The Japanese language (日本語 Nihongo) belongs to the Japonic language family — which also includes the Ryukyuan languages spoken in Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands –, and its unclear origins have been a hotly debated topic among linguists for many years. There are currently about 126 million native speakers of Japanese, making it the ninth most spoken language in the world. While the Japanese language has no official status, it is the de facto national language of Japan, as well as a recognized regional language in the Pacific island nation of Palau.
While the vast majority of Japanese speakers live in Japan, there are also significant populations of Japanese speakers elsewhere. As a result of the expansion of the Japanese empire in the Asia-Pacific region before World War II, the Japanese language was introduced to Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, and other areas, and there are still some elderly people in those countries that continue to speak Japanese. Additionally, significant numbers of Japanese immigrated to Brazil, where many of them and their descendants continue to speak Japanese. The United States also saw the immigration of approximately 1.2 million Japanese, where some continue to employ Japanese as their primary language, particularly in Hawaii where 12% of residents are believed to speak Japanese as their primary language. There are also significant communities of Japanese in Peru, Argentina, Australia, and Canada.
Owing to the length of time that the Japanese archipelago has been inhabited, as well as both internal and external isolation and difficult terrain, a number of dialects have emerged and evolved over time. These dialects typically vary in terms of pitch accent, morphology, vocabulary, and the use of particles. The two main accent groups are the Tokyo-type and the Kyoto-Osaka-type. Dialects from some peripheral regions, mountain villages, and remote islands are also often mutually unintelligible with the more common dialects of Japanese.
Prior to the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Kansai dialect of Kyoto was typically regarded as the standard form. However, with the shift of the capital to Edo (Tokyo) during the Edo Period, the dialect of the Edo area replaced the Kansai dialect as the de facto standard. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the main dialect was “Early Modern” Japanese, and not until after World War II in 1945 did Modern Japanese take root as the standard dialect.
Japanese uses a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, with the only fixed rule being that the verb must be placed at the end of a sentence, along with any sentence-final particles used to identify the grammatical functions of sentence elements. It is also a synthetic or language that utilizes inflection, wherein morphemes are added to a root word to assign a grammatical property to that word, as well as agglutination, where complex words are created by combining two or more morphemes into a single word. The basic sentence structure of Japanese is topic-comment, and like many other Asian languages, it frequently indicates the topic separately from the subject.
The use of “pronouns” in Japanese (which, more technically speaking, are referential nouns and not typical pronouns) is correlated with the gender and social position of the speaker with which they are speaking. Japanese also frequently uses the title of the person being spoken to in place of a traditional pronoun, such as “teacher” (sensei). Nouns in Japanese have no gender, grammatical number (singular or plural), or particle aspect. Japanese verbs are conjugated for tense, either past or non-past, the latter of which is used to denote either present or future tenses.
Another key feature of the Japanese language is the use of “honorific speech,” which involves a complex grammatical system used to denote differing levels of social status. For example, a person of a lower social status will typically use a more formal style of speech when speaking with someone of a higher status, such as a boss, teacher, or elder, whereas the person of a higher social status will use a plainer style of speech when speaking with someone of a lower status. This reflects the strict hierarchical nature of Japanese society.
The three main sources of vocabulary in the Japanese language are known as wago, kango, and gairaigo. Wago words come from the original language of Japan, kango words are derived from the Chinese language beginning in the 5th century, and gairaigo represent words derived from other foreign language sources. Kango words make up approximately 49% of Japanese vocabulary, with 34% and 9% coming from wago and gairaigo respectively. The remaining words are hybrids.
The Japanese writing system involves a complex combination of three different scripts. Kanji are Chinese characters used to write Chinese loanwords and some native Japanese morphemes. Hiragana is a separate phonetic script used to write words that do not have a Chinese character (kanji) equivalent or to express conjugations of verbs and adjectives following a Chinese character, and katakana is a second syllabic script used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis (similar to the use of italics or bold in English). Finally, romaji is the system used to render the Japanese language into the Latin script. Most Japanese kanji also have two pronunciations, a “native” Japanese pronunciation (kunyomi) and a “Chinese” pronunciation (onyomi). How a particular kanji is pronounced depends on if it is a compound with other kanji, the hiragana that follows or precedes it, or if it is a standalone.
FUN FACTS: Although Japanese isn’t a tonal language like Chinese or Vietnamese, it does utilize different types of intonation known as “pitch accent” to distinguish between certain words. For example, hashi can mean either “bridge” or “chopsticks” depending on the intonation used. Japanese is also one of the world’s fastest spoken languages, averaging 7.84 syllables per second, versus English which is roughly 6.19 syllables per second.
At Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS), we offer document translation, interpretation, localization, and other language services in Japanese. Whether you need to translate a patent application from Japanese into English for a patent filing with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), a Japanese interpreter for a business negotiation, or you want to localize your website into Japanese to market your products or services in Japan, PGLS is here to help with all of your Japanese language needs.