Learning about the history and culture surrounding your target language helps you get a deeper understanding of why it works the way it does, and expands your worldview.
In this article, we’ll focus on the origins of Japanese, its evolution, and some key data that will help you approach the language with some basic knowledge.
日本語 (Nihongo) or Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by 128 million people, mainly in Japan. It’s the 9th most-spoken language in the world, if we’re only considering native speakers.
Japanese is gaining commercial and cultural relevance, with Japan currently experiencing considerable growth across industries. Japanese media is conquering international audiences, Japanese tech companies are leading the way, and Japanese consumers are catching the eye of businesses across the world, with companies requesting Japanese translation and related language assistance almost every day.
Here are some broad strokes of the history of Japanese, as well as some facts about its current state:
The Language’s Starting Point
While we can trace the history of the Spanish language or of English with relative ease, when it comes to Japanese, things get a little more complex.
We have no record of its early instances. We can assume that the language evolved considerably before our first records, because the oldest written evidence of Japanese available to us already shows a fully-functional, well-formed language which, while using characters from Chinese, differs from it in grammar and pronunciation.
As explained by Professor Ryan Schultz from the East Asian Studies Center at Ohio State University, the islands that make up Japan are of volcanic origin, which means that its formation was so late that no vegetation, animals or people could be native from Japan, they all moved there from somewhere else.
Where did the people who spoke the earliest versions of Japanese come from? There is no consensus.
A Discovery Magazine article on the diverse theories about the Japanese people’s origin synthesizes the complexity of this question (and how it relates to language) as follows:
“The search for answers is difficult because the evidence is so conflicting. On the one hand, the Japanese people are biologically undistinctive, being very similar in appearance and genes to other East Asians, especially to Koreans. As the Japanese like to stress, they are culturally and biologically rather homogeneous, with the exception of a distinctive people called the Ainu on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Taken together, these facts seem to suggest that the Japanese reached Japan only recently from the Asian mainland, too recently to have evolved differences from their mainland cousins, and displaced the Ainu, who represent the original inhabitants. But if that were true, you might expect the Japanese language to show close affinities to some mainland language, just as English is obviously closely related to other Germanic languages (because Anglo-Saxons from the continent conquered England as recently as the sixth century a.d.).”
Old Japanese & The Influence of Buddhism
The earliest version of Japanese we’ve got records of, “Old Japanese” is deeply linked to the disembark of Buddhism in the islands, during the 6th-8th centuries. One of the language’s earliest texts, written in kanbun (using exclusively Chinese characters), is Kojiki, a collection of mythical poems penned by Buddhist monks.
Considering the complexity and labor necessary to trace each Chinese character (and how ineffective it could be, with some 20-stroke characters representing a simple and short sound), monks eventually created a set of simplified characters called kana, which would be crucial in the evolution of the language.
Kana script soon branched into katakana, a script for religious and State documents employed by men, and hiragana, a script employed by women.
Early & Late Middle Japanese
During the Heian period, Japanese grammar continued to evolve. One of the main changes that took place in this period was that length distinctions became phonemic. During the Kamakura and the Muromachi periods, Japanese was documented by non-native sources (namely Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries), for the first time. Thanks to international influence, Japanese vocabulary grew, taking loanwords from European languages, such as pan (bread) and tobako (cigarette).
The inclusion of loan words and Arabic numerals has affected the way Japanese is written, as explained on the British Council’s Languages for the Future report, which places Japanese in a position of special cultural and economic relevance:
“Although Japanese uses a number of different scripts and is usually written vertically beginning on the right, many texts today are written horizontally to allow for the inclusion of English words, Arabic numerals and mathematical and chemical formulas.”
In an analysis of related scholarship, Professor Frank E. Daulton praised the potential of loanwords as a tool for English-learning:
“...although none of the recent learning strategies for acquiring English vocabulary appear to speed acquisition significantly, the fact that English basewords that are similar to Japanese loanwords can be acquired more easily opens new possibilities for enhanced vocabulary acquisition (...) because of their light learning burden, basewords can be learned very quickly by especially beginners.
As 734 high-frequency English headword groups correlate to loanword cognates, the loanword lexicon can be tapped to allow learners to gain a large number of highly useful lexical items, particularly nouns, in a short period of time, saving harder ones for later.
For more advanced English learners, the same approach could be taken to tackle, for example, the additional 800 "university-level" high-frequency words described by Nation Students should be made aware of the loanword resource that they possess. That is, they should learn to have more confidence in their intuitions about new English vocabulary. Kimura proposes that the loanword lexicon may even be used to develop a native-like semantic intuition (1989, pp. 79, 89). To this end, Kimura advises that teachers and learners pay special attention to loanwords in formal instruction. Nation notes, "The more the teacher or the course designer draws attention to the similarities and patterns (between L1 and L2 vocabulary), the greater the opportunity for transfer.”
It’s also worth noting that, throughout its recent history, Japanese terms have been included in most world languages, through words like “Emoji”, “Kimono”, "Sudoko"/"Sudoku", "Sushi", “Manga” and "Anime". The fact that these terms refer to deeply Japanese elements, games and art forms isn’t minor, and denotes how widely influential Japanese culture is.
After the Meiji Restoration, we can start referring to Japanese as “Early Modern” Japanese. During the 19th century, the language evolved from its “Early Modern” stage into its “Modern” variety.
After World War II, the language was standardized, the Japanese market for novels rose, and Japanese was enriched with more loan words. But, ever since, the linguistic domain of Japanese over Taiwanese, Manchurian and Korean populations has experienced a steady decrease.
Dialects & Diversity
On his Oxford Encyclopedia article about the origins of Japanese, scholar Alexander Vovin declared:
“...The very notion the “Japanese language” is somewhat misleading. In trying to define what it is, we will inevitably run into another old problem, namely defining what is a language and what is a dialect. (...) If neighbors in the dialect chain from A to Z can understand each other, we are dealing with a dialect continuum, but when they cannot, we have a language boundary on our hands. From this point of view (which certainly has its own pitfalls), there are two Japanese languages: Japanese proper, which spans from the Southern Kyūshū to the Northern Honshū, and in more recent times to Hokkaidō as well, and Hachijō, a practically moribund language, still spoken by a few elders on Hachijō Islands about 160 km into the Pacific Ocean from Tokyo Bay...”
From this standpoint, Vovin makes the following analysis of linguistic diversity within the Japanese languages:
“There is much greater linguistic diversity in the Ryūkyūan Islands than on the main Japanese islands, and given the fact that the oldest sources on the Ryūkyūan languages date back only to the 15th century as compared to the 17th century for Japanese, we still have much more gaps in our current knowledge about the Ryūkyūan language history than about the Japanese one. Nevertheless, the genetic relationship even between modern Tokyo Japanese and Shuri Ryūkyūan is quite transparent and is accepted today by virtually all specialists working in the field of the Japanese historical linguistics.”
When it comes to Japanese, East Kanto or Tokyo Dialect is the one taught in schools across the country. This homogeneity in teaching prevents general communication barriers. Of course, depending on where you live, your family will probably teach you their native dialect. This dialect will influence how you speak the language, but the difference might be the same as exists between an American English speaker from Boston and an American English speaker from Arkansas.
Are you interested in learning Japanese? You’re in the right place.
About the author:
Sean Patrick Hopwood, CEO and President of Day Translations, Inc., has carefully but aggressively guided his company to global success, providing excellent language solutions worldwide.