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Japanese language

The Japanese language (Nihongo 日本語) is a spoken and written language mostly in Japan. In its written form it employs Chinese characters (Kanji 漢字), two syllabaries called Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ), and Romaji (ローマ字) the Roman alphabet.

The language is spoken almost exclusively in Japan. During the period in which Japan dominated Korea, Taiwan and part of China, locals in those countries were forced to learn and speak Japanese instead of their native language and were each given a Japanese name against their will. There are still many people there who speak Japanese instead of or as well as the local languages. Immigrants from Japan, the majority of whom are found in California, U.S and Brazil also some speak the language. Their descendants, though having Japanese names, rarely speak Japanese fluently.

Beside them, in recent years, many enthusiasts (they call themselves otaku) through Japanese animation and manga (Japanese comics), learn and know how to speak Japanese. Often, they idenfity the Japanese language as cool and many of them learn Japanese from those animations and comics.

Japanese is the official language of Japan and of no other country. Because it is Japan's only official language and there are few foreign Japanese speakers, the language is heavily tied to Japanese culture and vice-versa. There are many Japanese words describing certain Japanese cultural ideas, traditions, and customs, such as Wa, Nemawashi, Kaizen, Kamikaze, and which do not have corresponding words in other languages. Understanding the Japanese language requires knowledge of Japanese society.

There are dozens of dialects spoken in Japan. Among them are Kansai-ben, Okinawa-kotoba, Tugaru-ben[?], and Tokyo-ben[?]. There are two forms of the language considered standard: hyojungo ("hyoujungo") or standard Japanese, and kyotsugo ("kyoutsuugo") or the common language. As government policy has modernized Japan many of the distinctions between the two have blurred.

Since the end of World War II, many foreign words have been introduced, mostly as words in katakana, the majority of them from English.

Table of contents

Linguistic Origins

The language is different from English and most other European languages in terms of its writing system, grammatical structure and usage and role in the society. Like Finnish, Turkish, and Korean, Japanese is an agglutinative language, with two (phonologically distinctive) tones like Serbian/Croatian and Swedish. This tonal system is often referred to as a pitch accent[?] in linguistics. It is of uncertain affiliation, though there are theories that it is related to East Asian languages such as Korean (but not Chinese). Phonological and lexical similarities to Malayo-Polynesian languages have also been noted. Recent phonological research done by Susumu Ohno[?] suggests a possible relationship between Japanese and Tamil, a member of the Dravidian language family spoken in southern India. A few linguists postulate a distant link between Japanese and the Altaic languages, such as Turkish. Most linguists classify Japanese as a language isolate and consider it unrelated to any other known language.

Japanese Syllabary The Japanese sound system, for the purpose of native literacy, is expressed in terms of syllables (or, technically, moras) rather than isolated vowels or consonants. This is because written Japanese possesses two syllabaries, not an alphabet, in which each character represents a syllable (though some characters represent only one vowel). Any Japanese syllable can be written in Hiragana or Katakana, the two syllabaries, or in Romaji, as shown below.

This section uses romaji to describe Japanese syllables instead of Japanese characters, for English-speakers.

Basic Syllables: Vowel, Consonant plus vowel, and "n"

Japanese vowels are pure sounds like their Italian counterparts. Japanese /u/, however is unrounded.

  A I U E O Notes
あ ア
い イ
う ウ
え エ
お オ
K ka
か カ
き キ
く ク
け ケ
こ コ
S sa
さ サ
し シ
す ス
せ セ
そ ソ
T ta
た タ
ち チ
つ ツ
て テ
と ト
N na
な ナ
に ニ
ぬ ヌ
ね ネ
の ノ
H ha
は ハ
ひ ヒ
ふ フ
へ ヘ
ほ ホ
hu is usually spelled fu in romaji
M ma
ま マ
み ミ
む ム
め メ
も モ
Y ya
や ヤ
- yu
ゆ ユ
- yo
よ ヨ
No ye or yi
R ra
ら ラ
り リ
る ル
れ レ
ろ ロ
N.B. the Japanese "r" is between the
English "r" and "l."
W wa
わ ワ
ゐ ヰ
- (e)
ゑ ヱ
を ヲ
wi and we are archaic due to changes in
pronunciation of the spoken language
N   n
ん ン
"n" comprises a syllable by itself

Modified Syllables: Consonant plus basic vowel

Base syllables plus double points (dakuten) to indicate a voiced consonant, or a circle (handakuten) to indicate a semi-voiced consonant.

