日本語; Nihongo is a language spoken by over 127 million people, mainly
in Japan, but also by Japanese emigrant communities around the world.
It is considered an agglutinative language and is distinguished by a
complex system of honorifics reflecting the hierarchical nature of
Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary which
indicate the relative status of speaker and listener. The sound
inventory of Japanese is relatively small, and it has a
lexically-distinctive pitch accent system.
Japanese has been heavily influenced by Chinese over a period of at
least 1,500 years. Japanese is written with a mix of Chinese
characters (kanji) and a modified syllabary, kana, also originally
based on Chinese characters. Much vocabulary has been imported from
Chinese, or created on Chinese models.
Historical linguists who specialize in Japanese agree that it is one
of the two members of the Japonic language family, but remain divided
as to the origins of the Japonic languages. An older view, still
widely held by some linguists and many non-linguists, is that Japanese
is a language isolate.
Specialists in Japanese historical linguistics all agree that Japanese
is related to the Ryukyuan languages (including Okinawan); together,
Japanese and Ryukyuan are grouped in the Japonic languages. Among
these specialists, the possibility of a genetic relation to Goguryeo
has the most evidence; relationship to Korean is considered plausible
but is still up to debate; the Altaic hypothesis has somewhat less
currency, though it has grown significantly more respectable in recent
years, primarily due to the work of Sergei Starostin, et al. Almost
all specialists reject the idea that Japanese could be genetically
related to Austronesian/Malayo-Polynesian languages or Sino-Tibetan
languages, and the idea that Japanese could be related to Tamil is
almost entirely excluded.
Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been
and is still sometimes spoken in countries besides Japan. When Japan
occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, and various Pacific islands,
locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in
empire-building programmes. As a result, there are still many people
in these countries who speak Japanese instead of or as well as the
local languages. In addition, emigrants from Japan, the majority of
whom are found in Brazil, where the biggest Japanese community outside
Japan is found, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, and
Melbourne), and the United States (notably California and Hawaii),
also frequently speak Japanese. There is also a small community in
Davao, Philippines. Their descendants (known as nikkei 日系, literally
Japanese descendants), however, rarely speak Japanese fluently. There
are estimated to be several million non-Japanese studying the language
Japanese is the official language of Japan, and Japan is the only
country to have Japanese as an official working language. There are
two forms of the language considered standard: hyōjungo (標準語, hyōjungo?)
or standard Japanese, and kyōtsūgo (共通語, kyōtsūgo?) or the common
language. As government policy has modernized Japanese, many of the
distinctions between the two have blurred. Hyōjungo is taught in
schools and used on television and in official communications, and is
the version of Japanese discussed in this article.
Standard Japanese can also be divided into bungo (文語, bungo?) or
"literary language," and kōgo (口語, kōgo?) or "oral language," which
have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo
was the main method of writing Japanese until the late 1940s, and
still has relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers
(many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in
bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their
language). Kōgo is the predominant method of speaking and writing
Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary occasionally
appears in modern Japanese for poetic effect.
Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to the
mountainous island terrain and Japan's long history of both external
and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch
accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, particle usage, and
pronunciation. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories,
although this is uncommon.
Dialects from less central regions, such as the Tōhoku or Tsushima
dialect may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the
country. The dialect used in Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū is famous
for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but
to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well. Kagoshima
dialect is 84% cognate with standard Tokyo dialect. Kansai-ben, a
group of dialects from west-central Japan, is spoken by many Japanese;
the Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy, and many
entertainers use Osaka dialect phrases solely for humor value.
The Ryukyuan languages are spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. Not only is
each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are
unintelligible to those who speak other Ryukyuan languages. Due to the
close relationship of Ryukyuan and Japanese, they are still sometimes
said to be only dialects of one language, but modern scholars consider
them to be separate languages.
Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide, due not
only to television and radio, but also to increased mobility within
Japan due to its system of roads, railways, and airports. Young people
usually speak their local dialect and the standard language, though in
most cases, the local dialect is influenced by the standard, and
regional versions of "standard" Japanese have local-dialect influence.
Japanese nouns have neither number nor gender. Thus hon may mean
"book" or "books". It is possible to explicitly indicate more than
one, either by providing a quantity (often with a counter word) or by
adding a suffix (which is rare). Words for people are usually
understood as singular. Thus Tanaka san usually means Mr/Ms Tanaka.
Words that refer to people and animals can be made to indicate a group
of individuals with noun suffixes that indicate groups, such as -tachi.
Though some words, like hitobito "people", always refer to more than
one, Japanese nouns without such additions are neither singular nor
plural. Hito could mean "person" or "persons", ki could be "tree" or
"trees" without any implied preference for singular or plural.
Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there
are two: past and present, or non-past, which is used for the present
and the future. For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the
-te iru form indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense. For others,
that represent a change of state, the -te iru form indicates a perfect
tense. For example, kite iru means "He has come (and is still here)",
but tabete iru means "He is eating".
Questions (both with an interrogative pronoun and yes/no
questions) have the same structure as affirmative sentences, but with
intonation rising at the end. In the formal register, the question
particle ka is added. For example, Ii desu "It is OK" becomes Ii desu
ka "Is it OK?". In a more informal tone sometimes the particle no is
added instead to show a personal interest of the speaker: Dōshite
konai no? "Why aren't (you) coming?". Some simple queries are formed
simply by mentioning the topic with an interrogative intonation to
call for the hearer's attention: Kore wa? "(What about) this?"; Namae
wa? "(What's your) name?".
Negatives are formed by inflecting the verb. For
example, Pan o taberu "I will eat bread" or "I eat bread" becomes Pan
o tabenai "I will not eat bread" or "I do not eat bread".
The so-called -te verb form is used for a variety of
purposes: either progressive or perfect aspect (see above); combining
verbs in a temporal sequence (Asagohan o tabete sugu dekakeru "I'll
eat breakfast and leave at once"), simple commands, conditional
statements and permissions (Dekakete mo ii? "May I go out?"), etc.
The word da (plain), desu (polite) is the copula verb.
It corresponds approximately to the English be, but often takes on
other roles. Two additional common verbs are used to indicate
existence ("there is") or, in some contexts, property: aru (negative
nai) and iru (negative inai), for inanimate and animate things,
respectively. For example, Neko ga iru "There's a cat", Ii kangae ga
nai "[I] haven't got a good idea".
The verb "to do" (suru, polite form shimasu) is often
used to make verbs from nouns (ai suru "to love", benkyō suru "to
study", etc.). Japanese also has a huge number of compound verbs to
express concepts that are described in English using a verb and a
preposition (e.g. tobidasu "to fly out, to flee," from tobu "to fly,
to jump" + dasu "to go out").