Japanese is a Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language spoken mainly in Japan. In 2018 there were about 125 million Japanese speakers in Japan. There are another 1.4 million Japanese speakers in other countries, particularly in the USA (449,000), Brazil (380,000), Hong Kong (127,050), Thailand (70,700), Australia (56,000) and Canada (43,600) [source].
Standard Japanese, or 標準語 (hyōjungo), is based on the Japanese that was spoken the higher-class areas of Tokyo after the Meji Restoration (1868). It is the language of the media, education and official publications.
There are numerous regional dialects of Japanese which differ from Standard Japanese in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Some are not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Japanese. Japanese dialects spoken in the Ryūkyūan and Amami Islands are influenced by the local Ryūkyūan languages, and are not intelligible to speakers of Japanese, and most are not mutually intelligible with other Ryūkyūan languages.
It is thought that Proto-Japonic was brought to Japan from Korea during the 4th century BC by the Yayoi people, and replaced the existing languages spoken in Japan at the time, including ancestors of Ainu, and possibly Tungusic and Austronesian languages.
Old Japanese (c. 710–794 AD) started to appear in writing from the 8th century AD. Initially the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, perhaps reading texts using Japanese pronunciation. Over time the Chinese characters were adapted to writing Japanese, using some to represent words and sounds and others purely phonetically.
Early Middle Japanese developed during the Heian period (平安時代, Heian jidai), from 794-1185 AD. During this time Japanese borrowed many words from Chinese and was influenced by Chinese phonology.
Late Middle Japanese (c. 1185-1600 AD) started to borrow words from Portugese, Dutch and other European languages which were brought to Japan by missionaries and merchants. These include パン (pan - bread), from the Portuguese pão (bread), フラスコ (furasuko - flask), from the Portuguese frasco (bottle, jar) [source], カラン (karan - tap, faucet), from the Dutch kraan (crane, tap, faucet), and ズック (zukku - canvas cloth/shoe), from the Dutch doek (cloth, linen, fabric) [source].
Early Modern Japanese (c. 1600-1853 AD). During this time Japan was shut off from the rest of the world, apart from occasional contact with the Dutch. The capital of Japan moved from Kamigata to Edo and the Edo dialect, the ancestor of the modern Tokyo dialect, became the most influential, taking over from the Kamigata dialect, the ancestor of modern Kansai dialects.
Modern Japanese (1853 - present). After Japan was forced to open up to the world in 1853, words from languages such as German, French and English began to enter the language. This process has accelerated since 1945, especially with English words.
Japanese is part of the Japonic or Japanese-Ryūkyūan language family. Related languages include the Ryūkyūan languages, such as Okinawan, which are spoken in the Ryūkyūan and Amani islands. This language family is classified as isolated with no known links to other language families.
Japanese has a similar gramatical structure to Korean, Mongolic, Tungusic and Turkic languages. One idea is that Japanese is part of an Altaic group of languages, which includes the languages in these families. However only some linguists support this proposal.
Another idea is that Japanese is a creole that started to emerge in the 2nd century BC and which is based on languages from northern Asia, which arrived in Japan via Korea, and ancestors of the Ainu language, which is spoken in Hokkaido, and was once spoken in other parts of Japan, and possibly by Austronesian languages as well.
Japanese vocabulary consists of a mixture of native Japanese words, known as 大和言葉 (yamato kotoba) or 和語 (wago), words borrowed from Chinese, known as 漢語 (kango), and words borrowed from other languages, which are known as 外来語 (gairaigo).
Native Japanese words make up about 34% of Japanese vocabulary. Words of Chinese origin make up about 50% of the vocabulary, and about 8% of Japanese are borrowed from other languages, mostly from English. There are also a small number of words borrowed from Ainu. The rest of the vocabulary is made up of hybrid words, or 混種語 (konshugo), which combine parts from several languages. Japanese also has many onomatopoeia and other words based on sound symbolism.
Japanese started borrowing words from Chinese during the 5th century AD, when they also borrowed and starting adapating the Chinese script to write Japanese. From the 19th century they coined many new words based on Chinese roots to translate European inventions and concepts. Such words are known as 和製漢語 (wasei kango) or “Japanese-made Chinese words”, and some have been borrowed back into Chinese and other languages of East Asia.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, when missionaries and merchants started to visit Japan, Japanese borrowed words from Portuguese and Dutch. Later in the 19th century words were borrowed from English, French and German. Nowadays most foreign loanwords come from English. Some of the English words are abbreviated and/or combined together and acquire new meanings to create 和製英語 (wasei eigo) or “Japanese-made English”.
Quite a few Japanese words are onomatopoeic, mimetic or based on sound symbolism. These include 擬声語 (giseigo), which mimic the sounds of animals and other creatures. 擬音語 (giongo), which mimic the sounds of inanimate things such as the wind and rain. 擬態語 (gitaigo), which represent states, conditions such as damp or stealthily, and 擬情語 (gijōgo), which depict feelings and emotions. They can be written with katakana or hiragana, and there are kanji for some of them.
Here are some examples:
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 (Useful) | Phrases (Silly) | Numbers | Colours | Time | Dates | Family words | Tower of Babel | Articles | Links | Learning materials
Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sawndip (Old Zhuang), Sui, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)
Page last modified: 01.05.23
Why not share this page:
Note: all links on this site to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr are affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you click on any of them and buy something. So by clicking on these links you can help to support this site.
If you're looking for home or car insurance in the UK, why not try Policy Expert?