Studying Japanese will allow you to do more than simply improve your proficiency in a second language. It will pave the way for a better understand of Japanese people and Japanese society.

Before learning Japanese, it is interesting to study the development of this complex language, which has close links to the Chinese language.

  • What is the true origin of the language of Mishima?
  • What are the first traces of Japanese writing?
  • How much has the Chinese language influenced the Japanese language?

The Japanese of today has evolved with the history of the land of the rising sun for several hundred years...

In this article Superprof will look at the fascinating story of the Japanese language, which is essential for any Japanese language student who wants to learn Japanese through Japanese culture.

The Appearance of Japanese as a Spoken Language

The language spoken in Japan, also called yamato, is spoken by more than 125 million people, making it the 10th most spoken language in the world.

The Japanese language is an "agglutinante and polysyllabic language." What does that mean? A language is said to be agglutinative when its grammatical features are marked by the assembly of basic elements, called morphemes.

Other agglutinative languages include:

  • the Altaic languages (Turkish, Mongolian),
  • the Uralic languages (Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian),
  • Korean or Basque.

Japanese does not resemble Chinese in any way, but it still has many words derived from the written Chinese language. The Japanese language also has some similarities with Korean.

Japanese kanji are borrowed from Chinese
The text at the top is written in traditional Chinese, and the text at the bottom is in Japanese. Can you recognize some similarities between the two?

During the Edo era (1603-1868), the Japanese language as it is spoken today was established. During the Meiji era, many Western words entered the Japanese vocabulary.

"Today katakanas are mainly used for words of foreign origin, and their three typographies, Kanji, Katakana and Hiragana are mixed together to write a Japanese language that continues to evolve," says Wikipedia.

Learning Japanese: The First Traces of Japanese Writing

The history of Japanese writing dates back to the fourth century AD when Japanese people started writing in their own language. The contribution of writing was made possible by Chinese Buddhist monks. The online Encyclopedia tells us that:

"The Chinese signs, called Kanji by the Japanese, are mainly ideograms, and the Japanese will use different ways to pronounce them by associating them. On the one hand, they keep a Japanese pronunciation, called kun, and add the pronunciation(s) issued from Chinese on ".

Subsequently, these signs were used to create a modern alphabet, the kanas, which exist in 2 forms, katakana and hiragana.

Here is a summary of the Japanese writing principles:

  • Kanji are used to transcribe most words which carry semantics. Most Japanese kanji have several readings: the Chinese-originated reading(s) and a Japanese-originated reading.
  • The hiraganas are mainly used to write grammatical morphemes.
  • Katakanas are used mainly for words borrowed from foreign languages (eg the word "marathon").
The Japanese writing system is more complex than in English
Kanji, hiragana, and katakana are the foundation of the Japanese language.

The Japanese also use furiganas, placed above the kanji to indicate the pronunciation of an ideogram.

Historically, the oldest Japanese language book is Kojiki (712), which was written in Chinese characters.

We know this a lot to take on board, and we don't want any beginners to feel overwhelmed. But this illustrates the advantage of taking language lessons with a Japanese language school, or a private Japanese teacher. Whilst there are a number of good textbooks to help you learn Japanese online or on your own, the Japanese writing system has complexities that any new beginner should be taught by an expert in Japanese lessons.

Once you have a grasp of how to read and write in Japanese, your Japanese studies will start to become easier and you will see your language skills develop more quickly.

Remember that Superprof can help you find a Japanese teacher close to where you live, but in the meantime you can find out more about Japanese grammar and syntax rules here.

The Chinese Heritage of Japanese

As you are probably by now aware, the language and culture in Japan are closely intertwined. But did you know that the kanji characters used in Japanese are borrowed from Chinese? Between 710 and 784, the so-called Nara period, the Japanese began to use Chinese ideograms for the Japanese language.

The pronunciation of Japanese words was from then on associated with Chinese characters. They only borrow the sound of the Chinese character but remove its meaning. The characters that are used are called "manyogana."

Since the manyogana writing system only represents a sound. Anything written using these characters requires more characters than a conventional text.

The Yokohama Magazine's website wrote a great article on the history of the Japanese language. It explains the evolution of Japanese writing.

"In the age of Heian (784-1184), men of the upper classes wrote two kinds of texts: texts in Chinese and texts in Japanese using Chinese characters (kanshiki-wabun). They also created Chinese characters specific to Japanese. Indeed, to facilitate the reading of the texts in Chinese, they began to add notes in manyogana between the lines. From time to time, because of the limited space, the manyogana was shortened and only a part of what was written. It was the origin of katakana which means the kana (manyogana) was incomplete."

