The Japanese language is as unique as Japan’s culture, which is reason enough to learn it and possibly visit the country where the language is primarily spoken. Japan remains a mystery to many and a wonderful but expensive destination for some. There are a million things to get a beginner excited, but here are five to get started with.
According to some historians, the old Japanese language and the Ryukyuan languages originated from different travelers from the different Pacific Islands and parts of Asia in 200 BC during the Yayoi period. The Ryukyuan languages are spoken by the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands that are located outside the mainland.
The Japanese and Ryukyuan languages are part of the family of Japonic language. There are linguists who think that the Ryukyuan languages are actually dialects of the Japanese language due to their grammatical similarities. However, these minority languages are not mutually intelligible with each other as well as with the Japanese language.
Also, historical information about the Yayoi period is scarce despite its long existence from 300 BC to 300 AD (traditional estimate). It existed during the Iron Age and considered as one of Japan’s oldest historical periods.
Japanese is an official language only in Japan
Some major languages such as English, French and Spanish are declared as an official language in many countries around the world. The Japanese language on the other hand is an official language exclusively in Japan.
However, based on 2010 figures, 15% of residents in Hawaii speak Japanese and 1% of residents of California speak Japanese as well. In the Republic of Palau, Japanese is recognized as a minority language. In Palau’s island state of Angaur, Japanese is spoken as the primary language. As of 2015, the population of Angaur is 115.
Japanese language is not tonal
Many of the languages in Asia are tonal. Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai, Utsul, Cèmuhî, Lahnda, Dogri, Punjabi, Chakma, Chittagonian, Rohingya and Sylheti, the Hmong–Mien languages and the list goes on.
This is surprising considering the proximity of Japan to China and since China had a major influence in the culture of Japan. On the other hand, it is not surprising, since Korean is also a non-tonal language despite being influenced by China in many aspects.
Being a non-tonal language is a pleasant surprise for language learners who are used to Germanic or Latin languages. Inflection is used principally to indicate the differences between words. For language learners who are used to English, it is difficult to learn the tones. However, the language has a particular cadence and rhythm that sounds like music.
Japanese has a never-ending supply of loanwords from global languages
Despite being a language isolate, the Japanese language features various loanwords from many languages, known as ‘gairaigo.’ Some of them represent concepts. Quite a number of them are ‘Japanized’ English words. Some interesting examples:
- Television → terebi
- After Service → afutāsābisu
- Ice Cream → aisukurīmu
- Apartment → apāto
- Bargain → bāgen
- Fight → faito
- Pan or bread came from ‘pao,’ which is a Portuguese word
- German’s ‘arbeit’ (work) is arubaito (part time job)
- Biru for beer came from the Dutch word, ‘bier.’
- Ikura is from the Russian word for salmon roe or caviar, which is ‘ikra.’
It’s a fast-paced spoken language
In a study entitled “A Cross-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate,” it showed that Japanese has the fastest syllabic rate per second when spoken, at 7.8% among the eight languages measured. Spanish comes second at 7.82%. The slowest in Mandarin at 5.18%.
However, in terms of information rate per second, it is the slowest, measuring only 0.74%. Gaining only 0.49% it is also the slowest in terms of information density. English has the highest score – 1.08% in information rate, while the highest in information density, at 1.00% is Vietnamese.
The syllabic rate is a measurement of the number of syllables spoken per second. Information density means the number of words you have to say to convey the meaning. Japanese speakers have to say a lot of words most of the time. Japanese is slowest in information rate, which means that it takes time for the information to be delivered by a Japanese speaker. For example, it takes several syllables to say the English word, ‘not.’ In Japanese, you might say ‘de wa arimasen.’
A lot more fun
The Japanese language is filled with fascination and wonder. In the comments section, add in your own “fun fact” that you’d use to entice new beginners to the language!
Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online translation and localization services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. You can visit their website if you need Japanese translation services.