Japanese (125 million speakers)

Japanese is commonly thought to have derived from Austro-Asiatic and Altaic roots.  The two other indigenous languages in the area, Ainu and Ryukyuan, have now become virtually extinct.  Japanese is represented by   four writing systems.  The Chinese characters, or kanji, were introduced to Japan in the late 6th century with the introduction of Buddhism from China.  From kanji developed hiragana, a cursive style of writing kanji, and katakana, an abbreviation of kanji characters.  Finally, romaji, an alphabetized writing system, is used to express Japanese words in the alphabet to foreigners.


Japanese words are made up of consonant + vowel syllables   (CV) with two exceptions:  syllable-final nasals*,  e.g. 'pan', bread and geminate consonants, e.g. 'dokkiri', an expression of being surprised.  Such consonant units are known as mora, which correspond to the letters of hiragana and katakana.  This CV phonological system produces interesting results when foreign words are borrowed into Japanese.  For example, 'Stanford' becomes 'sutanfo:do', 'C++' becomes 'shi:pulasupulasu', and 'raspberry ice cream' becomes 'razuberi:aisukurimu'.

* A nasal is a sound produced with the lowering of the soft palate so that air may pass through the nose.  For example, /m/, /n/, ng.gif (865 bytes) in English.


One of the major factors  contributing to the context-dependent variation in Japanese is gender distinction in speech forms.  For example, in first person pronouns 'watashi', is used by both genders but is used by females in more informal situations than males.  Similarly, 'anata' (second person, polite form) is used by both genders in formal situations, but in informal situations, males use 'omae', whereas females use 'anta', a shortened form of 'anata'.  Another lexical item that exhibits gender distinction is sentence-final particles*.  'Ne' and 'zo' are only used by males, whereas 'wa' is only used by females.  Clausal nominalizers**, 'no', and 'koto' as well as the ending that indicates doubt, 'kashira', are also limited to female speech.  As a result,  female speech is considered in the culture to sound more soft and polite than male speech.

watashi-wa yotteiru        male/female speech

'I am drunk'

omae-wa yotteru-zo        male speech

anta-wa yotteiru-wa        female speech

'You are drunk'

* A particle is usually a very short word, sometimes, though not always, a clitic (a grammatical element treated as an independent word in syntax but forming a phonological unit with the word that precedes or follows it), and generally not falling under any of the traditional parts of speech.

** A clause is any syntactic unit whose structure is or is seen as reduced from that of a sentence.  A nominalizer is a very short word that makes a noun or a noun phrase from any other kind of unit. 

Japanese at Stanford

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