Language group and spread

While some consider it a part of the altaic group, as for Korean, other experts dispute this point. What is sure is that it is a part of the specific Japonic group. In other words, the Japanese language is in fact a group of dialects. We estimate about 128 million speakers based in Japan only, even if some groups of thousands of speakers use it in other close countries. Also, some elderlies migrants based in Brasil still use it daily, as well as in some Pacific islands formerly under Japan control.


Four main clades can gather the dialects of the Japanese language. First, the Eastern one which includes Tokyo. Second, the Western one which includes Kyoto. Third and fourth, linguists often put apart the dialects of Kyūshū and Hachijō Islands. Important to mention that the Ryukyuan dialects of Okinawa and the southern islands are not a part of the Japonic group although they may be referred to as such.

In the late 19th century, Japan spread a standard language at the expense of the dialects. Speaking a dialect then became a shame and the government could even punish those who dared. As a result, these dialects quickly declined. This, also because media stopped to spread it and people moved to cities where dialects did not exist. Luckily, they have not died. On the contrary, they even gained in value as nostalgic, heart warming, and markers of precious local heritage.

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Wago, or also Yamato Kotoba, is the name of the indigenous Japanese language. The latter has survived as a dialect with quite no much change since then, except for the vowel tone of some syllables. This vowel system, different in nature from Chinese, included five vowels. We pronounced two adjacent vowels either one by one or as a single long vowel, like today. All these vowels were later doubled with their long vowel equivalent. To that, a vowel always follows the consonants, also few in number.

Mother China

Through time, this language borrowed a large part of its lexicon to Chinese words it then mutated. Until the 4th century, the various Japanese peoples had no writing. Then, the Chinese Buddhist monks of the Chán are the ones who brought it. However, Japan met many issues to adapt this script to its language. Indeed, these two were very different from each other. From early 8th century, people started to use the Chinese signs the closest to Japanese. What we call kanji is then a meld of both. These characters used in this way are today called man'yōgana.

When Japan resists

Very early, Japan tried to resist. The Man'yōshū, which is a collection of short poems (the waka), is the earliest trace of Japanese written around 760. Japan has kept its own way, the kun, to pronounce Chinese signs. This is why, we pronounce "hito", the sign (person), if we follow the kun. Depending on the link made with another sign, it can also happen that some have different dictions. Thus, even today, Japanese people can understand a sign without being able to read it.

The oldest known written Japanese book, the Kojiki, dates from the same period, on year 712. Later, these combined signs gave birth to a simplified script called kanas. Its current form dates around 1900, then spread from 1946. Finally, in the late 19th century, Japan fostered a standard Japanese at the expenses of the dialects. The new Japanese then reached its peak between the 1940s and 1960s. Speaking dialects even became a shame, to not say that it was punished. Also, for a couple of years, the modern language now borrows from various Latin languages, with English in the lead.

Here is a nice recap of its evolution.

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Grammar, syntax and use

The word order differs from Latin languages. In Japanese, we place the object before the verb, while we put the noun after its adjective. Also, there is no article, gender or number. As in Korean, we do not conjugate verbs according to the person.


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The use of courtesy is a must in society. If its basics are quite easy to learn, Japanese themselves admit that it is hard to master them at a high level.

While Western countries express courtesy only in relation to the speaker, there is a clear division in Japanese. Thus, the wadai refers to the object of the conversation, while the dentatsu is for a situation of communication.

Furthermore, the Japanese system clearly make the difference between members of your social group (uchi) and the others (soto).

That goes even further as we can make 3 levels which refer to respect, humility and courtesy. But also, from a simple to an advanced form (kudaketa, teinei, keigo).

Became trendy in the daily life

First, it is the 10th language in the world in terms of native speakers. Second, it is a fact that the Japanese language has spread Eastern heritage to the West for decades. And some come and go as fads. Are tamagotchi, bonsai or suchi, karate, kimono or manga not such familiar? Plus, thanks to its rank as 3rd global economy, Japanese remains solid in affairs.