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People and Society, Language

Chinese writing system, Austronesian languages, roman letters, Roman alphabet, southern Japan

Japanese is the official language of Japan. The Japanese language is distinctive and of unknown origin. However, it has some relation to the Altaic languages of central Asia and to Korean, which may also be an Altaic language. Linguists also find similarities between Japanese and the Austronesian languages of the South Pacific.

Japanese has a number of regional dialects. Standard Japanese, the form heard most commonly on national television and radio, is traditionally the dialect of educated people in Tokyo but is now understood everywhere in Japan. Although standard Japanese has begun to replace some regional accents, many of these remain quite strong and distinctive. For example, dialects spoken in southern Japan—most notably on Kyushu and Okinawa—are virtually incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects. Residents of western Japan around Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe also speak with distinctive accents.

Japanese speech is sensitive to social relationships. Several degrees of politeness and familiarity exist to distinguish between superiors, equals, and inferiors based on factors such as age, sex, and social status.

Japanese was solely a spoken language before the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan in about the 5th century. By the 9th century, Japanese people had adapted Chinese writing to their own language and assimilated many Chinese words. Modern Japanese writing combines Chinese characters (kanji) with two syllabaries (alphabets in which each symbol represents a syllable), hiragana and katakana. Kanji are used to write native Japanese nouns and verbs, as well as the many Japanese words that originated in Chinese. Although there are tens of thousands of kanji, the government has identified about 2,000 for daily use. The hiragana syllabary is used for grammatical elements and word suffixes, while non-Chinese foreign words are written using katakana. Japanese includes many such loan words taken from Portuguese, Dutch, German, and, increasingly, English. An example from English is komputa, the Japanese word for computer. The Roman alphabet also is used commonly in advertisements and for emphasis and visual impact. It is not uncommon to see kanji, katakana, hiragana, and roman letters all used in the same sentence.

Japanese is usually written vertically and from right to left across a page. Thus, the first page of a Japanese book is what readers of English would normally think of as the last page. In modern times, Japan has adopted the Western style of writing horizontally and from left to right for some publications, such as textbooks. Written or printed Japanese has no spaces between words.

Ainu is Japan’s only other indigenous language. It is apparently unrelated to Japanese and is now nearly extinct. Korean and Chinese residents of Japan usually speak Japanese as their first language. Many Japanese students study foreign languages, most commonly English.

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