The number of languages spoken around the world is about 7,000, according to Ethnologue, an international language research organization. Among them, Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. What kind of language is Japanese, which is essential for understanding Japanese culture?
The origin of Japanese
There are many theories about the origin of the Japanese language, but the reality is still unclear.
In comparative linguistics, languages that are assumed to have the same roots are classified into broad groups called "language families. Italian, for example, is one of the Romance languages belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family.
As for Japanese, although it has been pointed out that it is related to ancient Tamil and has similarities with northern Asian languages such as Korean and Mongolian, no language of the same origin has been discovered so far. For this reason, it has been called an isolated language.
The history of the written Japanese language is said to have begun in the Nara period (710-794). Before that time, Japan did not have its own script, so the Japanese language was written only in Chinese characters introduced from the Chinese continent. Manyo-gana, which used the phonetics of Chinese characters to write Japanese, is a typical example. In the Heian period (794-1185), Japan's unique national cultural style flourished, and hiragana and katakana were born from the development of manyo-gana. Until the present day, Japanese people have used these three types of characters together.
Features of the Japanese language
As mentioned above, the Japanese language has three scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana, and there is probably no other language that uses three different writing systems. This is one of the main reasons why foreign learners of Japanese are troubled.
The basic character used to represent Japanese is hiragana. There are 50 characters in total, and they are used when it is difficult or impossible to write in kanji. Katakana, like hiragana, has 50 characters but differs from hiragana in that it is generally used for names of foreigners or things from foreign countries.
While hiragana and katakana are characters that represent sounds, kanji is characterized by the fact that each character has its own sound and meaning. Since there is more information in one kanji than in a hiragana and katakana’s character, the number of characters can be reduced by using kanji, making the entire text faster to read. Through the use of these characters, the Japanese language has become freer and more expressive.
In addition, the Japanese language is unique in that it has honorific expressions, a variety of dialects, a rich vocabulary for expressing the weather and seasons, and a wide variety of onomatopoeia (a general term for onomatopoeic and mimetic words). For example, you may be surprised to learn that there are more than 400 different names for rain. Such diversity is both the difficulty and the charm of the Japanese language.
Expressions only in Japanese
The sensitivity of the Japanese language created expressions that are difficult to translate into foreign languages. Here are some of the most common.
One of the aesthetic senses unique to the Japanese. It refers to the sense of affirming the imperfect, unfinished, and decaying, and finding beauty and inspiration in simplicity and quietness. The concept of "wabi-sabi" has greatly influenced Japanese culture, including Japanese gardens, tea ceremony, and arts and crafts.
Mottainai (What a waste!)
Mottainai is a word that has been handed down from generation to generation by the Japanese people and expresses the spirit of using things carefully without wasting them. The word "Mottainai" is also used overseas in the sustainability context, for taking good care of the earth's limited resources.
Several forms for first person
Japanese is a language with a large number of first-person pronouns. In English for example, there is only "I" but in Japanese there are "watashi" "watakushi" "washi" "boku" "ore" "uchi" "jibun" and so on, depending on the hierarchy, social class, gender, age, and psychological situation.
Setsunai (so sad)
The word "setsunai" means a feeling of tightness in the chest. It is an expression that is difficult to translate into other languages because it contains the nuances of "sad, miss you, and lonely" in one word.
The Japanese language, with its unique sensitivity, is the crystallization of the delicate senses and aesthetic sense of the Japanese people. Understanding the Japanese language will lead to a deeper understanding of Japanese culture.