The Japanese Language

As with all . . .other languages, the Japanese language can be understood formally as a set of lingusitic characteristics or subjectively as a way of experiencing and ordering the world. However, unlike other languages, Japanese is unique to both linguists and to the people speaking the language. The Japanese by and large believe their language to be a highly unique language—some believe it to be unlike any other language in existence. Western linguists believe that Japanese is a language clearly related to other, Northern Asian languages, but there is a fair amount of disagreement among them. Suffice it to say that Japanese is the only human language where we can't quite decide where it came from or what other languages it's related to.

   From the point of view of the Japanese, the experience of this language is based on two, widely held beliefs about the language. First, the Japanese believe that the language is somehow highly unique—almost a language unto itself. Second, the Japanese believe that their language is extremely difficult for non-Japanese to read or understand. In fact, the Japanese have a name for non-Japanese who can speak and understand the language: hen gaijin , or "crazy foreigners." So the "experience" of Japanese as a language is an exclusive experience, a sense that one is participating in a language that no others can share or penetrate.

   From a Western perspective, Japanese is not an overly difficult language to learn (Chinese and Old Irish are considerably more difficult) nor is it a unique language. There, however, the agreement ends. For it's uncertain exactly what language family Japanese comes from. There are three main theories about the origin of the Japanese language among both Western and Japanese linguists:
1. Japanese is an Altaic language related to Korean, Mongolian, and Turkish.
2. Japanese is an Austronesian language related to Papuan, Malayan and other Pacific languages.
3. Japanese is a Souteast Asian language related to Vietnamese, Tibetan, Burmese or, in one school of thought, the Tamil languages of southern India and Ceylon.
   Almost all linguists believe that Japanese is an Altaic language, which makes a certain amount of sense considering the fact that the Yayoi people seem to have migrated from Korea. A fair number of Japanese linguists, however, believe that Japanese is an Austronesian language. These alternative views have given rise to three theories concerning the origin of Japanese:
1. In the Western model, Japanese was derived from a language spoken in northern Asia that would split off into several languages, such as Mongolian, Korean, and Turkish. The earliest peoples of Japan probably spoke this language, but eh Yayoi certainly spoke this language. By the end of the Yayoi period (300 A.D., this Altaic language was the dominate language on the islands. This language was in part influenced by the Pacific Island languages (the Austronesian languages) that surrounded the islands of Japan and thus formed an Austronesian substratum in Japanese.
2. The Jomon spoke an Austronesian language and the Yayoi introduced an Altaic language. This Altaic language combined with the Austronesian languages spoken on the islands to form a unique hybrid, Japanese, which became the dominant language in Japan. In this model, there are two possibilities: Japanese is an Altaic language with an Austronesian substratum or Japanese is an Austronesian language with an Altaic substratum. Take your pick.
3. Japanese was originally a language related to Tibetan or a language related to Tamil that was introduced into Japan during the great migrations of Southeast Asian peoples four or five thousand years ago. This language combined with, you guessed it, an Altaic and an Austronesian language to form the contemporary language.
   This is quite a quagmire to wade through. It doesn't help that Western linguists and Japanese linguists are in basic disagreement over much that has to do with Japanese—as is the case with linguists the world over, their debate is largely conducted on the level of name-calling with Western linguists accusing the Japanese of being stupid and Japanese linguists exercising similar restraint!

   At this present moment, however, this is the standard line on the history of Japanese.

   The Yayoi were originally migrants from the Korean peninsula and brought with them an Altaic language. This language combined with a language already spoken in the islands which may or may not have been Altaic—at some level, however, the Japanese were influenced by Pacific Island languages. Because of their relative isolation, the Japanese language became very different from the languages it was related to. Adding to this, when Chinese culture was introduced, the Chinese language changed Japanese profoundly as it introduced new ways of thinking and new ways of expressing that thought.

   In fact, most Japanese words are derived from Chinese—over sixty percent, to be precise. The situation is similar to English in which some sixty percent of English words are derived from Latin derived languages and only a minority of English words come from original English. For the most part, however, Japanese grammar did not significantly change.

   Since the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Japanese has been greatly influenced by Western languages. Technology in particular has introduced a host of new words and expressions. In the realm of grammar, some writers, such as Yukio Mishima, have written Japanese in such a way to make translation into English easier. As a result, they've significantly changed some grammatical constructions to fit in more closely with European languages.


What is . . .Japanese like as a language? In many ways, it's completely unlike the experience of English or any other European language. Unlike English, Japanese constructs sentences in a sentence-object-verb structure (called an SOV language—English constructs sentences as sentence-verb-object, or SVO). While this is familiar to people who've studied other languages, it expresses a relationship between the subject and object that is far more intimate than that expressed in English.

