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Ainu language

The Ainu language (Ainu Itak) is spoken by the Ainu ethnic group in northern Japan and Sakhalin. Although typologically similar in some respects to Japanese, Ainu is a language isolate with no known relation to other languages.

(There is also an unrelated Turkic language spoken in western China known as Ainu, variously spelled Aynu or Aini.)

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Ainu is a moribund language, with a small and rapidly dwindling number of speakers; a 1996 estimate lists only 15 active speakers out of some 15,000 ethnic Ainu (Ethnologue). Most Ainu in Japan speak only Japanese.


The phonology of Ainu is relatively simple; syllables are CV(C), there are few consonant clusters[?].

There are five vowels:

 i     u
 e     o


 p   t   k   ? (glottal stop is not written in transcription)
     s       h
     c (varies between [tS], [ts], [dZ], [dz])
 w   y ([j])
 m   n

The sequence /ti/ is realized as [tSi]; /s/ usually becomes [S] before /i/ and at the end of syllables. There is some variation among dialects; in the Sakhalin dialect, syllable-final /p, t, k, r/ are merged into /h/.

There is a pitch accent[?]; words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong. Other words have the high pitch on the second syllable.

Typology and grammar

Ainu is SOV, with postpositions. Subject and object are generally not marked. Nouns can cluster to modify one another; the head comes at the end. Verbs, which are inherently either transitive or intransitive, accept various derivational affixes.


No formal orthography exists for writing Ainu; Latin-based scripts devised by linguists, as well as the Japanese katakana syllabary are variously used.

Oral literature

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called Yukar[?], which retain a number of grammatical archaisms.

Research on Ainu language and culture

Extensive research on Ainu language and the culture of Ainu was performed by the anthropologist Bronislaw Pilsudski.

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