Ryukyuan languages

The Ryukyuan languages (琉球語派 Ryūkyū-goha, also 琉球諸語, Ryūkyū-shogo or 島言葉, Shima kutuba, lit. Island Speech) are the indigenous languages of the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago. Along with the Japanese language, they make up the Japonic language family. The languages are not mutually intelligible with each other. It is not known how many speakers of these languages remain, but language shift towards the use of Standard Japanese and dialects like Okinawan Japanese has resulted in these languages becoming endangered; UNESCO labels four of the languages "definitely endangered" and two others "severely endangered".[2]

EthnicityRyukyuan people
Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture, Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture)
Linguistic classificationJaponic
  • Ryukyuan
Ryukyuan languages map
Map of Ryukyuan languages
Billboards in Okinawan
Traffic safety slogan signs in Kin, Okinawa, written in Japanese (center) and Okinawan (left and right).


Phonologically, the Ryukyuan languages have some cross-linguistically unusual features. Southern Ryukyuan languages have a number of syllabic consonants, including unvoiced syllabic fricatives (e.g. Ōgami Miyako /kss/ [ksː] 'breast'). Glottalized consonants are common (e.g. Yuwan Amami /ʔma/ [ˀma] "horse"). Some Ryukyuan languages have phonemic central vowels, e.g. Yuwan Amami /kɨɨ/ "tree". Ikema Miyako has a voiceless nasal phoneme /n̥/. Many Ryukyuan languages, like Standard Japanese and most Japanese dialects, have contrastive pitch accent.

Ryukyuan languages are generally SOV, dependent-marking, modifier-head, nominative-accusative languages, like the Japanese language. Adjectives are generally bound morphemes, occurring either with noun compounding or using verbalization. Many Ryukyuan languages mark both nominatives and genitives with the same marker. This marker has the unusual feature of changing form depending on an animacy hierarchy. The Ryukyuan languages have topic and focus markers, which may take different forms depending on the sentential context. Ryukyuan also preserves a special verbal inflection for clauses with focus markers—this unusual feature was also found in Old Japanese, but lost in Modern Japanese.

Classification and varieties

The Ryukyuan languages belong to the Japonic language family, related to the Japanese language.[3][4] The Ryukyuan languages are not mutually intelligible with Japanese—in fact, they are not even mutually intelligible with each other—and thus may be considered separate languages.[3] However, for socio-political and ideological reasons, they have often classified within Japan as dialects of Japanese.[3] Since the beginning of World War II, most mainland Japanese have regarded the Ryukyuan languages as a dialect or group of dialects of Japanese. During World War II, in an effort to build consciousness in people as subjects of the Japanese Empire, not only the Ryukyuan group, but also Korean, Palauan and various other languages were referred to as dialects of Japanese.[5]

The Okinawan language is only 71% lexically similar to, or cognate with, standard Tokyo Japanese. Even the southernmost Japanese dialect (Kagoshima dialect) is only 72% cognate with the northernmost Ryukyuan language (Amami). The Kagoshima dialect of Japanese, however, is 80% lexically similar to Standard Japanese.[6] There is general agreement among linguistics experts that Ryukyuan varieties can be divided into six languages, conservatively,[7] with dialects unique to islands within each group also sometimes considered languages.

A widely accepted hypothesis among linguists categorizes the Ryukyuan languages into two groups, Northern Ryukyuan (Amami–Okinawa) and Southern Ryukyuan (Miyako–Yaeyama).[8][4] Many speakers of the Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni languages may also be familiar with Okinawan since Okinawan has the most speakers and once acted as the regional standard. Speakers of Yonaguni are also likely to know the Yaeyama language due to its proximity. Since Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni are less urbanised than the Okinawan mainland, their languages are not declining as quickly as that of Okinawa proper, and some children continue to be brought up in these languages. In Okinawa proper, a dialect of standard Japanese known as Okinawan Japanese (ウチナーヤマトゥグチ Uchinā Yamatuguchi) has developed.[9]

Language Local name Geographic distribution Speakers Standard dialect ISO 639-3
Kikai Shimayumita (しまゆみた) Kikaijima 13,000 N/A kzg
Amami Shimayumuta (島口/シマユムタ) Amami Ōshima and surrounding minor islands 12,000 Naze ams, ryn
Tokunoshima Shimayumiita (シマユミィタ) Tokunoshima 5,100 Tokunoshima tkn
Okinoerabu Shimamuni (島ムニ) Okinoerabujima 3,200 N/A okn
Yoron Yunnu Futuba (ユンヌフトゥバ) Yoronjima 950 Yoron yox
Kunigami Yanbaru Kutūba (山原言葉/ヤンバルクトゥーバ)[10] Northern Okinawa Island (Yanbaru region), and surrounding minor islands 5,000 Largest community is Nago xug
Okinawan Uchināguchi (沖縄口/ウチナーグチ) Central and southern Okinawa Island and surrounding minor islands 980,000 Traditionally Shuri, modern Naha ryu
Miyako Myākufutsu (宮古口/ミャークフツ)[11]
Sumafutsu (島口/スマフツ)
Miyako Islands 68,000 Hirara mvi
Yaeyama Yaimamuni (八重山物言/ヤイマムニ) Yaeyama Islands (except Yonaguni) 47,600 Ishigaki rys
Yonaguni Dunan Munui (与那国物言/ドゥナンムヌイ) Yonaguni Island 400 Yonaguni yoi

Each Ryukyuan language is generally unintelligible to others in the same family. There is a wide diversity between them. For example, Yonaguni has only three vowels, whereas varieties of Amami may have up to seven, excluding length distinctions. The table below illustrates the different phrases used in each language for "thank you" and "welcome", with standard Japanese provided for comparison.