   Most apparent to a first-time learner of Japanese is that it is a di-syllabic language (most words are formed from two syllables) in which each syllable consists only of a consonant and a vowel (called a CV syllabic system). These syllables, however, are different than English syllables. Called mora in Japanese, all syllables are consonant-vowel—no syllables can be consonant-vowel-consonant. If a consonant is not followed by a vowel, it's counted as a single syllable. The word, shinbun, has four mora or syllables (shi-n-bu-n) and is equivalent to futomaki , which also has four syllables. You should remember this when studying Japanese poetry—all Japanese poetry is based on counting syllables, but you can never produce the same syllabic effect in English or any other European language. In addition, it is the mora system which renders most English words incomprehensible when they're adopted into Japanese. By far the majority of non-Chinese foreign words in Japanese are derived from English; when the Japanese use these words on English speakers, however, they're met with confusion. This is because every syllable must be in the form "consonant-vowel" in Japanese: in "besaboru" (baseball), for instance, when a batter swings and misses a pitch, it's a "seturoku," not a "strike" (a worker initiated work stoppage is a "seturoki").

   The most startling difference that an English speaking person encounters with Japanese is to find out that it is not a heavily inflected language, that is, it does not define various uses of a verb or noun by adding a host of suffixes, but rather employs particles, which are independent words (like our prepositions) that indicate the nature of a noun or verb. In some ways, this makes it easy to learn Japanese. These particles, however, don't correspond to categories that we have in English or other European languages.

   The most startlingly disconcerting of these particles is the difference between ga and wa, a distinction that leaves many an undergraduate crying over their Japanese language textbook. Both of these particles are used with nouns in much the same way that we add an -s to a noun to indicate a plural. But ga and wa do not indicate plurals—rather they indicate the distinction between a subject and a topic.

   This is a difficult distinction to really understand. Almost all languages are of one of two types: they express things as subjects or they express things as topics. Japanese is the only human language that is neither a subject language nor a topic language but rather both. Here's the difference: I can say, "the snow is white," in two different ways in Japanese:
"Yuki ga siroi" (the snow is white)
"Yuki wa siroi" (the snow is white)
These are, despite the English translation, two entirely different sentences. The first would be used if you're referring to a particular bunch of snow, say, if you walk out the door and you're surprised at the whiteness of the snow: "Boy, the snow is white!" You're referring to a particular bunch of snow (snow is the subject). If, however, you're making a judgement about a general state of affairs, that is, if you're talking about snow as if it were a topic to be judged or described, then you'd the second statement. Unlike English, then, most Japanese sentences have to distinguish between a pure description (subject based) or a judgement (topic based).

   The Japanese understanding of time is far different in their verb forms than the Western view of time. While English and other European languages organize actions largely on the basis of their time relations, Japanese verbs express far different ideas in their tenses.

   A Japanese verb can express a.) a non-past continuing action, but not necessarily one that has occured in the past, present, or future (this is commonly and inaccurately called the "present tense" in Western grammars); b.) a tense that describes an action that has been completed and occurred in the past; and c.), a "tentative" action, that is, an action that hasn't been carried out (commonly called the future). This latter verb form would be best translated in English as "it might happen" or "it might be happening." This latter form is also used in formal speech as a form of deference to the listener. If, for instance, a Japanese speaker is trying to be respectful or highly polite, he or she will use the tentative tense: "I might be eating dinner with you" rather than "I'm eating dinner with you."

   Japanese also includes an elaborate grammatical and lexical system of "honorifics," or rules of language to show respect according to your rank and the rank of those you're speaking to. These honorifics include adding suffixes to nouns and verbs and were a way of both marking your rank and the rank of the person above you. In Japanese, this elaborate system begins in the Heian period and develops to its fullest in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) with its codifcation of social class. In modern Japan, this elaborate linguistic system has simplified; one cannot, however, learn to speak Japanese without learning the language forms, including syntax and grammar, for defining one's social place. This is a difficult concept to communicate to English speakers, but through most of Japanese history, the experience of language meant experiencing and reinforcing the social differences that ordered society. From the Heian period to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, you literally could not say a sentence without defining one's own social class and the social class of the person you were speaking to. In addition, the system of honorifics is a gendered system. One not only defined social class in one's speech, but one's sex. Women's speech in Japanese tends to be filled with honorifics and with the "tentative" tense as a deference to male auditors. Part of the experience of Japanese through most of its histroy, then, is to encounter every day language usage that always put women in a subordinate position to men.


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 8-22-97