Would you believe that native Japanese speakers sometimes need subtitles to watch Japanese TV? That’s because Japanese isn’t homogenous but rather full of dialects with their own special features.
Despite being isolated to just a few islands, the Japanese language is a diverse collection of regional and local dialects that create a linguistic tapestry across the country. Learning the standard Japanese prominent in Tokyo is just the first step to accessing the rich culture of Japan. Dive into the world of Japanese dialects, and soon you’ll be the one pointing out the accents on TV and the street.
From the easily understood Kanto dialects to the Ryukyuan languages that are completely unintelligible to Japanese speakers, take a look at what makes different Japanese dialects and languages special.
Japanese language overview
Japanese is a grammatically complex language that developed on the Japanese island archipelago. Japanese is the largest member of the Japonic language family that includes Japanese and its closest relatives, the Ryukyuan languages that have small populations on the Ryukyu Islands. All these languages came from a common ancestor called “Proto-Japonic” that was brought to the islands in prehistory by settlers. Eventually, the languages grew apart, and Japanese became its own language.
Like any language, its exact origins are impossible to determine, but the first recorded texts of Old Japanese appeared sometime around the 8th Century. These were written in the classical Chinese script which came to Japan through the spread of Buddhism. Old Japanese is grammatically very similar to modern Japanese. The main differences are in pronunciation and syllable structure, something very important in Japanese.
Over the centuries, Japanese slowly evolved taking on forms known as Early and Late Middle Japanese. Modern Japanese first took form at the beginning of the Edo period in the early 17th Century finally developing into what we now recognize as Japanese after the Meiji Restoration in the 19th Century. This saw the Tokyo dialect of Japanese become widespread and replace many other common dialects.
With 128 million speakers, Japan is by far the largest member of the Japonic language family and the eighth-most spoken in the world by native speakers. In fact, it is the second most-spoken non-Indo-European language in the world after Mandarin Chinese.
Still, even with so many speakers, Japanese is a very isolated language, almost all of its speakers living in Japan itself. There are also a few immigrant communities in countries like the US, Canada, and Brazil.
Unique features of the Japanese language
Japanese is a grammatically complex language. Specifically, it is a “synthetic” language which means that morphemes are combined to change the meaning of the word. Many speakers of Indo-European languages, including English, are used to this. However, in Japanese, these changes are considered “agglutinative” rather than “fusional” like in European languages such as English, Spanish, or German.
Although it’s not the norm, we can find examples of “agglutination” in English. Consider the morphemes “hope,” “less” and “ness.” Each of these morphemes signals meaning on its own, and they can be combined to form the word “hopelessness” with its own distinct meaning. None of the morphemes change when they’re combined, and each represents one aspect of meaning. This is the norm in Japanese.
On the other hand, if you know any Spanish, you’re very familiar with language “fusion.” Consider the verb cantar (to sing). This verb becomes cantaba in the imperfect past. Here the suffix -aba is added to the verb, and the verb itself changes, dropping the -ar. Additionally, -aba represents several things. It signals the person and number (first-person singular), the tense (past), and the aspect (imperfect) all in one. This rarely happens in Japanese.
In fact, despite being grammatically complex, Japanese lacks many of the grammatical concepts you might be familiar with like number or gender. The word ki (tree/s) remains the same whether there is one, two, or a million trees. Japanese does have conjugation, primarily for tense.
Topic and particles
Rather than use word order or fusional suffixes and prefixes to signal the grammatical role of words like in English and other European languages, Japan relies primarily on particles. Particles are short words, usually just single syllables, that signal the grammatical role of the word before them.
One of the best examples in Japanese is the unique concept of topic. Japanese sentences always have a topic, but the topic doesn’t have to be the subject of the sentence. In the sentence Watashi wa sushi ga ii desu, “sushi ga ii desu” means “sushi is good,” an easily translatable concept into English in which “sushi” is the subject. In fact, ga is a particle indicating sushi as the subject.
