Anybody who has studied Japanese and Linguistics will know that Japanese is a part of the Japonic language family. For many years it was thought that Japanese was a language isolate, unrelated to any other language (Although there is some debate as to whether or not Japanese and Korean are related).
Today, most linguists are in agreement that Japanese is not an isolate. The Japonic languages are split into two groups:
Japanese (日本語) and its dialects, which range from standard Eastern Japanese (東日本方言) to the various dialects found on Kyūshū (九州日本方言), which are, different, to say the least.
The Ryukyuan Languages (琉球語派). Which are further subdivided into Northern and Southern Ryukyuan languages. Okinawan is classified as a Northern Ryukyuan Languages. There are a total of 6 Ryukyuan languages, each with its own dialects. The Ryukyuan languages exist on a continuum, somebody who speaks Okinawan will have a more difficult time understanding the Yonaguni Language, which is spoken on Japan’s southernmost populated island.
Japanese and Okinawan (I am using the Naha dialect of Okinawan because it was the standard language of the Ryukyu Kingdom), are not intelligible. Calling Okinawan a dialect of Japanese is akin to calling Dutch a dialect of English. It is demonstrably false. Furthermore, there is an actual Okinawan dialect of Japanese, which borrows elements from the Okinawan language and infuses it with Japanese.
So, where did the Ryukyuan languages come from? This is a question that goes hand in hand with theories about where Ryukyuan people come from. George Kerr, author of Okinawan: The History of an Island People (An old book, but necessary read if you’re interested in Okinawa), theorised that Ryukyuans and Japanese split from the same population, with one group going east to Japan from Korea, whilst the other traveled south to the Ryukyu Islands.
“In the language of the Okinawan country people today the north is referred to as nishi, which Iha Fuyu (An Okinawn scholar) derives from inishi (’the past’ or ‘behind’), whereas the Japanese speak of the west as nishi. Iha suggests that in both instances there is preserved an immemorial sense of the direction from which migration took place into the sea islands.” (For those curious, the Okinawan word for ‘west’ is いり [iri]). But, it must be stated that there are multiple theories as to where Ryukyuan and Japanese people came from, some say South-East Asia, some say North Asia, via Korea, some say that it is a mixture of the two. However, this post is solely about language, and whilst the relation between nishi in both languages is intriguing, it is hardly conclusive.
With that said, the notion that Proto-Japonic was spoken by migrants from southern Korea is somewhat supported by a number of toponyms that may be of Gaya origin (Or of earlier, unattested origins). However, it also must be said, that such links were used to justify Japanese imperialism in Korea.
Yeah, when it comes to Japan and Korea, and their origins, it’s a minefield.
What we do know is that a Proto-Japonic language was spoken around
Kyūshū, and that it gradually spread throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands. The question of when this happened is debatable. Some scholars say between the 2nd and 6th century, others say between the 8th and 9th centuries. The crucial issue here, is the period in which proto-Ryukyuan separated from mainland Japanese.
“The crucial issue here is that the period during which the proto-Ryukyuan separated(in terms of historical linguistics) from other Japonic languages do not necessarily coincide with the period during which the proto-Ryukyuan speakers actually settled on the Ryūkyū Islands.That is, it is possible that the proto-Ryukyuan was spoken on south Kyūshū for some time and the proto-Ryukyuan speakers then moved southward to arrive eventually in the Ryūkyū Islands.”
This is a theory supported by Iha Fuyu who claimed that the first settlers on Amami were fishermen from
This opens up two possibilities, the first is that ‘Proto-Ryukyuan’ split from ‘Proto-Japonic’, the other is that it split from ‘Old-Japanese’. As we’ll see further, Okinawan actually shares many features with Old Japanese, although these features may have existed before Old-Japanese was spoken.
So, what does Okinawan look like?
