Japonic languages

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Linguistic classification One of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5 jpx
Glottolog japo1237[1]
The Japonic languages

The Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language family includes the Japanese language spoken on the main islands of Japan as well as the Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The term "Japonic languages" was coined by Leon Serafim, and the family is widely accepted by linguists,[2] the common ancestral language is known as Proto-Japonic.[3] The essential feature of this classification is that the first split in the family resulted in the separation of all dialects of Japanese from all varieties of Ryukyuan. According to Shirō Hattori, this separation occurred during the Yamato period (250–710).[4]


The Japonic (or Japanese–Ryukyuan) languages are:

  • Japanese language (日本語, Nihon-go)
  • Ryukyuan languages (琉球語派, Ryūkyū-goha): Languages originally and traditionally spoken throughout the Ryukyu Islands chain, most are considered "definitely" or "critically endangered" due to the influence of mainland Japanese, after the Ryukyu Kingdom was conquered by Meiji Japan. Most are considered dialects of Japanese in Japan, despite little intelligibility with Japanese or even amongst each other.
    • Northern Ryukyuan languages (北琉球語群, Kita Ryūkyū-go-gun): Languages spoken in the northern part of the Ryukyu Islands chain, consisting of the major Amami and Okinawa Islands.
      • Amami language (奄美語, Amami-go)/Amami dialect (奄美方言, Amami hōgen)/Shimayumuta (シマユムタ・島口): Language spoken in most of the Amami Islands, particularly Amami Ōshima, Kikaijima, and Tokunoshima.
        • Northern Amami Ōshima language (北奄美大島語, Kita Amami Ōshima go)/Kita Amami Ōshima dialect (北奄美大島方言, Kita Amami Ōshima hōgen)
        • Southern Amami Ōshima language (南奄美大島語, Minami Amami Ōshima go)/Minami Amami Ōshima dialect (南奄美大島方言, Minami Amami Ōshima hōgen)
        • Kikai language (喜界語, Kikai-go)/Kikai dialect (喜界方言, Kikai hōgen)/Shimayumita (シマユミタ)
        • Tokunoshima language (徳之島語, Tokunoshima-go)/Tokunoshima dialect (徳之島方言, Tokunoshima hōgen)/Shimayumiita (シマユミィタ)
      • Kunigami language (国頭語, Kunigami-go)/Okinoerabu-Yoron-Northern Okinawan dialects (沖永良部与論沖縄北部諸方言, Okinoerabu Yoron Okinawa Hokubu syohōgen)/Yanbaru Kutuuba (山原言葉(ヤンバルクトゥーバ)): Language spoken in the northern region of Okinawa Island, and neighboring islands of Okinoerabujima and Yoronjima. Main dialect spoken in the cities of Nakijin and Nago.
        • Kunigami language (国頭語, Kunigami-go)/Kunigami dialect (国頭方言, Kunigami hōgen)/Yanbaru Kutuuba (山原言葉(ヤンバルクトゥーバ))
        • Okinoerabu language (沖永良部語, Okinoerabu-go)/Okinoerabu dialect (沖永良部方言, Okinoerabu hōgen)/Shimamuni (島ムニ)
        • Yoron language (与論語, Yoron-go)/Yoron dialect (与論方言, Yoron hōgen)/Yunnu Futuba (ユンヌフトゥバ)
      • (Central) Okinawan language ((中央)沖縄語, (Chūō) Okinawa-go)/Okinawa dialect (沖縄方言, Okinawa hōgen)/Uchinaa-guchi (沖縄口・ウチナーグチ): Language spoken in the central and southern regions of Okinawa Island, and neighboring islands. Main dialect spoken in Naha, and the former city of Shuri.
    • Southern Ryukyuan languages (南琉球語群, Minami Ryūkyū-gogun): Languages spoken in the southern part of the Ryukyu Islands chain, comprising the Sakishima Islands.
      • Miyako language (宮古語, Miyako-go)/Miyako dialect (宮古方言, Miyako hōgen)/Myaaku-futsu (ミャークフツ・宮古口)/Suma-futsu (スマフツ・島口): Language spoken in the Miyako Islands, with dialects on Irabu and Tarama.
      • Yaeyama language (八重山語, Yaeyama-go)/Yaeyama dialect (八重山方言, Yaeyama hōgen)/Yaima-muni (ヤイマムニ・八重山物言): Language spoken in the Yaeyama Islands, with dialects on each island, but primarily Ishigaki Island, Iriomote Island, and Taketomi Island, which is known as Teedun-muni (テードゥンムニ・竹富物言).
      • Yonaguni language (与那国語, Yonaguni-go)/Yonaguni dialect (与那国方言, Yonaguni hōgen)/Dunan-munui (ドゥナンムヌイ・与那国物言): Language spoken on Yonaguni Island, unique from the language and dialects of the other Yaeyama Islands.

Beckwith includes toponymic material from southern Korea as evidence of an additional ancient Japonic language there:[5]

It is not clear if "pre-Kara" was related to the language of the later Gaya (Kara) confederacy.

Origins and classification[edit]

The relationship of the Japonic (or Japanese–Ryukyuan) languages to other languages and language families is controversial. There are numerous hypotheses, none of which is generally accepted. Japonic is classified as an isolated language family[6] and shows in its proto-form strong similarities to Southeast Asian languages.[7]

Scholarly discussions about the origin of Japonic languages present an unresolved set of related issues,[8] the clearest connections seem to be with toponyms in today's southern Korea, which may be from the ancient isolated Gaya language (Kara) or other scarcely attested languages.[9] Alexander Vovin (2008, 2013)[10][11] finds many toponyms of Japonic origin in the central and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula, in Silla and Paekche. Japonic-speaking agriculturalists were resident in the central and southern Korean Peninsula, and were conquered afterwards by Koreanic speakers from the north (most likely in central and southern Manchuria) who were familiar with Central Asian equestrian warfare. By the 6th to 7th centuries, Japonic languages had become marginalized in Silla (southeastern South Korea) (Vovin 2013:227–228), some Japonic speakers emigrated to the Japanese archipelago, while others were assimilated by Koreanic speakers.

