Japonic language family

Japan, historically possibly in the Korean peninsula
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5jpx
The Japonic languages

The Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan language family includes the Japanese language spoken on the main islands of Japan as well as the Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The term "Japonic languages" was coined by Leon Serafim, and the family is widely accepted by linguists.[2] The common ancestral language is known as Proto-Japonic.[3] The essential feature of this classification is that the first split in the family resulted in the separation of all dialects of Japanese from all varieties of Ryukyuan. According to Shirō Hattori, this separation occurred during the Yamato period (250–710).[4]


The Japonic (or Japanese–Ryukyuan) languages are:

Beckwith includes toponymic material from southern Korea as evidence of an additional ancient Japonic language there:[5]

It is not clear if "pre-Kara" was related to the language of the later Gaya (Kara) confederacy.


Proto-Japonic, the proto-language ancestral to all present-day Japonic languages and dialects reconstructed using the comparative method, has been reconstructed by Martin (1987)[6] and Vovin (1994).[7] Reconstructed Proto-Japonic forms from Vovin (1994: 109–111) are given below.

Gloss Proto-Japanese
all *múCí-nà
ashes *pápÍ
bark (n.) *kàpà
belly *pàrà
big *ò̱pò̱-
bird *tó̱rí
bite *kàm-
black *kùrwò
blood *tí
bone *pone
breast *ti/*titi
burn *dák-
cloud *kùmù[C]à
cold *sàmù-
come *kò̱-
die *sín-
dog *ìnù
drink *nò̱m-
dry *káw(V)rá-k-
ear *mìmì
eat *kup-
eye *mà-n
feather *рánÉ
fire *pò-Ci
fish *(d)íwó
fly (v.) *tó̱np-
foot *pànkì
full *mìt-
give *ata[-]pa-Ci
go *káywóp-; *dik-
good *dò̱-
grease *à(n)pùrá
green *àwò; *míntórì
hair *ká-Ci
hand *tà-Ci
head *tumu-; *kàsìrà
hear *kí[-]k-
heart *kòkòró
horn *tùnwò
I *bàn[u]
kill *kó̱ró̱s-
knee *pínsá; Proto-Ryukyuan *tubusin
know *sír-
land *tùtì
leaf *pá
lie *ná-
liver *kímwò
long *nànkà-
louse *sìrámí
man *bò
many *mana-Ci
meat *sìsì
moon *tùkú-
mountain *dàmà
mouth *kútú-Ci
nail *túmá-Ci
name *ná
new *àrà-ta-
night *dùCà
nose *páná
not *-an[a]-
one *pito̱
person *pítò̱
rain/sky *àmâ-Ci
red *áká-
root *mò̱tò̱
round *márú/*máró̱
sand *súná
say *(d)i[-]p-
see *mì-
seed *tàná-Ci
short *m-ìnsìkà-
sit *bí-
sleep *ui-
small *tìpìsà-
smoke *kái[-]npúrí
stand *tàt-
star *pósí
stone *(d)ísò
sun *pí
swim *ò̱yò̱-
tail *bò̱
that *ká-
this *kó̱-
tongue *sìtà
tooth *pà
tree *kò̱- < *ko̱no̱r
two *puta
warm *àta-taka-
water *mí
way *mítí
we *bàn[u]
what *nà[-]ní
white *sírà-Cu
who *tá-
woman *-mina/*míCá
yellow *kú-Ci
you (sg.) *si/*so̱-; *na

The Proto-Japonic numerals are (Vovin 1994: 106):

Gloss Proto-Japanese
one *pito̱-
two *puta-
three *mi-
four *do̱-
five *itu-
six *mu-
seven *nana-
eight *da-
nine *ko̱ko̱no̱
ten *to̱bo
hundred *mwomwo

Origins and classification[]

The relationship of the Japonic (or Japanese–Ryukyuan) languages to other languages and language families is controversial. There are numerous hypotheses, none of which is generally accepted. Japonic is classified as an isolated language family[8] and shows in its proto-form strong similarities to Southeast Asian languages.[9]

Scholarly discussions about the origin of Japonic languages present an unresolved set of related issues.[10] The clearest connections seem to be with toponyms in today's southern Korea, which may be from the ancient isolated Gaya language (Kara) or other scarcely attested languages.[11] Alexander Vovin (2008, 2013)[12][13] finds many toponyms of Japonic origin in the central and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula, in Silla and Baekje. Japonic-speaking agriculturalists were resident in the central and southern Korean Peninsula, and were conquered afterwards by Koreanic speakers from the north (most likely in central and southern Manchuria) who were familiar with Central Asian equestrian warfare. By the 6th to 7th centuries, Japonic languages had become marginalized in Silla (southeastern South Korea) (Vovin 2013:227–228). Some Japonic speakers emigrated to the Japanese archipelago, while others were assimilated by Koreanic speakers.