Well, to speakers of Japanese it is recognisable in a few ways. The sentence structure is essentially the same, with a focus on particles, pitch accent, and a subject-object-verb word order. Like Old Japanese, there is a distinction between the terminal form (
) and the attributive form (
). Okinawan also maintains the nominative function of nu ぬ (Japanese: no の). It also retains the sounds ‘wi’ ‘we’ and ‘wo’, which don’t exist in Japanese anymore. Other sounds that don’t exist in Japanese include ‘fa’ ‘fe’ ‘fi’ ‘tu’ and ‘ti’.
Some very basic words include:
はいさい (Hello, still used in Okinawan Japanese) にふぇーでーびる (Thank you) うちなー (Okinawa) 沖縄口 (Uchinaa-guchi is the word for Okinawan) めんそーれー (Welcome) やまとぅ (Japan, a cognate of やまと, the poetic name for ‘Japan’)
Lots of Okinawan can be translated into Japanese word for word. For example, a simple sentence, “Let’s go by bus” バスで行こう (I know, I’m being a little informal haha!) バスっし行ちゃびら (Basu sshi ichabira). As you can see, both sentences are structured the same way. Both have the same loanword for ‘bus’, and both have a particle used to indicate the means by which something is achieved, ‘で’ in Japanese, is ‘っし’ in Okinawan.
Another example sentence, “My Japanese isn’t as good as his” 彼より日本語が上手ではない (Kare yori nihon-go ga jouzu dewanai). 彼やか大和口ぬ上手やあらん (Ari yaka yamatu-guchi nu jooji yaaran). Again, they are structured the same way (One important thing to remember about Okinawan romanisation is that long vowels are represented with ‘oo’ ‘aa’ etc. ‘oo’ is pronounced the same as ‘ou’).
Of course, this doesn’t work all of the time, if you want to say, “I wrote the letter in Okinawan” 沖縄語で手紙を書いた (Okinawa-go de tegami wo kaita). 沖縄口さーに手紙書ちゃん (Uchinaa-guchi saani tigami kachan). For one,
is an alternate version of っし, but, that isn’t the only thing. Okinawan doesn’t have a direct object particle (を in Japanese). In older literary works it was ゆ, but it no longer used in casual speech.
Introducing yourself in Okinawan is interesting for a few reasons as well. Let’s say you were introducing yourself to a group. In Japanese you’d say みんなさこんにちは私はフィリクスです (Minna-san konnichiwa watashi ha Felixdesu) ぐすよー我んねーフィリクスでぃいちょいびーん (Gusuyoo wan’nee Felix di ichoibiin). Okinawan has a single word for saying ‘hello’ to a group. It also showcases the topic marker for names and other proper nouns. In Japanese there is only 1, は but Okinawan has 5! や, あー, えー, おー, のー! So, how do you know which to use? Well, there is a rule, typically the particle fuses with short vowels,
a → aa, i → ee, u → oo, e → ee, o → oo, n → noo.
Of course, the Okinawan pronoun
我ん, is a terrible example, because it is irregular, becoming 我んねー instead of
我んのー or 我んや. Yes. Like Japanese, there are numerous irregularities to pull your hair out over!
I hope that this has been interesting for those who have bothered to go through the entire thing. It is important to discuss these languages because most Ryukyuan languages are either ‘definitely’ or ‘critically’ endangered. Mostly due to Japanese assimilation policies from the Meiji period onward, and World War 2. The people of Okinawa are a separate ethnic group, with their own culture, history, poems, songs, dances and languages. It would be a shame to lose something that helps to define a group of people like language does.
I may or may not look in the
Kyūshū dialects of Japanese next time. I’unno, I just find them interesting.
Skirt: Fint Top, hat and gloves: Vintage/thrifted Bag: Baby, the Stars Shine Bright Parasol: Alice and the Pirates Tea cup and saucer earrings were bought at the Romantic à la Mode fair, but I can’t remember the artist/brand’s name. :(
It always annoys me when white people kind of talk down to Japanese-Americans and diaspora bc they “know more” about Japan than whomever they’re talking to. Like congratulations on knowing more than me brad bc my grandma had to assimilate while u watched anime and decided to read 80 wiki articles and appropriate Japanese dress and traditions. Well done