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The Japanese Language

Language family: [disputed] > Japonic
Official language: Japan, Palau (on the island of Angaur)
Number of speakers: NATIVE: 126 million / 2nd: 1 million TOTAL: 127 million

Japanese, known to native speakers as Nihongo, is spoken by 127 million people, most of whom reside in Japan, though significant Japanese-speaking emigrant populations live in the US and Brazil and other countries. It is the 9th most commonly spoken language on the planet.

Origins & influences.
The exact origins of the Japanese language are unknown; only one other language group, the Ryukyuan languages, is substantiated as being related. Though Japanese shares grammatical similarities with Korean and some lexical affinities with Austronesian languages, no genetic relationship with either of these language groups can be proven. Although not historically related to Chinese, Japanese is heavily influenced by Chinese through 1500 years of cultural and language contact. Linguistic influences are evident in vocabulary and grammatical similarities as well as in the Japanese system of writing, which consists of a mixture of kanji and kana characters borrowed from the Chinese.

Writing system.
1945 Chinese kanji characters -- collectively called "Joyo Kanji" -- are considered basic for daily use in Japanese. These kanji ideographs designate the content words in Japanese: nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Meanings are further modified through the additional use of kana. The 50 syllabic characters are the grammatical functional words, such as conjunctions, particles, inflectional endings. Kana can be either hiragana or katakana characters, the former of which is most widely used. Traditionally these characters are written vertically, from right to left, but today texts are often written horizontally from left to right to accommodate the inclusion of English and other foreign words. Romaji, a phonetic system that uses the Roman alphabet, is used as well at times.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1, in Japanese

The standard language & its dialects.
The mountainous topography and numerous small, isolated islands have fostered the development of many distinct dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. The language varieties are grouped into Eastern, Western, and sometimes also Kyushu dialects, but there are even many variations within these groupings. The languages spoken in the Ryukyuan Islands lying even farther to the southwest represent a fourth grouping that is nowadays considered by linguists to be a separate language (Ryukyu) rather than a variation of Japanese.

The standard form of the Japanese language is based on the dialect of Tokyo and is referred to as hyojungo. This standard form has been taught to children on a widespread basis since compulsory education was introduced in 1886. Modern communication and transportation technologies have also led to the spread of this standard form. For this reason, as is the case with the languages of many technologically advanced countries, finer distinctions among dialects are slowly and gradually disappearing.

Japanese sentences follow Subject-Object-Verb word order, which means the verb typically occurs at the end of the sentence. Subject pronouns may be omitted if they are understood from context. Japanese has only two verb tenses, past and present, and the number of irregular verbs in the language is small.

Unlike in many European languages, Japanese nouns lack both gender and number, and articles do not accompany nouns. Instead noun functions are indicated through the use of particles. These particles serve such roles as marking sentence subjects and objects, and expressing relationships between sentence components, much like prepositions do in English. Such particles are different from English prepositions, however, in that they follow rather than precede the nouns they mark.

Politeness, formality, and hierarchical relationships are codified in the grammatical system of Japanese. Factors such as age, experience, job, the speaker's intention, and even the speaker's gender can influence whether one should use the plain form, the simple polite form, or honorific language or humble language in any given situation. These forms are characterized by differing verb conjugations and noun prefixes and suffixes. Though a loosening of formality has been evident among the younger generation over the past few decades, it is clear that this system will not disappear anytime soon.

Learning Japanese.
In terms of enrollment, Japanese is the 6th most commonly learned language in the United States. Hundreds of 1000s of Koreans, Chinese, and Australians are also learning Japanese. Growing interest in Japanese is fueled by the country's economic prosperity - it has the 2nd largest GDP in the world - and the spread of such pop culture trends like anime and manga.

Japanese Words in English.
Japanese words that have been absorbed into the English language more often than not describe cultural imports from Japan. Some examples are: bonsai, sushi, geisha, gingko, hibachi, haiku, judo, futon, tamari, ninja, tsunami, Akita.

Not convinced that Japanese is for you? See our 10 reasons to learn Japanese!

SOURCES CONSULTED: Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. (2005). - "Japanese Language," Encyclopedia Britannica 2006. - "Japanese Language," Wikipedia. - Languages of the World (2002), by K. Katzner. - The World's Major Languages (1990), by Bernard Comrie - T. Onishi, "Dialect Research at the National Institute for the Japanese Language.
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