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Japanese is an East Asian language being mainly spoken on the Japanese archipelago. It is an agglutinative language.

Autoglottonym: Nihongo
Pronunciation: [/ni.ho.ɴ.go/, [nihõ̞ŋgo̞], [nihõ̞ŋŋo̞]]
Ethnologue name: Japanese
OLAC name: [1]
Location point:
Family: Altaic? (controversial)
Genus: Japonic
Country: Japan, USA, Brazil, Peru
Official in: Japan
Speakers: 126,000,000
Writing system: Japanese writing system (Kanji, Kana, Roomaji)
ISO 639-3: jpn


Pronunciation: [nihõ̞ŋgo̞]

The autonym 'Nihongo [nihõ̞ŋgo̞]' is the Japanese pronunciation of the compound word 日本語 which consists of two parts; 日本 (nihon; Japan) and 語 (go; language). The former part, 日本, means "sun-origin" and dates back to the Japanese missions to Imperial China in medieval time who referred to Japan in this way because of her eastward position relative to China.

The internationally acknowledged name Japanese derives from Mandarin or possibly Wu Chinese pronunciation of Japan, Cipangu, mentioned in a work of Marco Polo.



The origin and classification of Japanese are still viewed as controversial, since clear linguistic evidence has so far not been discovered. Several aspects of the language are equal to those languages spoken in neighbouring countries, such as Korean, Altaic, Tibeto-Burmese and even Dravidian. A definite connection to another language still remains to be found, which might imply that Japanese developed as a contact variety.


Japanese is spoken nearly exclusively inside of Japan.


Currently there are no data available concerning the exact number of Japanese native speakers. It is estimated at 126,000,000, a number which is based on the number of inhabitants in Japan.

Relatively large communities of Japanese expatriates exist in the USA (0.8 million), Brazil (0.38 million), Peru (0.1 million), Canada (43,000), Mexico (35,000), Argentine (32,000) as well as in Germany (21,000) and Singapore (20,000) et al.

The number of second language speaker of Japanese is relatively small. Its largest groups are the Korean minority in Japan (0.6 million) on the one hand, and the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago, whose native language is a Ryukyuan language on the other hand.

Furthermore, various Japanese-speaking communities can be found throughout the world, such as established immigrant communities in North and South America and Hawaii, some of which date back a century ago. Not all of those communities consist of permanent members, such as Japanese business men who spend a finite time working abroad while not only their families accompany them, but also a supporting, Japanese-speaking infrastructure.

Standard and Dialects

Two varieties which are considered standard can be found: hyoujugen 標準語 and kyoutsuugo 共通語 (common language). Hyoujugen is a variety which was set as the standard variety for teaching through the Imperial Rescript on Education (kyouiku ni kansuru chokugo, 教育ニ関スル勅語). Both standard varieties can be understood by every native speaker. Due to heavy Western influences and moderinsation both varieties have become less distinctive from the other.
Many distinctive dialects (hougen, 方言) can be found throughout the country. Japanese is normally split up into Eastern and Western Japanese, which can in turn be further divided into subcategories. A well-known example is the dialect of the Kansai region, the Kansai-ben 関西弁, which also includes the Oosaka-ben and the Kyouto-ben.

Spoken Japanese can be divided diachronically into four stages: Old Japanese (until the 8th century), Late Old Japanese (9th - 11th centuries), Middle Japanese (12th - 16th centuries), and Modern Japanese (from the 17th century to the present).

Loanwords and foreign influences

The Japanese vocabulary can be divided into native-Japanese words (和語, wago), Sino-Japanese words (漢語, kango) and foreign loanwords (外来語, gairaigo, "words that come from outside").

Approximately 47% of the Japanese lexicon is derived from Chinese loan words. Sino-Japanese words were imported during the Asuka period (AD 538 - 710), when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan. Chinese loanwords started spreading while books on Buddhism gained popularity during this period. Not only were Chinese words and characters adopted to the Japanese language, but already existing Chinese words were given a new meaning or characters were combined differently and later reimported to China (和製漢語, waseikango, "Chinese words made in Japan"). This happened especially during the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), when many new influences from Western cultures entered Japanese society and the native-Japanese vocabulary alone did not suffice for adequate translations of new meanings and concepts.

