The Japanese Language

Shigeru Miyagawa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


The Japanese language is spoken by the approximately 120 million inhabitants of Japan, and by the Japanese living in Hawaii and on the North and South American mainlands. It is also spoken as a second language by the Chinese and the Korean people who lived under Japanese occupation earlier this century.

Characteristics of Japanese


Three categories of words exist in Japanese. The native Japanese words constitute the largest category, followed by words originally borrowed from China in earlier history, and the smallest but a rapidly growing category of words borrowed in modern times from Western languages such as English. This third category also contains a small number of words that have come from other Asian languages. Studies by the National Language Institute show that the frequency of these three types of words varies according to the kinds of written material examined. In magazines, native Japanese words constitute more than half of the total words, while the Chinese borrowed words average about 40%, and the rest drawn from the recently borrowed words from Western languages. In newspapers, the words of Chinese origin number greater than the Japanese native words.

Sounds of the Language

Japanese has an open-syllable sound pattern, so that most syllables end in a vowel -- the syllable may be composed solely of the vowel. There are five vowels, /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/. Vowel length often distinguishes words, as in to for "door" and too for "ten." The basic consonants are: /k/, /s/, /t/, /n/, /h/, /m/, /y/, /r/, /w/, and the syllabic nasal /N/. Many of these consonants can be palatalized in front of the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/, for example, /kya/, /kyu/, /kyo/. When the two consonants, /s/ and /t/, occur with the vowel /i/, these consonants are automatically palatalized as /shi/ and /chi/. The consonant /t/ is pronounced as /ts/ in front of the vowel /u/.

Unlike English, which has stress accent, Japanese has pitch accent, which means that after an accented syllable, the pitch falls. The word for "chopsticks," hashi, has the accent on the first syllable, so its pitch contour is ha shi. Without the accent on the first syllable, hashi may mean "bridge" or "edge." "Bridge" has accent on the second syllable, which can be seen if a grammatical particle such as the subject marker ga is attached to the word: hashi ga. "Edge" has no accent, so it would be pronounced without any fall in the pitch even with a grammatical marker such as ga.


Every language has a basic word order for the words in a sentence. In English, the sentence Naomi uses a computer has the order subject (Naomi), verb (uses), and object (a computer). In the corresponding Japanese sentence, the subject comes first, just as in English, but then the object appears, followed finally by the verb: Naomi-ga (Naomi) konpyuuta-o (computer) tukau (use). The rule of thumb in Japanese is that in a sentence, the verb comes at the end. The two word orders, subject-verb-object for English and subject-object-verb for Japanese, are both common among the languages of the world. If we look again at the Japanese sentence, we see that the subject and the object are accompanied by particles, ga with the subject "Naomi" (Naomi-ga) and o with the object "computer" (konpyuuta-o). These are called case markers, and a large number of the world's languages have them. We can see a remnant of a case-marking system even in English: the pronouns in English change shape depending on where it occurs, he/she/they in the subject position, but him/her/them in the object position (e.g., She saw him). If we go back in history, the older English of five hundred to one thousand years ago had an extensive case-marking system similar to modern Japanese. These case markers make it possible for the words in Japanese to appear in different orders and retain the same meaning. In the sentence we have been looking at, it is possible to place the object where the subject normally occurs, and the subject in the normal object position, and not change the meaning: konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga tukau. If we do the same thing to English, the meaning of the sentence is radically altered (The computer uses Naomi). If we have a more complex sentence, it is still possible to change the order of all the words as long as the verb remains at the end. The sentence "Naomi gave a computer to Taro" has the subject-indirect object-object- verb basic order, Naomi-ga (Naomi) Taro-ni (to Taro) konpyuuta-o (computer) ageta (gave). This sentence has the following word order possibilities, starting with the basic order we just observed.

Naomi-ga Taro-ni konpyuuta-o ageta  (subject-indirect object-object verb)
Naomi-ga konpyuuta-o Taro-ni ageta (subject-object-indirect object verb)
Taro-ni Naomi-ga konpyuuta-o ageta (indirect object-subject-object-verb)
konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga Taro-ni ageta (object-subject-indirect object verb)
Taro-ni konpyuuta-o Naomi-ga ageta (indirect object-object-subject verb)
konpyuuta-o Taro-ni Naomi-ga ageta (object-indirect object-subject-verb)

