An introduction to the Japanese language. (2023)

In Japanese, Japan is called 日本 (Nihon), which is why it is sometimes called "Nippon". The literal translation of the name is "land of the rising sun". The name can also be found in the design of the national flag: a red circle on a white background. So where does the word "Japan" come from? When Portuguese explorers arrived in the Far East, Mandarin speakers were the first to introduce them to the existence of the Japanese islands. you named itIf you prepare, and therefore "Japan" came. This incorrect naming of the country actually set the stage for centuries of misunderstandings about Japan and the Japanese language among Westerners.

swindleraround 156,000 studentsIn the United States, Japanese is not as popular as a language to learn as Spanish or French. But year after year, the Mishima language, named after Japanese author Yukio Mishima, is spreading far beyond the Sea of ​​Japan and Mount Fuji.

We've prepared a quick guide for you to start learning Japanese. Whether you're interested in learning the language or just want to learn more about Japanese culture, this will give you a good overview of the history of the language and its defining linguistic characteristics.

The History of the Japanese Language

From the Yamato period to the 20th century

Around the year 250 AD. C., the first dynasty was established in Yamato Province, present-day Nara Prefecture. Today the landscape alternates between modern buildings and ancient temples, and this is where the long development of the Japanese began. Few traces of the language exist before this time, as Japanese only had an oral tradition for many centuries. Until Buddhist monks from China brought their writing system to the islands. In the 8th century, during the Nara period, the Japanese began to use Chinese ideograms. Other writing systems evolved later, resulting in the typical Japanese compound system, which is still used today.

It wasn't until the Edo period, between the 17th and 18th centuries, that Japanese was truly formalized as a language. Each new period brought its own cultural and linguistic changes. In the Meiji period at the beginning of the 20th century, known as the period of progress and modernization, the language was standardized based on the dialect spoken in Tokyo. In 1903, the Japanese government published an official Japanese textbook for schools. It was similar to the standardization of Italian based on the Florentine dialect or the use of Parisian French after the French Revolution. Like any other language, Japanese keeps changing.dialects, but "official" Japanese was formed in this late era.

The Modern Era of “Cool Japan”

Fascination with the Japanese is closely linked to their culture. Called "Cool Japan", Japanese soft power comes in many forms: J-pop, manga, anime, video games, sushi and sake. With Pikachu, Hello Kitty and Bento, kawaii (かわいい) or "cute" is a modern concept that has been exported all over the world, including North America and Europe. The expression "Cool Japan" is promoted byjapanese governmentand shapes the modern image of the country. It was also an important way for Japan to distance itself from the resentments that had grown towards the country during and after World War II.

Despite Japan's historical isolationism, the islands have long maintained ties with Western countries. In the 1600s, the first English speakers made prolonged contact with Japan, but it was not until 1841 that an English grammar book was finally translated into Japanese. Today, around 19 million people in Japan speak at least some English. And of course, huge numbers of Japanese immigrated to the United States, actually 127,000 between 1901 and 1908 alone.

Where is Japanese spoken today?

Today there are approximately 126 million Japanese speakers. Of these,125 millionPeople speak the language in Japan as a native language. Although it is a clear majority, there are Japanese-speaking communities all over the world.

Historically, the language has been present in California and Hawaii, although it is slowly disappearing. Still, the United States has one of the largest populations of Japanese speakers at around 449,000. There is also a large Japanese population in Brazil, which was a popular destination for Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. Descendants of immigrants often adopted Portuguese as their primary language, but there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who speak some degree of Japanese in the country today. There are Japanese speakers in Mexico, Great Britain, Germany, Hong Kong and many other countries, although they are a minority.

Outside of Japan, there is only one other place that recognizes Japanese as an official language: a small island 3,000 miles south of Honshu that was once occupied by Japan. The island is Angaur, one of the 16 states of Palau. Japanese is nearly extinct on this Pacific island of about 100 people and covers an area three times the size of LAX airport.

The three writing systems

Japanese writing uses three types of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Learning hiragana and katakana (total of 100 characters) doesn't take much longer than learning theCyrillic alphabetto Russian

Learning how the three work together can be confusing for someone unfamiliar with the language, but each serves a purpose. Like Latin letters, hiragana are phonetic symbols used to write Japanese words. Likewise, katakana are reserved for words of foreign (non-Chinese) origin. Kanji come from Chinese characters. Each character corresponds to its own sound and meaning. Japanese has around 50,000 kanji, but technically you only need 2,000 for everyday speech. There is an official list of these "everyday kanji" called joyo kanji. These three writing systems coexist and are used together. It's not uncommon to see all three in the same sentence.

Does this mean that Japanese and Chinese come from the same language family? Not! The origin of kanji has nothing to do with a common linguistic origin. mandarin is aSino-Tibetan language, related to other Chinese languages, while Japanese is aisolate. In other words, it belongs to a language family of its own. There is a theoretical family ofAltaic languages, which groups Japanese with Turks, Mongols and even Koreans, but its existence is highly controversial.

Is Japanese complicated or misunderstood?

Chinese, Russian, Arabic... Westerners often say that a language is difficult if it doesn't sound like theirs. Japanese is no exception. Is Japanese really that difficult to learn or is it just misunderstood?

In addition to the challenges of writing systems and vocabulary that have little in common with European languages, Japanese can look different because it uses aWord order SOV (subject-object-verb). In Japanese, someone would say something like "I eat bread" instead of "I eat bread" (SVO, subject-verb-object). While this may seem counterintuitive to some Westerners, there are more SOV languages ​​in the world than SVO languages. Turkish, Farsi, Basque, and Latin are other examples of SOV languages. In Japanese, the subject is usually omitted when it is clear from the context, so it is not uncommon to find a simplified OV structure.

However, students of Japanese can find relief in some good news on the grammar front. Japanese has no plural, definite or indefinite articles. Again, context helps people figure out what is being talked about.

Also, among other peculiarities of Japanese, there are no specific names for months like January, February, March, etc. Instead, Japanese uses the kanji 月 (“moon” as well as “month”) with the month number.

Whether simple or complex, motivation counts in all cases. Don't let this make you nervous because Japanese isn't that different from learning anything else. Each language has its specific characteristics that make it difficult or easy for the student.

This article originally appeared onFrenchEdition of Babel magazine.

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