Vovin does not consider Japonic to be related to Koreanic, and believes that Japonic was completely replaced by Koreanic on the mainland. Instead, Vovin (2014)[14] suggests that Japonic ultimately originated in southern China and migrated to Japan via the Korean Peninsula, while Koreanic shows various typological similarities with Paleosiberian languages spoken much further to the north in Siberia (Vovin 2015).[15] Furthermore, Vovin (1998)[16] considers Japonic to be the language of the Kofun culture rather than of the Yayoi culture. Instead, the Yayoi may have spoken an Austroasiatic or Tai-Kadai language, based on the reconstructed Japonic terms *(z/h)ina-Ci 'rice (plant)', *koma-Ci '(hulled) rice', and *pwo 'ear of grain' which Vovin assumes to be agricultural terms of Yayoi origin.

Vovin (2013) also notes that the old name for Jeju Island is tammura, which can be analyzed in Japanese as tani mura たにむら ( 'valley settlement') or tami mura たみむら ( 'people's settlement'). Thus, Vovin concludes that Japonic speakers were present on Jeju Island before being replaced by Koreanic speakers sometime before the 15th century, which was when the state of Tamna on Jeju became absorbed by the Korean Joseon dynasty.

Other scholars such as Paul K. Benedict maintain that Japanese is a Para-Austronesian language, with him proposing a Austro-Tai-Japanese grouping. However, his Austro-Tai-Japanese grouping is not widely accepted by linguists. Although Vovin (2014)[14] does not consider Japonic to be genetically related to Tai-Kadai, he suggests that Japonic was in heavy contact with Tai-Kadai, pointing to an ultimate origin of Japonic in southern China.

There is typological evidence that Proto-Japonic may have been a monosyllabic, SVO syntax and isolating language, which are features that the Tai-Kadai languages also famously exhibit.[17]

Another theory was raised by the Japanese linguist Īno Mutsumi. He suggested after his analysis of proto-Sino-Tibetan that Japanese is related to the proto-form of Sino-Tibetan, especially to the Burmese language. Because of similar grammar rules (SOV, syntax), similar non-loan basic-vocabulary and the fact that early Sino-Tibetan was non-tonal like still today some small languages, he proposed the Sinitic origin theory.[18][19]

A 2015 analysis using the Automated Similarity Judgment Program resulted in the Japonic languages being grouped with the Ainu and then with the Austroasiatic languages.[20] However, similarities between Ainu and Japonic are also due to extensive past contact. Analytic grammatical constructions acquired or transformed in Ainu were likely due to contact with Japanese and the Japonic languages, which had heavy influence on the Ainu languages with a large number of loanwords borrowed into the Ainu languages, and to a smaller extent, vice versa.[21] No genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, despite numerous attempts. Thus, the Ainu language is considered to be a language isolate, as is the Japanese language when the Japonic languages are considered to be dialects of a single language rather than a language family.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Japonic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Shimabukuro, Moriyo. (2007). The Accentual History of the Japanese and Ryukyuan Languages: a Reconstruction, p. 1.
  3. ^ Miyake, Marc Hideo. (2008). Old Japanese: a Phonetic Reconstruction. p. 66., p. 66, at Google Books
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  5. ^ Christopher Beckwith, 2007, Koguryo, the Language of Japan's Continental Relatives, pp 27–28
  6. ^ Martin, Samuel E. 1987. The Japanese Language through Time. New Haven & London: Yale Univ. Press.
  7. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 1994. "Long-distance Relationships, Reconstruction Methodology, and the Origins of Japanese". Diachronica 11(1): 95–114.
  8. ^ Kindaichi, Haruhiko (2011-12-20). The Japanese Language. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462902668. Archived from the original on 2017-03-22.
  9. ^ Alexander, Vovin. "Proto-Japanese beyond the accent system". Current Issues in Linguistic Theory: 141–156. Archived from the original on 2018-05-11.
  10. ^ Blench, Roger M. (2008). Archaeology and language, Vol. 2, p. 201., p. 201, at Google Books
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  12. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2013. "From Koguryǒ to T'amna: Slowly Riding South with the Speakers of Proto-Korean". Korean Linguistics, 15.2: 222–240.
  13. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2008. "高句麗에서 耽羅까지ᅳ韓国祖語를 말한 騎馬人들과 함께 南쪽을 향하여 천천히 내려오면서ᅳ" ("From Koguryo to Tamna: Slowly Riding South with the Speakers of Proto-Korean"). Lecture at the Seoul National University on May 15, 2008. Travel fully funded by the Seoul National University.
  14. ^ a b Vovin, Alexander. 2014. "Out of Southern China? – Philological and linguistic musings on the possible Urheimat of Proto-Japonic". Journées de CRLAO 2014. June 27–28, 2014. INALCO, Paris.
  15. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2015). "Korean as a Paleosiberian Language". 알타이할시리즈 2. ISBN 978-8-955-56053-4. Archived from the original on 2016-11-06. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
  16. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 1998. Japanese rice agriculture terminology and linguistic affiliation of Yayoi culture. In Archaeology and Language II: Archaeological Data and Linguistic Hypotheses. Routledge.
  17. ^ Vovin, Alexander. "Out of Southern China?". academia.edu. Archived from the original on 2017-11-22.
  18. ^ 飯野睦毅 (1994)『奈良時代の日本語を解読する』東陽出版
  19. ^ Taw Sein Ko 1924, p. viii.
  20. ^ Jäger, Gerhard (2015). "Support for linguistic macrofamilies from weighted sequence alignment". PNAS. 112 (41): 12752–12757. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500331112. PMC 4611657. PMID 26403857.
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