In the part “Watashi wa,” though, watashi means “I” while wa is a particle signaling that watashi is the topic of the sentence. The closest translation of the entire sentence in English would then be something like “Sushi is good to me,” but that’s just an approximation. Really, the concept of a topic is something unique to Japanese that allows you to express things in a way English doesn’t.
One of the most unique parts of Japanese is its huge focus on politeness and manners. Of course, in English we have words like “sir” and “ma’am,” and other European languages have their formal pronouns like usted in Spanish, but Japanese takes it to a whole other level.
Japanese has a number of different levels and forms of politeness that involve different conjugation, additional prefixes or vocabulary changes altogether. Informal speech is what children learn first and what families and friends use amongst each other, but by the time a Japanese person reaches adulthood, they’re expected to know the intricate rules of polite speech.
The basic level of polite language is called teineigo (丁寧語), and people use this to talk to strangers or people they’re unfamiliar with in general. This type of speech is usually formed by special conjugation of the verb. For example, the verb iku (to go) becomes ikimasu in teineigo.
Besides teineigo, there are also sonkeigo (尊敬語), or “respectful language,” and kenjōgo (謙譲語), or “humble language.” These are used based on social position, which is determined by many factors including age, job and experience, as well as whether you’re asking a favor or apologizing. In general, kenjōgo is used to talk about yourself in reference to someone of higher status, while sonkeigo is used to talk about someone of higher status.
What’s the difference between a dialect and a language?
In reality, there are no definite lines between dialects or even languages. Languages slowly evolve to form new languages. Two separated groups of people that may have once spoken the same language slowly begin to speak different languages as their speech changes over time.
For example, English and German both come from a common ancestor. At one time, all the Germanic peoples spoke the same language, but eventually they split and evolved until English and German are now separate languages. Although we consider them the same language now, the English in the United States and Australia may continue to change until they are each separate languages.
Oftentimes, languages evolve on what’s called a “dialectical continuum.” Take the case of the Roman Empire. The common people spoke something called “Vulgar Latin” from the western to the eastern edge of the empire. From Portugal to Romania, each village along the way spoke a little differently than its neighbor. Two villages next to each other could understand each other, but two villages far apart could not. Eventually, certain groups became more powerful, and through conquest, their specific dialect ended up covering a wide area.
This leads us to the specific distinction between a “dialect” and a “language.” Linguists most often define a language as separate from another when it’s no longer mutually intelligible. In other words, German and English are separate languages because, although they’re similar, an English speaker can’t understand a German speaker and vice versa.
Dialects, on the other hand, have minor differences but are otherwise mutually intelligible. For instance, Australian English has different vocabulary and pronunciation from American English, but the two groups can still understand each other. Therefore, they’re considered the same language.
Since languages evolve on a continuum, though, this definition can become muddled. In some cases, dialects along the continuum become harder and harder to understand, but it’s hard to say at what point one language ends and another begins. This leads to debate over classification with some people claiming a language is separate while others claiming it’s merely a dialect, something that inevitably ends up having political consequences.
Scots, spoken in Scotland, is an example of this in English. Scots can be quite hard for Americans to understand without some accustomization, but people in the north of England might not have such a hard time. As a result, many people argue whether Scots should be its own language or a dialect of English.
Although Japanese is an especially isolated language, all these forces act upon it as well. Currently, Japanese contains many dialects, and historically, even more, have existed and gone through the endless process of evolution and usurping one another. Even now, debate exists regarding the Ryukyuan languages, whether they are mutually intelligible with Japanese and therefore dialects or their own separate languages. These debates naturally have additional historical and political symbolism attached.
How mutually intelligible are Japanese dialects?
There definitely exist exceptions, but for the most part, Japanese form a dialectical continuum that follows a clear geographical pattern. In fact, they are divided geographically between east and west and the Kyushu and Hachijo islands.