  A I U E O Notes
G ga
が ガ
ぎ ギ
ぐ グ
げ ゲ
ご ゴ
Z za
ざ ザ
じ ジ
ず ズ
ぜ ゼ
ぞ ゾ
"zi" is pronounced as "ji".
D da
だ ダ
ぢ ヂ
づ ヅ
で デ
ど ド
"di" is pronounced as "ji", and "du" is pronounced as "zu"
B ba
ば バ
び ビ
ぶ ブ
べ ベ
ぼ ボ
P pa
ぱ パ
ぴ ピ
ぷ プ
ぺ ペ
ぽ ポ

Modified Syllables: Consonant plus ya, yu, yo

  ya yu yo Notes
K kya
きゃ キャ
きゅ キュ
きょ キョ
S sha
しゃ シャ
しゅ シュ
しょ ショ
Alt.: sya, syu, syo.
T cha
ちゃ チャ
ちゅ チュ
ちょ チョ
Alt.: tya, tyu, tyo.
N nya
にゃ ニョ
にゅ ニュ
にょ ニョ
H hya
ひゃ ヒャ
ひゅ ヒュ
ひょ ヒョ
M mya
みゃ ミャ
みゅ ミュ
みょ ミョ
R rya
りゃ リャ
りゅ リュ
りょ リョ
G gya
ぎゃ ギャ
ぎゅ ギュ
ぎょ ギョ
Z ja
じゃ ジャ
じゅ ジュ
じょ ジョ
Alt.: zya, zyu, zyo
B bya
びゃ ビャ
びゅ ビュ
びょ ビョ
P pya
ぴゃ ピャ
ぴゅ ピュ
ぴょ ピョ

Double (Geminate) Consonants: length of two syllables

A prefixed small "tsu", っ (hiragana) or ッ (katakana), indicates the immediately following consonant is preceded by a glottal stop and held for an additional syllable.

These so-called 'doubled' consonants often involve the glottis in speech, but may not necessarily be a full glottal stop.

Long Vowels: length of two syllables

A suffixed "u", う (hiragana) or long vowel mark, ー (katakana), indicates the immediately preceding vowel sound is held for an additional syllable.

In Romaji, long vowels may be indicated by either a macron (bar over the vowel), circumflex, additional vowel to match the Japanese orthography, or not at all: "Tokyo" is really "Toukyou" in Japanese.

Note that "e" is normally doubled by the addition of "i" rather than an extra e. Likewise, "o" is usually doubled by "u". There are, however, some exceptions to this rule, such as the word for "big" ("大") which is lengthened by an "o" as in "ookii"

The letter "n" is both a syllable in itself and the leading consonant in some other syllables. Written out in kana, there is no ambiguity, because each kana is a single distinct character. To prevent ambiguity in romaji, when the syllabic "n" is followed by a vowel, it is often separated from the vowel by an apostrophe.

Pronunciation: Features

  1. In English, stressed syllables in a word are pronounced louder and longer. In Japanese, all syllables, with a few exceptions, are pronounced with equal length and loudness.
  2. In Japanese, a stressed syllable is merely pronounced at a higher pitch. This is part of the Japanese intonation pattern.
  3. Japanese does have a distinct intonation pattern. This pattern can be heard not only in individual words, but also in whole sentences. Intonation is produced by a rise and fall in pitch over certain syllables. In the case of questions, the Japanese intonation patterns bear little resemblance to the English ones. This is a source of a lot of confusion.

Example: What typical Japanese syllables look like

A typical (yet contrived) exchange between two people would look like this: Mr. Hayashi introduces Mr. Tanaka to Mr. Sanger.

 Yamada:   Tanaka-san, kochira wa, Senga-san desu.
 Senga:    Hajimemashite, Senga desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
 Tanaka:   Hajimemashite. ABC no Tanaka desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
 Yamada:   Senga-san wa Nupiidia no shain desu.

 Yamada:   Mr. Tanaka, this is Mr. Sanger.
 Sanger:   How do you do. My name is Sanger. I'm very glad to meet you.
 Tanaka:   How do you do. I am Mr. Tanaka from ABC Company. I'm very glad to meet you.
 Yamada:   Mr. Sanger is an employee of Nupedia.

The Japanese writing language Written Japanese uses four different scripts: Romaji, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Romaji refers to the Roman alphabet and is the writing system that will be used here.

