hunter-gatherers isolated on an island would come up with their own, unique language, but it's just such a boring theory, especially when compared to other leading ideas.

    Horse Riders (In the Sky)

    The second theory is a lot more badass than the "people just hung out in Japan for a while" theory.

    People think that a large gang of Mongol-like horse riders rode through Korea, conquering everything in their path, and made it to Japan, bringing their langauge with them.

    horse in a field eating grass
    Source: Christine und David Schmitt

    This theory is pretty attractive to Japanese because it means that their language comes from a group of monumental badasses. Unfortunately though, the last and most likely theory about the Japanese language's origins isn't quite as cool.

    Rice, Rice Baby

    The final theory, the one that appears the most credible right now, is that an early version of what we now know today as the Japanese language came from wet rice farmers immigrating from Korea.

    It definitely sounds plausible. There's archaelogical evidence to support the theory, and it falls in line with a fledgling linguistic theory that language travels with agricultural technology.

    But there has been some pushback on this theory from the Japanese. It's always been a bit controversial to link back key parts of Japanese culture to neighboring countries China and Korea.

    chopsticks and bowl of rice

    Just the mere notion that the Japanese Imperial Family might have some Korean ancestry has been extremely debated. The Japanese have tightly controlled foreign access to ancient imperial tombs because, as National Geographic has noted:

    officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the "pure" imperial family and Korea

    Not to mention Japanese conservatives nearly had a collective aneurysm when the emperor acknowledged that he had Korean ancestors.

    How Much Does It Actually Matter?

    In the end, it might not matter too much. There's really no way to definitively tell with the limited historical record available, and even if there is a conclusive discovery, where does that leave us? The Japanese language continues to change and progress regardless of who or where it came from.

    But until we know for sure, it's interesting to speculate and imagine the journey that the Japanese language took to get where it is today.

    Read more: Japanese Roots, Finding on Dialects Casts New Light on the Origins of the Japanese People