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Who speaks Japanese?

日本語, Nihongo is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities.


Which family does Japanese belong to?

It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained unanimous acceptance. The question of its origin and its relationship with other languages is still unresolved: the assumptions that approach it to Korean, to the Altaic languages, or to the Polynesian languages have little basis. As a consequence , for now it must be regarded as a probably isolated language.


What are the main linguistic features of Japanese?

Japanese is documented by inscriptions dating from the V-VI century AD. Today it is differentiated in many dialects, among which there are often significant differences. It is an agglutinative language. Its most salient features are the following:

1.- In phonetics, plenty of vowel sounds in comparison to the low frequency of the consonants; almost all syllables are of the form: CV (Consonant-Vowel).

2.- Termination of all words in vowels or in n.

3.- In morphology, absence of the article and, except for few cases, of gender and number.

4.- Syntactic relations are expressed by postponed particles (postpositions: the postposition no expresses the functions of the Genitive case, ni those of Dative, wo those of Accusative, kara and de more or less those of Ablative).

4.- Verbs have no personal inflection, but other features such as, e.g., an affirmative form and negative one.

5.- Composition and derivation are possible: the latter is obtained by adding suffixes added by agglutination (For example: suffix -sa added to an adjectival root gives a noun, suffix -ni forms an adverb).

 6.- As for syntax, the predicate is always at the end of the sentence and the determinant always precedes the determined (Adjective precedes Noun, Relative Clause precedes Noun, etc.).

The writing system is made up from the Chinese characters, here called kanji (漢字), starting from the V century AD; at first characters were read with their Chinese pronunciations, more or less modified, assuming a purely phonetic value; later (since the VIII century) they started being read also as the Japanese word expressing the concept of the ideogram, which means using them with logographic value.

Writing on a page, like in China, follows vertical columns from the top to the bottom and from the right to the left. Nowadays also horizontal writing left-to-right and top-to-bottom has become very frequent. In recent times there has been a considerable simplification and reduction of the ideograms (those required for official uses are now about 1850).

In the past centuries, from the simplification of some ideogram were later obtained some syllabic signs used with phonetic values in addition to the ideographic script; these characters, called kana, are 48 (5 vowels, 42 syllabic signs each consisting of a consonant and one of the five vowels, and the final n) and are present in two different spellings: katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名) and hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名).

The language has been strongly influenced by Chinese, especially in the lexicon; and later it was enriched with many terms from the Western languages, especially scientific and technical.


Where does Japanese come from?

The first Japanese literary works of historiographical argument, are inspired to Chinese models and go back to the VIII century: the Kojiki and Nihongi are transcriptions of ancient legends and folk songs handed down orally. Remarkable for its quality and freshness of inspiration is the Manyōshū (760 approximately), an anthology that includes about 4500 poems (mostly of the tanka genre).





- Enciclopedia Grolier