Native Japanese text is typically written in a combination of the other three: Kanji, which is an adaptation of Chinese ideograms, and Hiragana and Katakana, which are syllabaries derived from simplified kanji. Kanji are used for most words in written Japanese, with hiragana being employed for grammatical particles and for writing out obscure or unknown kanji. Katakana is typically employed for writing foreign loanwords, though it is also sometimes used to convey extra emphasis when writing a Japanese word, not unlike italics[?] in Western languages. Texts written for children and foreigners who are still learning Japanese will frequently feature the hiragana reading i small print next to the kanji. Although Roman letters are not typically used to write Japanese, wholesale borrowing of English and other western loan words can include their foreign spelling. Also, important acronyms, such as 'NATO' and WTO' are written alphabetically in Romaji.

Here is the word "I" (myself) in kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji (though note that it would never actually be written in katakana):

Kanji Hiragana Katakana Romaji
わたし ワタシ watashi

There are two main systems for the romanization of Japanese, known as Kunrei-shiki and Hepburn. The Kunrei system is little used outside of Japan, as it is difficult for non-Japanese-speakers to decipher. However, it is slighty briefer than the Hepburn system, and is therefore generally used for keyboard input of Japanese on computer systems. The word for "I" is written "watashi" according to the Hepburn system, and "watasi" in the Kunrei romanization.

Although the Japanese language adapted Chinese characters, kanji in Japanese generally differ slightly or significantly from the corresponding characters in the Chinese writing system. Unicode has severely been criticized in Japan (as well as in China and Korea) because it assigns the same code to similar characters from various East Asian languages, even though the character varies in terms of form and pronunciation [1] (http://www.hastingsresearch.com/net/04-unicode-limitations.shtml). Unicode is also criticized for ignoring the fact that some kanji have changed form over the years. Though Japanese computer users have almost no trouble handling contemporary text, research about ancient Japanese language and about international matters is considerably handicapped by this limitation.

The preceding conversation could be written in a mix of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Content roots of words would be written in Kanji, the partially pictographic and iconic logograms/morphograms that the Japanese borrowed from the Chinese.

Particles marking parts of speech, like "wa", and "o" and verb inflections would be spelled out syllable by syllable in Hiragana, one of the two Japanese syllabaries. Many everyday spoken words, if written down, are also written using hiragana instead of the kanji.

Hiragana is also used to spell out words which have particularly complex kanji, when writing for younger children or foreigners who have limited knowledge of kanji, or when displaying text on character-cell displays. Schoolchildrens in lower grade often write Japanese name, including their own ones in Hiragana. Foreign words like "Sanger" or "Wikipedia" would be spelled out syllable by syllable in Katakana, the second Japanese syllabary, which is most often used to write loan words of non-Chinese origin (the relationship of Chinese to Japanese is somewhat like French to English, except Chinese is not at all related to Japanese).

In the past, Japanese text is all written in a direction of from top to down vertically and right to left for next lines. After introducing of western cultures to Japanese language, Japanese language started to be written in horizontally as well sometimes. At first, such text is written from right to left, corresponding to tradional writting, particularly before the end of World War II. After that, text started to be written from left to right to corrspond to common western direction in writting. Text usually written still vertically include:

Text usually written horizontally include

  • technical documents, including native ones and translations
  • school handouts
  • advertisements

A personal notes, memos or letters have become more often written horizontally while the past generations write vertically.

Because western languages such as Dutch are written left to right horizontally, it is called "Yokomo-ji" (horizontal languages) in Japanese and that word still today connotates foreign languages.

Grammar: Overview

Avoiding detailed explanations, Japanese grammar has the following features.

1. The basic sentence structure of a Japanese sentence is

      For example:
      Kochira wa, Senga-san desu.
      Kochira is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle "wa."
      This means "as for this person."
      The verb is "desu" meaning 'is.'
      "Senga-san desu" is the comment.
      Therefore, this loosely translates to:
      "As for this person, (it) is Mr. Sanger."   

Japanese, like Chinese, is often called a 'topic prominent' language, which means it marks topic separately from subject, and the two do not always coincide.

2. Japanese nouns usually have neither number nor gender. Thus "hon" meaning "book" can be used for the singular or plural. However, in the case of certain native words (of proto-Japanese rather than Chinese origin) plurality is indicated by reduplication. For example, "hito" means "person" whilst "hitobito" means "people"; "ware" means "I" whilst "wareware" means "we".

