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Japanese language

East Asian language

Japanese (日本語) "Nihon-go" in Japanese) is the language spoken in Japan, in East Asia. Japanese is an isolated language[3]. One theory says Japanese and Korean are related, but most linguists no longer believe so. Other theories about the origin of Japanese are that it is part of the Austronesian languages, connected to the Dravidian languages, or that it belongs to the controversial Altaic language family. Interestingly, a different term is used for Japanese as a course of study by citizens: it is "kokugo" (国語), which means national language. Nonetheless, Japanese is still referred to as 日本語 by the Japanese.

"Nihongo" ("Japanese")
in Japanese script
Pronunciation/nihoɴɡo/: [ɲihoŋɡo], [ɲihoŋŋo]
Native toJapan
EthnicityJapanese (Yamato)
Native speakers
125 million (2010)[1]
  • Japanese
Early forms
Signed Japanese
Official status
Official language in
 Japan (de facto)
Recognised minority
language in


Language codes
ISO 639-1ja
ISO 639-2jpn
ISO 639-3jpn
Glottolognucl1643  excluding Hachijo[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
A replica from the Man'yōshū, the oldest surviving collection of Japanese poetry from the Nara period. Written in Chinese characters, it is in the Japanese language.
Spoken Japanese

Japanese uses three separate writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The first two are phonetic systems (writing that shows the pronunciation of Japanese words), and kanji is the Japanese variation of Chinese characters (which show the meaning of Japanese words). The three systems are used interchangeably, and all three systems can often be found in the same sentence. The three systems are each reserved for different purposes.

In English, the order of the words is very important. For example, the sentences "Is it?" and "It is." mean different things. In Japanese a lot of these differences are made by adding or changing the endings of words. So a Japanese word has a stem called a "body", and additional parts (called suffixes). By changing the suffix you can change the meaning or the grammar of the word.

Japanese has five vowel sounds that can have two different lengths. They are a, i, u, e, o; in IPA they are transliterated as /a/, /i/, /ɯ/, /e/, /o/; and they are pronounced in English as ah, ee, oo, eh, oh. Lengthening a vowel can change the meaning of the word: ojisan (おじさん, uncle) and ojiisan (おじいさん, grandfather). Japanese has a sound which is like the English "L" sound, but it is also like the English "R" sound. (That is why it can be difficult for many Japanese to learn to make both "L" and "R" sounds when they speak English.) Japanese has a sound which is not common in English which is usually written Tsu (つ). This sound appears in "tsunami" (つなみ), the Japanese word for large ocean waves caused by earthquakes or extreme weather.

When foreigners speak Japanese, it is important they know how formal they must be when speaking to people you may or may not know. In Japan, it could be considered quite impolite if you are not formal enough.

In Japanese, the sentence follows the subject-object-verb (SOV) order, meaning the verb is at the end of the sentence, and the subject is at the beginning. In many sentences there is no subject. The listener can guess what the subject is by thinking about the context and the form of the verb.

In Japanese, Japan is called Nihon (日本), and the Japanese language is called Nihongo (日本語) (-go means language). Sometimes, the words Nippon and Nippongo are also used, but today these words are thought of as more nationalist, while Nihon is a more neutral word. The kanji characters of the word mean "sun-origin." This is because Japan is at the eastern edge of Asia, and to observers in China, the sun rose from the direction of Japan. For this reason Japan is called "The Land of Rising Sun."

Japanese is an agglutinative language, especially in the verb system. In agglutinative languages a word has a short "body" and prefixes or suffixes are added to change or to redefine the meaning. Making new words in Japanese is very easy.

Japanese words come from three main sources. The first source is wago (和語), which are native Japanese words and can also be called yamato kotoba (大和言葉). The second is kango (漢語), which are Chinese loanwords. The third is gairaigo (外来語), which are loanwords borrowed from languages other than Chinese (usually English since the post-WWII era).


  1. "Världens 100 största språk 2010" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2010), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nuclear Japanese". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Deal, William E. (2005). Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. Infobase Publishing. p. 242. ISBN 978-0-8160-7485-3. Japanese has no genetic affiliation with Chinese, but neither does it have any clear affiliation with any other language.