What are Japonic Languages?

A sign showing Japanese characters.
A sign showing Japanese characters.

The Japonic languages are a group of languages that includes the Japanese language and the Ryukyuan languages, which are spoken in the main islands of Japan and the Ryukyuan Islands, respectively. The languages are believed to have originated from a common proto-Japonic language. However, there is no universally accepted theory regarding the relationship between these languages and other languages around the world. Progress on the reconstruction of the proto-language suggests that dialects of Japanese and Ryukyuan languages likely split by the 7th century. Japonic languages are spoken by more than 128 million people in Japan and the Ryukyuan Islands.

Classification of Japonic Languages

The Japonic languages consist of two main branches: the Japanese language and the Ryukyuan languages. The Hachinjo language, which is commonly spoken on the Izu Islands, is sometimes considered part of the language family, but its position in the family remains unclear. Japonic languages are believed to be related to other languages in East Asia, such as Korean.

Japanese Language

The Japanese language is the official and national language of Japan, and is spoken by over 128 million people. While a member of the Japonic language family, some linguists group Japanese other with language families, such as Austroasiatic, Altaic, and Ainu, although these proposals are not widely accepted. Very little is known about the prehistory of the Japanese language, including when it first appeared in Japan. The oldest known records of the Old Japanese language date back to the 8th century and were written using Classical Chinese characters. Additionally, many aspects of Old Japanese are language borrowed from the Chinese language, which affects the language’s sound system. The modern Japanese language uses numerous Chinese characters, although the two languages have no genetic relationship.

Ryukyuan Languages

The Ryukyuan languages are indigenous languages spoken in the Ryukyuan Islands. The chain of islands stretches southwest from the island of Kyushu to Okinawa, and forms the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago. It is unclear how many people speak the Ryukyuan languages, especially since there has been a language shift towards Standard Japanese and other dialects such as Okinawan Japanese. As a result, four Ryukyuan languages have been classified as "definitely endangered" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Linguists believe that Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages likely split before the 7th century. The Ryukyuan languages are divided into two major groups: Northern Ryukyuan languages and Southern Ryukyuan languages. The Northern Ryukyuan languages are made up of eight language including Kikai, Yoron, Tokunoshima, and Northern Okinawan, and are mainly spoken in the northern part of the chain of islands. The Southern Ryukyuan language consists of three distinct languages, which are Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni, and are mainly spoken in the southern part of the chain of islands.

Extinct Japonic Languages

In addition to the two main branches of the Japonic languages, the language family also historically included other languages that are now considered extinct. For example, the Peninsular Japonic languages are believed to have been spoken in southern and central parts of the Korean peninsula, as evident by the inclusion of placenames in ancient texts, such as the Samguk sagi.


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