3. Verbs normally come at the end of a sentence.

4. Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: the present and the past. The present tense[?] (or imperfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple present and the future tense, while the past tense[?] (or perfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple past tense. The distinction is between actions which are completed (perfect) or are not yet completed (imperfect). The present perfect, present continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect, future continuous, and future perfect continuous are usually expressed as a gerund (-te form) plus the auxiliary form imasu/iru. Similarly, the past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous are usually expressed with the gerund plus the past tense of imasu/iru. For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the "-te iru" form regularly indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others, that represent a change of state, the "-te iru" form regularly indicates a perfect tense. For example, "kite imasu" regularly means "I have come," and not "I am coming," but "tabete imasu" regularly means "I am eating," and not "I have eaten." Note that in this form the initial "i" of "imasu/iru" is often not voiced, especially in casual speech and the speech of young people. The exact meaning is determined from the context, as Japanese tenses do not always map one-to-one to English tenses. In addition, Japanese verbs are also conjugated to show various moods.

5. Adjectives are inflected to show the present, past, affirmative and negative.

6. The grammatical function of nouns like possession, direct object, indirect object etc. are indicated by particles, like "wa" and "no" above. Particles play an extremely important function in Japanese.

7. There is a "standard" dialect of Japanese, "hyoujungo", taught in schools and used on television and in official communications. However, Japanese also has many dramatically different dialects, differing in terms of vocabulary, pitch accent, and in some cases pronunciation. Dialects are generally mutually intelligible, although extremely geographically separated dialects such as the Touhoku and Kyuushuu variants are not. The Ryuukyuu dialects used in and around Okinawa are related to Japanese, but the two are mutually unintelligible.

8. Japanese has many ways to express different levels of politeness, including special verbs, verbs indicating relative status, use of different nouns, etc.

9. The verb desu/da is not a copula in the western sense of the verb "to be". In the sentences above, it has played the copulative function of equality, that is: A = B. However a separate function of "to be" is to indicate existence, for which the verbs arimasu/aru and imasu/iru are used for inanimate and animate things respectively.

10. Derived forms of words occur often in Japanese. Nouns can be made into verbs, adjectives into nouns, gerunds, and other forms, and so on. Verbs, in addition to other derived forms, have one (the "-tai" form) which is an adjective meaning "want to do X"; e.g., "tabetai desu" means "I want to eat."


There are three main language levels in Japanese: the plain form, the simple polite form or teinei and the advanced polite form or keigo.

In Japanese society, most relationships are not equal: one person has a higher level than the other depending upon his job, age or the situation. The lower position person must use a polite form but the higher one can use a familiar form.

The difference between honorific ("sonkeigo") and humble ("kenjougo") language is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) whilst honorific language is used when describing the interlocutor and his group. For example, the "san" suffix (approximately meaning "Mr.", "Mrs." or "Ms.") is an example of honorific language. It should never be used to talk about oneself. Nor should it be employed when talking about someone from one's own company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group". The difference between honorific and humble language is especially noticeable in polite speech ("keigo").

Many researchers report that since 1990s, use of polite forms has become few, particularly among youngsters but found that they apply politeness as indicating distance between them and others. That is, they use polite forms for those who they are unfamilar and as the relationship becomes intimate, they speak more frankly. This is often regardless age, social class and gender.

Example of Basic Japanese Sentence structure

Note the importance of the particles, verb tenses, and adjectives.

Mr. Sanger and Mr. Wales eat at a Japanese restaurant.

 Senga:     Sumimasen, menyuu o misete kudasai.  Please show us the menu.
 Ueitoresu: Hai, doozo.                          Certainly sir. Here you are.
 (cont'd):  Nomimono wa nani ga  ii desu ka.     What would you like to drink? 
 Weruzu:    Biiru ga, hoshii desu.               I like beer.
 Senga:     Sukiyaki ga, ii desu                 I'll have the "sukiyaki."
 Weruzu:    Biiru o 2-hon to sukiyaki o kudasai. Two bottles of beer and some
sukiyaki, please. Senga: Dezaato wa, meron ga ii desu. For dessert we'll have melon. Ueitoresu: Hai, wakarimashita. I see (understood).


 ueitoresu     -  waitress    
 sumimasen     -  excuse me
 menyuu        -  menu
 hai           -  yes
 nomimono      -  beverage
 nani          -  what
 hoshii        -  desirable
 ii            -  good
 biiru         -  beer
 hon           -  to count bottles (or any long object)
 dezaato       -  dessert
 meron         -  melon

 onegaishimasu -  please
 X kudasai     -  please give me X

 wa - indicates the topic.
 ga - indicates the topic with de-emphasis on the topic
 o  - indicates the direct object
 ka - indicates a question
 to - and

 misemasu   - show
 desu       - to be (copulative) 
 wakarimasu - to understand.

See also

External links and references

  • Jim Breen's (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/japanese) site:
A large and sophisticated collection of resources, including dynamic dictionaries and translators

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