Although the Japanese language allows a multitude of word orders, the one inflexible order is the verb, in that it must appear at the end of the sentence. This is no accident. The core element in a sentence is the verb, because the verb expresses the action or the event involving the referents of the other words. Such a core is often referred to as the "head" of a sentence or a clause, and Japanese always places the head at the end of its clause. In a noun phrase, modifiers function to modify the head, as in expensive computer, where expensive modifies the head of the phrase, computer. In Japanese, the modifier always precedes the head, as expected (takai (expensive) konpyuuta (computer)). This is not only true of simple modifiers, but for modifiers that involve an entire sentence. Note that in the English sentence the computer [that Naomi uses], the bracketed portion modifies the head computer, and this modifier follows the head. In Japanese, the head-final order is invariably followed, so that this would be expressed with the modifier preceding the head: [Naomi-ga tukau (that Naomi uses)] konpyuuta. With few exceptions, the languages of the world either follow the head-final order, just as in Japanese, or the head-initial order (for example, Indonesian). Within the same language, we might see one or the otheroption for different types of clauses, as we saw for English simple modifiers (head-final) and sentence modifiers (head-initial). Japanese is consistently head-final for all types of clauses.

The Japanese verb does not indicate number or gender. The same form for the verb is used with singular and plural subjects, and no gender distinction is made. The verb inflects for tense, negation, aspect, and mood. Following are some inflections for the verb "to push," which has the root os-.

os-u (push) present/dictionary form 
os-ita (pushed) past
os-anai (not push) negation
os-ite iru (is pushing) progressive
os-e (push) imperative
os-itara (if (you) push) conditional

These forms vary depending on whether the root of the verb ends in a consonant or a vowel. While the root of the verb "to push" above is consonant-final, a verb such as "to eat" has a vowel-final root (tabe-), and it takes a slightly different shape for each of the inflections: tabe- ru (present/dictionary form), tabe-ta (past), tabe-nakatta (negation), tabe-te iru (progressive), tabe-ro (imperative), tabe-tara (conditional). In languages such as Italian and Spanish, a rich verbal inflection that indicates both number and gender often allows the speaker not to express the subject if it is understood in the context, e.g., (Juan) vio ese film ((Juan) saw that film) in Spanish. In Japanese, despite the lack of number and gender inflection on the verb, it is possible not only to leave the subject out, but any other element in the sentence except the verb, so long as it is understood in the sentence. The Japanese counterpart of the sentence "Naomi uses the computer" may be expressed simply by saying the verb tukau (use), so long as it's clear to the hearer from context that the sentence refers to Naomi and to the computer.

In Japanese, ideas often expressed in other languages with separate clauses and sentences frequently take the shape of a word, albeit a complex one. This is the agglutinative nature of the language. For example, the expression in English, Naomi was made to go purchase a more expensive computer by Mary, contains separate verbs was made, go, and purchase. In the Japanese counterpart, these verbs together form one complex verb (Japanese uses "come" for the English "go" in this context) : katte-ko-sase-rare-ta (buy-come-made-was-past). Other languages that have an agglutinative verb system include Korean, Navaho, and Turkish.

Writing System

Japanese is traditionally written vertically, with the lines starting from the right side of the page. While this way of writing is still predominant, there is another way that is identical to English in starting from the top left hand side, with each line written horizontally.

Japanese is written using two systems of orthography, Chinese characters and syllabaries. Chinese characters, or kanji, were brought in from China starting about 1,500 years ago. Prior to their introduction, Japanese was strictly a spoken language. Chinese characters are by far the more difficult system because of the sheer number of characters and the complexity both in writing and reading each character. Each character is associated with a meaning; for example, the character 行 has the basic meaning "to go." There are tens of thousands of characters attested, but in 1946, the Japanese government identified 1,850 characters for daily use. In 1981, the list was increased in number to 1,945 characters, and given the name Joyo Kanji List (Kanji for Daily Use). The characters in the Daily Use List must be learned in primary and secondary schools, and newspapers generally limit the use of characters to this list. Most characters are associated with at least two readings, the native Japanese reading, and the reading that simulates the original Chinese pronunciation of the same character. If the same character came into Japan at different periods or from different dialect regions of China, the character may be associated with a multitude of Chinese readings that represent different historical periods and dialectal differences. For example, the character , "to go," has four different readings, the Japanese reading and three distinct originally Chinese readings. The second system of wriiting are syllabaries, or kana, which were developed by the Japanese from certain Chinese characters about 1,000 years ago. Each syllabary represents a syllable in the language, and, unlike Chinese characters, it represents a sound but not meaning. There are two types of syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, each containing the same set of sounds. For example, the sound "ka" in Japanese may be represented by the hiragana or the katakana , both of which were developed from the Chinese character . Hiragana is often used in combination with a Chinese character, in such a way that, for example, the character represents roughly the root of a verb, and the inflection is written with hiragana. Katakana is used to write loan words from Western languages such as English, French, and German. It is not uncommon to find kanji, hiragana, and katakana used in the same sentence. Along with Chinese characters and syllabaries, Roman alphabets are sometimes employed for such things as names of organizations. For example, companies such as Honda, Toyota, and Sony often use Roman alphabets for their name in advertisements.