Like the manyogana, the katakana is a sound. Little by little, the Japanese began to use Katakana in stories with Chinese characters. This is how we are now able to date the birth of the Katakana characters.

The physical style of Japanese writing is called calligraphy
Kanji are Chinese characters whose function is to write a part of the Japanese language.

The Birth of Hiragana and its Impact on Japanese Culture

Then comes the hiragana, a cursive form of manyogana, which was developed because people wanted to write faster (cursive is the name given to writing resulting from the simplification of "official" writing).

Thanks to this, and for the very first time, the Japanese could write as they expressed themselves in their daily lives. The hiragana writing system was erected during the first half of the 10th century. And thanks to hiragana, many literary trends, such as the essay, the newspaper, and the novel, emerged during this great era!

However, the texts in hiragana appeared inappropriate for the writing of official texts, which needed Chinese characters. During the Kamakura/Muromachi period (1185-1573), written Japanese began to move away from spoken language again.

As the Yokohama website explains:

"The text became more logical and clear thanks to the use of the particle "ga," which comes after the subject and the introduction of the conjunctions that indicate the relation between a sentence and the next sentence. On the other hand, many forms of verb conjugation, which were used at the end of the sentence, began to disappear. The elegant and emotional expressions of the aristocrats were gradually replaced by the clear expressions of the samurai. "

Be aware though that if some things have disappeared, Japan remains a country of tradition. Let's not forget about Japanese calligraphy, which is still very present in the land of the Rising Sun.

Reading and writing are imperative if you want an intermediate or a more advanced level in order to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

If you want to move to Japan, taking the JLPT is paramount for hiring companies if they are going to give you a job.

However, if your focus is to learn basic Japanese in order to have a conversational level, the writing systems explained above are not so important. They are something that you can pick up during your Japanese learning journey.

The Slow Evolution of Modern Japanese

It was at the time of Edo (former name of Tokyo) between 1603 and 1868 that the modern Japanese language began to form. The inhabitants of the city, who had surpassed those of Kyoto and Osaka in number, contributed to developing the modern spoken Japanese language.

Many terms used today date from this "Edo period."

For example, there are still many pronouns for the 1st and 2nd person, as well as terms of politeness (note: politeness is almost a language in its own right in Japan, with its own expressions and rules), which would have been invented at this precise time.

In addition, spoken and written languages became more and more distant from this period on.

After the Restoration of the Meiji (1868-1912), many Western words seeped through to the Japanese vocabulary. The Japanese then created new words using Chinese characters.

Japanese language and culture are also in close tandem with one another
The Japanese language has evolved over time

Japanese in Modern Times

In 1902, the government announced its desire to establish a "standard" language, based on the language spoken in the middle class of Tokyo.

A year later, in 1903, the first ever textbook for primary school, approved by the state, was published. It became the basis of the spoken Japanese language.

"The concordance of the written Japanese language with the spoken language was difficult. There were many disputes and proposals, including the abolition/reduction of Chinese characters and the adoption of their alphabet. Many essays ended up failing because the dominant class prefered texts that were difficult to write and understand, and it was difficult to express the pronoun, the auxiliary verb, and other components of the spoken language in writing."

An agreement was finally reached in 1945, when the spoken Japanese language was ratified by official documents.

How to Learn Japanese Today

Today, the Japanese language has traveled around the world and continues to evolve.

Language classes in Japanese are likely to focus on Nihongo-the Japanese learnt by foreigners, and you have a number of options if speaking Japanese is your goal.

If you want to learn Japanese online, it is best to choose someone who speaks Japanese as their native language, or a bilingual English/Japanese tutor.

A Japanese language course in a language institute should have this as a basic requirement, too. Your Japanese teacher needs to be able to teach you after all.

But perhaps the best way to learn Japanese is through immersion. If you surround yourself with Japanese, you will pick up words and phrases at a faster rate. This means that you should try to listen to Japanese songs and radio, watch Japanese films and television, and read Japanese books and newspapers when you reach a more advanced level.

And if you can move abroad to Japan, that would be even better.

Remember, Japanese is much more than just a language. It is a culture with a fascinating history dating back almost two millennia. Learning the culture and the history of the Japanese language is all part and parcel of improving your proficiency on the road to becoming fluent in Japanese.

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