Vovin does not consider Japonic to be related to Koreanic, and believes that Japonic was completely replaced by Koreanic on the mainland. Instead, Vovin (2014)[12] suggests that Japonic ultimately originated in southern China and migrated to Japan via the Korean Peninsula, while Koreanic shows various typological similarities with Paleosiberian languages spoken much further to the north in Siberia (Vovin 2015).[13] Furthermore, Vovin (1998)[14] considers Japonic to be the language of the Kofun culture rather than of the Yayoi culture. Instead, the Yayoi may have spoken an Austroasiatic or Tai-Kadai language, based on the reconstructed Japonic terms *(z/h)ina-Ci 'rice (plant)', *koma-Ci '(hulled) rice', and *pwo 'ear of grain' which Vovin assumes to be agricultural terms of Yayoi origin.

Vovin (2013) also notes that the old name for Jeju Island is tammura, which can be analyzed in Japanese as tani mura たにむら ( 'valley settlement') or tami mura たみむら ( 'people's settlement'). Thus, Vovin concludes that Japonic speakers were present on Jeju Island before being replaced by Koreanic speakers sometime before the 15th century, which was when the state of Tamna on Jeju became absorbed by the Korean Joseon dynasty.

Other scholars such as Paul K. Benedict maintain that Japanese is a Para-Austronesian language, with Benedict proposing a Austro-Tai-Japanese grouping. However, Benedict's Austro-Tai-Japanese grouping is not widely accepted by linguists, although Vovin (2014)[12] does not consider Japonic to be genetically related to Tai-Kadai, he suggests that Japonic was in heavy contact with Tai-Kadai, pointing to an ultimate origin of Japonic in southern China.

There is typological evidence that Proto-Japonic may have been a monosyllabic, SVO syntax and isolating language; which are features that the Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages also famously exhibit.[15]

A 2015 analysis using the Automated Similarity Judgment Program resulted in the Japonic languages being grouped with the Ainu and then with the Austroasiatic languages.[16] However, similarities between Ainu and Japonic are also due to extensive past contact. Analytic grammatical constructions acquired or transformed in Ainu were likely due to contact with Japanese and the Japonic languages, which had heavy influence on the Ainu languages with a large number of loanwords borrowed into the Ainu languages, and to a smaller extent, vice versa.[17] No genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, despite numerous attempts. Thus, it is a language isolate.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Japonic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ Shimabukuro, Moriyo. (2007). The Accentual History of the Japanese and Ryukyuan Languages: a Reconstruction, p. 1.
  3. ^ Miyake, Marc Hideo. (2008). Old Japanese: a Phonetic Reconstruction. p. 66., p. 66, at Google Books
  4. ^ Heinrich, Patrick. "What leaves a mark should no longer stain: Progressive erasure and reversing language shift activities in the Ryukyu Islands", First International Small Island Cultures Conference at Kagoshima University, Centre for the Pacific Islands, February 7–10, 2005; citing Shiro Hattori. (1954) Gengo nendaigaku sunawachi goi tokeigaku no hoho ni tsuite ("Concerning the Method of Glottochronology and Lexicostatistics"), Gengo kenkyu (Journal of the Linguistic Society of Japan), Vols. 26/27.
  5. ^ Christopher Beckwith, 2007, Koguryo, the Language of Japan's Continental Relatives, pp 27–28
  6. ^ Kindaichi, Haruhiko (2011-12-20). The Japanese Language. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462902668. 
  7. ^ Alexander, Vovin,. "Proto-Japanese beyond the accent system". Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. 
  8. ^ Blench, Roger M. (2008). Archaeology and language, Vol. 2, p. 201., p. 201, at Google Books
  9. ^ Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2009: ISBN 978-0-691-13589-2), p. 105.
  10. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2013. "From Koguryǒ to T'amna: Slowly Riding South with the Speakers of Proto-Korean". Korean Linguistics, 15.2: 222–240.
  11. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2008. "高句麗에서 耽羅까지ᅳ韓国祖語를 말한 騎馬人들과 함께 南쪽을 향하여 천천히 내려오면서ᅳ" ("From Koguryo to Tamna: Slowly Riding South with the Speakers of Proto-Korean"). Lecture at the Seoul National University on May 15, 2008. Travel fully funded by the Seoul National University.
  12. ^ a b Vovin, Alexander. 2014. "Out of Southern China? – Philological and linguistic musings on the possible Urheimat of Proto-Japonic". Journées de CRLAO 2014. June 27–28, 2014. INALCO, Paris.
  13. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2015). "Korean as a Paleosiberian Language". 알타이할시리즈 2. ISBN 978-8-955-56053-4. Retrieved 2016-11-06. 
  14. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 1998. Japanese rice agriculture terminology and linguistic affiliation of Yayoi culture; in Archaeology and Language II: Archaeological Data and Linguistic Hypotheses. Routledge.
  15. ^ https://www.academia.edu/7869241/Out_of_Southern_China
  16. ^ Jäger, Gerhard (2015). "Support for linguistic macrofamilies from weighted sequence alignment". PNAS. 112 (41): 12752–12757. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500331112. PMC 4611657Freely accessible. 
  17. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea, edited by Nicolas Tranter