Through painstaking research, we now have conclusive evidence for the genetic relationships of the major languages of the world. English, along with a host of languages spoken in Europe, Russia, and India, belong to the Indo-European family of languages. In contrast, there is no conclusive evidence relating Japanese to a single family of languages. The most prominent hypothesis places Japanese in the Altaic family, which includes Turkish, Tungusic, Mongolian, and Korean, with the closest relationship to Korean. According to Roy Andrew Miller, the original Altaic language was spoken in the Transcaspian steppe country, and the speakers of this language undertook massive migrations before 2,000 B.C., spreading this language family from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east. However, this hypothesis is inconsistent with some major features of Japanese, leading some scholars to turn to the languages of the South Pacific in the Austronesian family for clues of genetic relationship. A hypothesis that has currency among a number of Japanese historical linguists is a "hybrid" theory that accepts the relationship to the Altaic family, but also hypothesizes influence from Austronesian languages possibly through heavy lexical borrowing. It is also important to note that in the northern island of Hokkaido, the Ainu people, who are physically and culturally different from the rest of the Japanese, speak a language that has even more successfully escaped attempts to relate it to a single language family.

With the introduction of the writing system from China starting about 1,500 years ago, the Japanese people began to extensively record their language through poetry and prose. The language of that era, called Old Japanese, had a number of features that have been lost through time. For example, Susumu Ono has argues that Old Japanese had eight vowels instead of the five that we see today. There were also a number of grammatical and morphological features that no longer exist. The transition from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese took place from about the twelfth century, A.D., to the sixteenth century, A.D.


Regional Dialects

There are a large number of dialects throughout the four main islands and the smaller islands of Okinawa and others. Some dialects such as those spoken in the southern parts of Japan (Kyushu, Okinawa) are virtually incomprehensible to the speakers of other dialects, requiring the use of the standard (or "common") dialect for communication. The two dialect families with the largest number of speakers are the dialect spoken in and around Tokyo, which is equivalent to the "common" dialect, and the dialects of the Kansai region spoken in western Japan in cities such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. Due to the spread of the common dialect through television and radio, most people outside the Tokyo region speak the common dialect as well as the dialect of their area.

Social Styles of Speech

The Japanese language employs an extensive system of politeness and honorific markers. It is often the case that in order to utter any kind of expression, the speaker must keep in mind his/her social standing to the person addressed, and the person being talked about. These markers appear on verbs, adjectives, and even nouns. For example, the informal form of the verb "to go," iku, is used when speaking with someone close to the speaker, but if the person addressed is a stranger or is older than the speaker, the politeness marker -masu appears: iki- masu. If the person being talked about is socially superior to the speaker, the honorific form of the verb "to go," irassyaru, is may be employed, even if this person is not present. In using this honorific form to talk about a socially-superior person, if the person addressed doesn't have a close relation to the speaker, such as a relative or a friend, or is older, the politeness marker appears on the honorific form: irassyai-masu. Thus, this form, irassyai-masu, simultaneously allows the speaker to be polite to the person addressed and show respect to the person being talked about. The prefix o- (go- in some contexts) may be used with nouns and adjectives to show politeness or respect to the person addressed or spoken of, as in o-tuskue (desk) and o-suki (like).

The use of pronouns varies according to social context and also often according to gender. The first person pronoun boku is used by a male in relatively informal situations, while watashi is used by a female in informal situations and by both male and female in formal situations. There are a large number of ways to expressed "you" according to social context and gender, including using the actual name of the person addressed. Aside from pronouns, the choice of some sentence-final particles varies by gender in informal speech.

The use of politeness and honorific markers and the various pronouns reflect the prominent role that in-group/out-of-group factors play in Japanese. If the person addressed is not within the "group" of the speaker in personal relationship or age, the speaker uses the polite style of speech. Familial words also reflect this. The word for your own mother is haha, but okaasan for the mother of others. We see the same bifurcation for the terms for father, sister, brother, and so forth.

Further Readings

Masayoshi, Shibatani. The Languages of Japan. Cambridge University Press. 1990.

Miller, Roy Andrew. Origins of the Japanese Language. University of Washington Press. 1980.

Text from Microsoft Incarta, Permission given by Microsoft Corporation for use by JP NET.

Date last modified: 13-Oct-1999
Copyright 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology