Japanese Language History

Interested in learning the origin of the Japanese language and its exciting history? You should be! Despite being one of the smaller Asian countries, the Japan language is the eighth most spoken language in the world. Around 130 million people speak Japanese worldwide, of which 125 million Japanese speakers live in Japan. Here the Japanese language is the de facto language of the country despite not holding official status.

The remaining 5 million speakers are predominantly emigrants that speak Japanese. In fact, the popularity of Japanese continues to grow as native Japanese travel internationally and move abroad. Most notable is the fact that the Japanese language is prevalent in Hawaii and Brazil. There are also sizable Japanese-speaking populations in Australia, the US, and Canada.

Having gained independence a little over 70 years ago, the success and power of the Japanese speak for themselves. Japan is one of the most influential countries across the globe! It has the 10th largest population globally and thus a considerable number of Japanese speakers. Unsurprisingly, Japanese language translation services are more in demand than ever, especially in today’s globalised economy.

Even more remarkable is that the Japan language is considered a language isolate. The origin of Japanese language is unclear and holds no provable connection to any other language. How this unique and unrelated language has become dominant in the modern world is extremely interesting. Keep reading to discover the origin of Japanese, its deep ties to Japanese culture, and the development of its unique writing system.

Origin of Japanese Language

The origin of the Japanese language is heavily debated. Evidence could link several language families, including Chinese, Polynesian, and Ural-Altaic. Many even consider Japanese to be a language isolate! Yet it is most widely believed that the Japan language belongs to the Ryukyuan family of languages, brought to Japan via the Korean peninsula in the 4th century BC.

The lack of evidence of origins is largely down to the lack of a writing system for the Japanese language until this time. People speak Japanese, but it is hard to define the “beginning” of the language without any preserved text. However, the Japanese population started using Chinese characters in the 4th century. These are the earliest known texts written in Japanese, known as Old Japanese language, which uses many of the same grammatical rules in place today.

The language of Japan evolved and underwent several phonological changes, becoming Early Middle Japanese in the Heian period (794 to 1185). This language was the literary standard in Japan and incorporated many Chinese loanwords. The Late Middle Japanese period followed and spanned from 1185 to 1600, characterised by the addition of European loanwords.

Modern “Japanese Language”

The Modern Japanese period moves further from the origin of the Japanese language. Previously, the Kansai dialect of Japanese was considered the language standard. But in the Modern Japanese era, there was a shift towards the dialect spoken in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). From the 1600s onwards, the city developed into the largest in Japan, and the regional language variety was used to speak Japanese professionally and day-to-day.

The Japanese language continued to evolve as time passed. The number of European loanwords increased significantly from 1853 onwards, the year that Japwhen265-year self-imposed isolation. As trade opened and connections formed, these additions were necessary. More foreign words were borrowed post-war, particularly from German, Portuguese, and English languages.

The Japanese language used for communications and taught as a foreign language is known as Hyojungo (Standard Japanese). However, the Japan language spoken by natives is somewhat different. There are still many dialects spoken over the 6,852 individual Japanese islands, known as Hōgen. These can be split into four groups: Eastern, Western, Kyushu, and Ryūkyū.

Alphabets & Writing System

Before the 4th century AD, the Japanese language had no writing system. Japan then came into contact with Chinese culture, including the Chinese script, in the 5th century. The Japanese started developing their own script based on traditional Chinese characters, and are thought to be the origin of Japanese language alphabets and writing systems. The characters are known as Kanji (漢字).

Thousands of Kanji are part of the writing system of Japanese. The Japanese Ministry of Education expects students to be familiar with around 2,000 characters before high school graduation. This is usually an adequate number for common printed material. Highly educated Japanese speakers may know up to 8,000 characters.

The modern Japan language can also be written in two other scripts that emerged during the 9th century: Hiragana (平仮名) and Katakana (片仮名). Hiragana is a simplified version of Kanji, created by the Japanese Imperial Court and used by most people that speak Japanese. Katakana was developed by Buddhist monks and is more like a shorthand version of Kanji. It is a sound-based script that can be used to write foreign loanwords.

Japanese Language Honorifics

Japanese is often considered a language isolate, as the origin of the Japanese language cannot be traced to any other language family. However, one related language is Korean. The Korean language and the Japanese language have significant differences in pronunciation, but both use honorifics. In the Japan language, this is known as Keigo (敬語), translating literally to “respectful language.”

Formality is vital in Japanese culture, so it is unsurprising that this is prominent in the language of Japan. There are broadly three levels of formality: polite (丁寧語, teineigo), respectful (尊敬語, sonkeigo), and modest (謙譲語, kenjōgo). Strangers speak Japanese to each other politely, whereas the respectful Japanese language is used when talking to superiors and customers. When talking about self, modest language is used.

This feature of the Japan language is deeply tied to culture. For the Japanese, family and country and more important than self. This idea comes from Confucianism, an ancient Chinese religion focusing on the importance of ethics, morality, and ancestors. It merged with the Japanese culture via the Korean peninsula in the 3rd century, explaining why both Japanese and Korean are honorific.

Japanese Translation Services

From the unknown origin of the Japanese language, the Japan language has come a long way. There are around 130 million speakers, and translating into Japanese is a smart move for any international business looking to reach the sizable Asian population.

Are you looking for Japanese translation providers? At Renaissance Translations, we have a large network of expert translators that speak Japanese and can provide professional Japanese translations. Whether you have a video, a document, a website, or a passport to translate to Japanese, our skilled experts can help you today.

We also offer a range of language services aside from professional translations. Our offerings include proofreading, voiceover services, localisation, transcreation, technical translation, and more. Contact us to discuss your specific project needs, and one of our project managers will be in touch shortly. Alternatively, request a quote for your project by clicking here.