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The Japanese Language

Japanese is the official language of Japan. It is estimated between 120 and 130 million people worldwide speak the language. Less definite is the origin of the Japanese language. Japanese is the only major language whose origins are unknown. Several theories abound. One is its possible relation to Korean. Other suggested connections are Ural-Altaic, Polynesian and Chinese languages. Despite the multitude of hypothesises, no definite association with a language family has been positively proven.

The geography of Japan lends itself to different dialects. There are three groups of dialects: Eastern, Western and Kyushu. The dialects are usually mutually unintelligible.

The standardized Japanese language is based on the Tokyo dialect. The Tokyo dialect became a part of mandatory education in 1886. Mobility amongst the archipelago has reduced the dialectal differences and, oftentimes, local dialects have been supplanted by the standardized language. Mass media uses the standardized Japanese language.

Japanese is a 1,200 year old language, which is categorized into five periods. Classification of the different periods is difficult as languages change slowly and there is often no drastic happening or circumstance that influenced any changes.

Old Japanese (to 8th century BCE)

There is no known time period for the inception of the Japanese language. It is known the Chinese writing system was adopted in the 6th century and, for the first time, Japanese people had the ability to write texts.

The "Record of Ancient Matters" is the earliest written Japanese record and dates back to 712. This is generally accepted as the commencement of the Old Japanese period.

In 794, Heiankyō became the capital of Japan and this is the delineating date for the end of the Old Japanese period and induction of Late Old Japanese.

Late Old Japanese (9th through 11th century BCE)

This is the time period in which two new scripts for Japanese were developed. Hiragana and Katakana were deemed simpler to read and write. They also emulated consonant sound values. During this period, famous literature was written.

Changes in pronunciation occurred. Consonants became voiced rather than nasal. Digraphs were utilized. Syllables were reduced from 88 to 66. Verbs ended with both consonants and vowels. Long vowels were added.

Middle Japanese (12th through 16th century BCE)

Middle Japanese can be divided into Early Middle Japanese and Late Middle Japanese. During this time the language evolved closer to Modern Japanese with the loss of archaic features.

Portuguese missionaries contributed Portuguese loanwords, as well as furnishing Japanese dictionaries and grammars to society.

Literacy increased during this period due to the burgeoning Buddhist movement.

Early Modern Japanese (17th through 18th century BCE)

The Tokyo dialect emerged dominant during the Early Modern Japanese period. The advent of the printing press accelerated the spread of the Tokyo dialect.

During this period, Japan became isolated from the world. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the Shogun of Japan and contact with other countries and the Christian religion declined to a negligible degree until the 19th century.

Modern Japanese (19th century BCE through to present)

Japan's leaders concluded in the late 1800's that Japan must become Westernized to survive economically. Many new words were introduced into the Japanese vocabulary to accommodate new concepts.

The most significant development in modern Japanese was the synchronization of the spoken and written word. People, at last, had the capability to write everyday spoken Japanese.

Japan became a major player and conquered large portions of the Asian world, thereby spreading the Japanese language far and wide. This fell apart after World War II when Japan was ultimately occupied by military forces.

While attempts by Allied forces to simplify the Japanese language were not followed through, the Education Ministry of Japan revised the number of Chinese characters to 1850 in 1946. The Ministry now controls the Japanese language and teaching methods in schools.

Speech, traditionally formal and honorific, has become more neutral in recent decades.

Japanese has a substantial amount of loanwords from other languages, the majority of which are Chinese. English, Portuguese and Dutch words have also been borrowed over the centuries due to trade relationships with these countries.