This means that, for the most part, dialects are more mutually intelligible the closer they are to each other. As you might expect, changing islands tend to be a bigger rift than distance on land. For example, the Chugoku dialect and Shikoku dialect are right next to each other, so they can understand one another more easily than both can understand the Hokkaido dialect on the other end of the country.
As for the “standard Japanese” that foreigners usually learn, this is merely the Tokyo dialect, itself a subdialect of the larger West Kanto dialect. Like most languages, the standard version of the language that most people in the nation speak in academic or formal situations is just the dialect of the most recent area to hold political power.
Consequently, dialects tend to be easier to understand the closer they are to Tokyo. For instance, the East Kanto dialect is not much different and easy to adapt to. The Kyushu island dialects, however, are far from Tokyo and separated by water, so while native Japanese people can usually understand after a period of adaptation, foreigners often have a lot of difficulties, even if they’re fluent in standard Japanese.
Like everything in linguistics, though, there are exceptions to this geographic rule. The Tohoku dialects actually border the Kanto dialects but are considered particularly hard to understand. Tohoku is a rural area, and the small populations have developed a slower, more slurred pronunciation. In fact, the Japanese joke that the cold weather in Tohoku makes it difficult for the people there to open their mouths.
How many Japanese dialects are there?
The division between dialects is even more arbitrary and difficult to define than the division between languages. How many dialects exist in a language depends on who you ask and where they’ve decided to draw their lines. Usually, dialects can also be further divided into sub-dialects and sub-sub-dialects, so it depends on how specific you want to get. That said, for academic purposes, there is usually a kind of generally accepted list of dialects.
As you can see in the above map, excluding the Ryukyuan languages, generally considered to be separate languages unintelligible with Japan, the Japanese dialects are divided into four main categories. These are:
- Eastern Japanese
- Western Japanese
- Kyūshū Japanese
- Hachijō Japanese
These four categories are then divided into 13 academically recognized dialects:
- Eastern Japanese
- Inland Hokkaidō-ben
- Coastal Hokkaidō-ben
- Western Japanese
- Kyūshū Japanese
If you look at the dialect map above, you’ll also see that some of these dialects, like Kanto, are sometimes further divided geographically.
Common Japanese dialects
Kanto is the home of Tokyo, so the Kanto dialect is more or less synonymous with standard Japanese. Since Tokyo is the seat of government and political power as well as media and entertainment production, it’s the common version of the language people hear on the radio and TV and the lingua franca they use to communicate when their local dialects might be difficult to understand.
For foreign learners, this all means that Kantō-ben is just going to sound like what you know as Japanese. If you want to look for distinguishing features, though, you’ll notice that people in Tokyo tend to use the particle ga, which is similar to the English interjection “like” more often than people from other areas.
The only way you may notice a difference from “standard Japanese” is in keigo, or honorific speech, one of the many ways to speak politely in Japanese. Historically, Kantō-ben didn’t use keigo, so this kind of honorific speech still relies on the Kyoto dialect. Tokyo has since developed its own adapted form of keigo, but it’s not “standard.”
The Kansai dialect includes the sub-dialects spoken in Kyoto and Osaka, two of Japan’s most important cities currently and historically. Kansai-ben is one of the most prominent dialects in the country along with Kantō-ben, and the two have a kind of rivalry, with each poking fun at as well as admiring the other for various reasons.
Japanese in general focuses a lot on politeness, and in the Kansai dialect even moreso, probably because Kyoto was the seat of the imperial government for so long. Other unique features include the use of the negative suffice -hen instead of -nai and various vocabulary words.
Just like a southern drawl might indicate someone is from a rural area in the US, Tōhoku-ben is known to the Japanese as the country dialect. And just like English speakers in rural areas, Tōhoku-ben is famous for slow speech and lack of enunciation. The Japanese even call it zuu zuu ben, and Tohoku television programs often have subtitles outside of Tohoku.
