Japanese is a Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language spoken mainly in Japan. According to the 2010 census there are 125 million Japanese speakers in Japan. There are another 3 million Japanese speakers elsewhere, particularly in Brazil, the USA, Peru, Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Japanese is part of the Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language family. Related languages include the Ryukyuan languages, such as Okinawan, which are spoken in the Ryukyuan islands. This language family is classified as isolated with no known links to other language families.
Japanese is not related to Chinese, however it does contain a large number of Chinese 'loan' words, in fact perhaps 50% of the words used in Japanse are of Chinese origin.
Since the mid 18th century the Japanese have adopted a huge amount of gairaigo: foreign words mainly from English. These include tēburu (table), bīru (beer), gurasu (glass), aisu (ice), takushī (taxi) and hoteru (hotel).
There are also a few words from Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish, such as pan (bread), from the Portuguese pão. Such words arrived in Japan mainly during the 16th and 17th centuries, when missionaries and merchants started to visit the country.
One notable feature of Japanese is the tendency to create new words by shortening and/or combining English words. Examples include wāpuro (word processor), sarariman ("salary man" = a male corporate employee), OL, pronounced ōeru ("office lady" = a female corporate employee) and masukomi (mass communications).
Another interesting feature of Japanese is the distinction between male and female speech. This involves vocabulary, grammar and particularly pitch - women tend to speak in very high, squeaky voices, at least in public, while men prefer low, gruff voices. If a foreign man learns Japanese from his Japanese girlfriend the results can sound very funny to Japanese ears!
Before the 4th century AD, the Japanese had no writing system of their own. During the 5th century they began to import and adapt the Chinese script, along with many other aspects of Chinese culture, probably via Korea. However the Japanese were aware of Chinese writing from about the 1st century AD from the characters that appeared on imported Chinese goods.
At first the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese or in a Japanese-Chinese hybrid style. An example of the hybrid style is the kojiki (Records of Antiquity) written in 712 AD. They then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as man'yōgana, literarly "Ten Thousand leaf syllabic script", which used the characters for their phonetic values.
Over time a writing system emerged in which Chinese characters were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters were also used for their phonetic values to write grammatical elements and these characters were simplified and eventually became two syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana.
Japanese literature reached a high point during the 11th century with the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Many other Japanese literary works were also written by women.
Modern Japanese is written with a mixture of hiragana and katakana, plus kanji. Modern Japanese texts may also include rōmaji, (Roman letters), the standard way of writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet, non-Japanese words written in their own script and various symbols known as kigō.
Subete no ningen wa, umarenagara ni shite jiyū de ari, katsu, songen to kenri to ni tsuite byōdō de aru. Ningen wa, risei to ryōshin to o sazukerarete ori, tagai ni dōhō no seishin o motte kōdō shinakereba naranai.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information about Japanese
Introduction to Japanese | Hiragana | Katakana | Kanji | Rōmaji | Phrases | Numbers | Colours | Telling the time | Family words | Tower of Babel | Articles | Links | Learning materials | Find Japanese tutors
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