Foreign loanwords (from countries other than China) first entered Japan during the Sengoku period, when Portuguese traders came to Japan. A very common example for a word of Portuguese origin still in use today is パン, pan (bread).

In contemporary Japanese, foreign loan words have two main functions. One consists in using them in order to name things or concepts that have not originally been used in Japan. Besides terms which are related to modern technology パソコン pasokon, personal computer they can also be found in the language use of young Japanese people, where they replace common Japanese words with loan words. Another example for loan words is their use as euphemisms. Japanese itself is a highly indirect language, and some words or terms are better left out or at least not stated directly. For example does the word 妻 (tsuma, wife) also imply an unpleasant connotation, since tsuma can also refer to a side dish/garnish which is being served along with the main dish. Here the word for wife evokes the image of a subordinate role. Therefor the waseieigo-word ワイフ (waifu) can be found to be used often in replacement of the Japanese term.

Writing System

The Japanese writing system consists of four seperate systems: Chinese characters, Kanji 漢字, Kana 仮名, the two syllable systems Hiragana 平仮名/ひらがな and Katakana 片仮名/カタカナ, and the Latin writing system (being called ローマ字, Roomaji). Writing was first introduced to Japan from China around the 5th century AD, which caused the Japanese writing system to be highly influenced by Chinese standards, such as characters representing meaning instead of sound.

It was not until the 7th century that the two syllable-based systems emerged from a set of Chinese characters originally used to represent grammatical inflections. In Modern Japanese each of them contains a set of 46 basic characters (71 if diacritcs are included), while some of them can be modified via using diacritics (called dakuten 濁点, a diacritic which causes unvoiced phonemes to become voiced).

While Hiragana have a mostly grammatical function (i.e. as inflectional endings, for example to express time 勉強する benkyousuru (to study) becomes 勉強した benkyoushita ((I) studied) or as particles such as は、が、を), Katakana are mostly used when writing foreign loanwords such as プロジェクト purojekuto, project. The two syllable systems are largely consisten with each other, though some minor differences can be found. One such difference can be found with long vowels. When writing in Hiragana, long vowels are marked with other Hiragana. ようせい (陽性, positivity): yousei (here, ou is produced as a long o, ei as a long e). The same word being written in Katakana would be ヨーセー (yoosee). Here, lengthening in pronunciation is being marked with the diacritic ー.

Kanji Readings

Kanji can be further subdivded by their readings, namely the 'kun'-reading (Japanese reading) and 'on'-reading (Sino-Japanese reading). Kanji tend to have multiple on-readings. This is due to the fact that the Sino-Japanese readings arrived in several historical waves from several different regions of China. These 'waves' can be roughly divided into four periods, the first one being the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 9). Most characters and readings arrived during this time. The reading which is linked to this time period is referred to as kan-on. The three other periods associated with different readings are the Wu Dynasty (AD 222 - 280), the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 - 907) and the Song Dynasty (AD 960 - 1279).
Not all kanji have all four readings; the most common is the kan-on, go-on is the second most frequent. tou-on and sou-on are sometimes combined and referred to as tousou-on.


Japanese is a Topic-prominent Language, meaning that sentences work on a topic-comment frame.

See also


[2]An Overview of the History of the Japanese Language by Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen, Brigham Young University
[3]Kansai Ben on The Japanese Page.com
[4]Japanese language - spoken and written language used mainly in Japan on Japan-101 Information Resource
[5]Japanese on Accredited Language Services

Works on the language

Hasegawa, Yoko. 2014. Japanese: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Frellesvig, Bjarke. 2011. A History of the Japanese Language. Cambridge University Press.
Loveday, Leo. 1986. Pragmatics & Beyond VII:1. Japanese Sociolinguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
Tsujimura, Natsuko. 2013. An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. Wiley & Sons: West Sussex.
Yamaguchi, Yoshiko. 2007. Japanese Linguistics. An Introduction. Continuum: London.


Archibald, John & O'Grady, William (ed.). 2001. Contemporary Linguistics. An Introduction. Fourth Edition. Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston.
Yamaguchi, Yoshiko. 2007. Japanese Linguistics. An Introduction. Continuum: London.

Other Languages

German: Japanisch