The special features of Tōhoku-ben include a lot of nasalization in pronunciation that can seem to add a soft -n sound before syllables. Speakers of the Tohoku dialect also use the particle -sa frequently.
Yokohama pidgin was a language briefly used in Yokohama at the end of the 19th Century. Pidgin languages are used by groups to communicate when they have no language in common. They usually mix words from both languages and have little grammatical complexity. In Yokohama, Japanese traders after the Meiji Restoration had to develop a pidgin to talk with the Western traders that began landing in the Port of Yokohama. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know this dialect if you’re going to Yokohama, but it’s a fun piece of historical trivia.
Hokkaido actually wasn’t settled by the Japanese until relatively recently, just after the Meiji Restoration in the later part of the 19th Century. For this reason, the dialects on Hokkaido are still very similar to those of the original settlers. People in the center of the island tend to descend from Kanto settlers, so the Inland Hokkaido dialect is considered part of Kantō-ben. The coastal settlers were from Tōhoku, so they still speak something quite similar to Tōhoku-ben.
Interestingly, you can still find the language native to Hokkaido before the Japanese settled it. This is the Ainu language, which is considered critically endangered. While there are upwards of 200,000 ethnic Ainu living on Hokkaido, there are currently only two people alive who can speak the language.
Kyushu is far away from Kanto and isolated by Japan’s Inland Sea. This makes its dialect particularly different. Even other Japanese people often have trouble understanding Kyushu-ben. It has a lot of different vocabulary, but also includes different pronunciation and grammar. For example, the adjective ending -i becomes -ka and the progressive tense uses ば rather than を as in standard Japanese.
Different Japanese languages
While it’s by far the largest, Japanese is actually not the only language in its language family. A language family is a group of languages that scientists are able to prove are related. It takes about 5,000-10,000 years for languages to evolve so differently that linguists can know longer prove their relationship.
As a result, language families can cover very large areas and include very different languages. For example, English and Hindi are both in the Indo-European language family because, despite being very different, they share features identifiable by scientists. Japanese, on the other hand, is in a separate family, the Japonic languages, which means it doesn’t share any features with English that scientists can prove.
The Ryukyuan Languages
With this in mind, it’s amazing that all the languages in the Japonic language family are isolated to the smaller area of the Japanese archipelago which includes the main Japanese islands as well as the Ryukyu Islands to the south. Unlike dialects of Japanese that Japanese speakers can all understand, the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese have been isolated from each other for some time, and they’re not mutually intelligible. In fact, none of the Ryukyuan languages are even mutually intelligible with each other, which means each island must not have had contact with the others for centuries.
Compared to Japanese with its 128 million speakers, the Ryukyuan languages are all very small. With just under one million speakers, the largest is Okinawan spoken in the southern part of Okinawa. This shouldn’t be confused with the Okinawan dialect of Japanese also spoken on the islands. Okinawan is its own language unintelligible with Japanese.
The rest are all much smaller. Miyako is the next largest with only 68,000 speakers, and the smallest is Yonaguni with only 400 speakers still alive. Historical colonization by the Japanese as well as the modern political and cultural dominance of the Japanese have resulted in the shrinking of these populations. Consequently, most of these languages are considered endangered.
To get an idea of how truly different all these languages are, both from Japanese and each other, just take a look at how some of them say “thank you”:
If you ever make your way to Okinawa or any of the other Ryukyuan islands, keep your eyes and ears out for these languages. It’s common for street signs to feature them along with Japanese, and if you’re really lucky, you may even hear a conversation in one of these rare but beautiful languages.
Dialects are beautiful
If you’re learning Japanese, dialects might seem like a real hassle. You learn all these rules of grammar and pronunciation only to go to Tohoku and understand nothing. Don’t get discouraged. Linguistic diversity is beautiful, and it makes your experience with Japanese all the more unique and adventurous. With serious study, you can develop even a dialectical mastery of Japanese that will give you an intimate understanding of both the language and its people.