Japanese Language History

Japanese Language History

Japanese is a Ural-Altaic language that is currently spoken by about 130 million people worldwide. Despite its modern prominence as the 9th most popularly spoken language in the world, the Japanese language has a controversial history that scholars are still debating and trying to decipher.

Currently, the earliest known evidence of proto-Japanese peoples dates back to 3 CE. These early Chinese writings describe the consolidation of Japanese tribes under the Yamato Clan.

Over the centuries, the Chinese, as well as Koreans and the Portuguese, have had a heavy influence on the development and history of the Japanese language, which can loosely be categorized into:

  • Old Japanese, up to 1000 CE
  • Middle Japanese, from 1000 CE to 1700 CE
  • Modern Japanese, from 1700 CE to the present.

Throughout these periods, the most notable changes in the history of the Japanese language were the adoption of foreign words, changes in pronunciation and the reduction of vowel sounds (from eight to five).

Old Japanese

Much of the debate surrounding the history of Japanese language involves determining the roots of Old Japanese prior to (or in the absence of) written records.

However, in 5 CE, interaction between Japanese Yamato leaders, the Chinese Han rulers and Korean leaders introduced a variety of new influences to the Japanese language and culture. In addition to new art styles and Buddhism, Japanese culture also embraced a writing system for the first time.

This first writing system was based on the Chinese Kanji, Chinese written characters that represented words. Using this system of writing, the first-ever Japanese texts were written and circulated – the Kokiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)..

This pivotal moment in the history of the Japanese language can still be sensed today, as about 40 percent of modern Japanese characters are based on Chinese Kanji.

Soon after the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system, they altered it and made it their own, as:

  • Buddhist priests developed a shorthand script in 6 CE.
  • Women of the Heian Court came up with a phonetic script for literary writing in 7 CE.

Middle Japanese

As the centuries passed, the written Japanese language became more standardized while spoken Japanese became more varied and dialectical.

This splintering of the spoken Japanese language was largely due to local cultural pride and regional nuances. With a written standard form of the language, many Japanese tribes were embracing their spoken language as a way to reflect their unique voice.

When the country's capital was moved from Heian Kyo (modern-day Kyoto) to Kamakura (modern-day Tokyo) in 1292, the Tokyo dialect became the spoken standard.

Another seminal point in Japanese language history came during the end of the 16th Century, as contact with the Portuguese brought Christianity, technology and linguistic changes to Japan. Along with introducing movable type and printing to the Japanese, the Portuguese also compiled the first-ever Japanese dictionary.

Enduring remnants of the Portuguese's influence on Japanese include the words pan ("bread" from the Portuguese pão) and arigato ("thank you" from the Portuguese obrigado).

Modern Japanese

Following these dramatic changes to the Japanese language, the country of Japan remained largely closed off to foreign linguistic influences for about 200 years – until the American Admiral Perry ventured to Japan in 1868.

At the time, Admiral Perry intended to share technology and stimulate healthy economic competition with Asian countries. However, his influence would have a far more significant impact, as English and other Western languages introduced new words and linguistic features to the Japanese.

Today, the Japanese government strictly monitors changes to the Japanese language. It also dictates that children must learn 2,000 Japanese characters before graduating from high school.
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