Language Thank you Welcome
Standard Japanese Arigatō Yōkoso
Amami Arigatesama ryōta
Arigassama ryōta
Kunigami (Okinoerabu) Mihediro Ugamiyabura
Okinawan Nifēdēbiru Mensōrē
Miyako Tandigātandi
Yaeyama Mīfaiyū
Yonaguni Fugarasa Wāri
Welcome sign in Amami

Imōre (いもーれ), Amami

Welcome sign in Kunigami

Menshōri (めんしょーり), Kunigami (Okinoerabu)

Welcome sign in Okinawan

Mensōre (めんそーれ), Okinawan

Welcome sign in Miyako

Nmyāchi (んみゃーち), Miyako

Welcome sign in Yaeyama

Ōritōri (おーりとーり), Yaeyama

Welcome sign in Yonaguni

Wāri (ワーリ), Yonaguni


Makishi First Public Market
A market sign in Naha, written in Okinawan (red) and Japanese (blue).

There is no census data for the Ryukyuan languages, and the number of speakers is unknown.[8] As of 2005, the total population of the Ryukyu region was 1,452,288, but fluent speakers are restricted to the older generation, generally in their 50s or older, and thus the true number of Ryukyuan speakers should be much lower.[8]

Starting in the 1890s, the Japanese government began to suppress the Ryukyuan languages as part of their policy of forced assimilation in the islands.

Today, children still being brought up with the Ryukyuan languages are becoming increasingly rare throughout the islands, and usually only occurs when the children are living with their grandparents. The Ryukyuan languages are still used in traditional cultural activities, such as folk music, folk dance, poem and folk plays. There has also been a radio news program in the Naha dialect since 1960.[12]

In Okinawa, people under the age of 40 have little proficiency in the native Okinawan language.[13] A new mixed language, based on Japanese and Okinawan, has developed, known as "Okinawan Japanese".[9] Although it has been largely ignored by linguists and language activists, this is the language of choice among the younger generation.[9]

Similarly, the common language now used in everyday conversations in Amami Ōshima is not the traditional Amami language, but rather a regional variation of Amami-accented Japanese, locally nicknamed トン普通語 (Ton Futsūgo, literally meaning "potato [i.e. rustic] common language") by older speakers.[14]

To try to preserve the language, the Okinawan Prefectural government proclaimed on March 31, 2006, that September 18 would be commemorated as Shimakutoba no Hi (しまくとぅばの日, "Island Languages Day"),[15] as the day's numerals in goroawase spell out ku (9), tu (10), ba (8); kutuba is one of the few words common throughout the Ryukyuan languages meaning "word" or "language" (a cognate of the Japanese word kotoba (言葉, "word")). A similar commemoration is held in the Amami region on February 18 beginning in 2007, proclaimed as Hōgen no Hi (方言の日, "Dialect Day") by Ōshima Subprefecture in Kagoshima Prefecture. Each island has its own name for the event:

  • Amami Ōshima: Shimayumuta no Hi (シマユムタの日) or Shimakutuba no Hi (シマクトゥバの日) (also written 島口の日)
  • On Kikaijima it is Shimayumita no Hi (シマユミタの日)
  • On Tokunoshima it is Shimaguchi no Hi (シマグチ(島口)の日) or Shimayumiita no Hi (シマユミィタの日)
  • On Okinoerabujima it is Shimamuni no Hi (島ムニの日)
  • On Yoronjima it is Yunnufutuba no Hi (ユンヌフトゥバの日).

Yoronjima's fu (2) tu (10) ba (8) is the goroawase source of the February 18 date, much like with Okinawa Prefecture's use of kutuba.[16]


Flag of Ryukyu
Flag of the Ryukyu Kingdom

It is generally accepted that the Ryukyu Islands were populated from Mainland Japan in the first millennium, and since then relative isolation from the mainland allowed the Ryukyuan languages to diverge significantly from Old Japanese. However, the discoveries of the Pinza-Abu Cave Man, the Minatogawa Man, and the Yamashita Cave Man[17] as well as the Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave Ruins[18] suggest an earlier arrival to the island by modern humans. Some researchers suggest that the Ryukyuan languages are most likely to have evolved from a "pre-Proto-Japonic language" from the Korean peninsula.[19] However, Ryukyuan may have already begun to diverge from early Japanese before this migration, while its speakers still dwelt in the main islands of Japan.[8] After this initial settlement, there was little contact between the main islands and the Ryukyu Islands for centuries, allowing Ryukyuan to diverge as a separate linguistic entity.[20] This situation lasted until the Kyushu-based Satsuma Domain conquered the Ryukyu Islands in the 17th century.[20]

The Ryukyu Kingdom retained autonomy until 1879, when it was annexed by Japan.[21] The Japanese government adopted a policy of forced assimilation, appointing mainland Japanese to political posts and suppressing native culture and language.[21] Students caught speaking Ryukyuan were made to wear a dialect card (方言札 hōgen fuda), a method of public humiliation.[22][nb 1] Students who regularly wore the card would receive corporal punishment.[22] In 1940, there was a political debate amongst Japanese leaders about whether or not to continue the oppression of the Ryukyuan languages, although the argument for assimilation prevailed.[23] In the World War II era, speaking Ryukyuan was officially illegal, although in practice the older generation was still monolingual.[22] This policy of linguicide lasted into the post-war occupation of the Ryukyu Islands by the United States.[22] As the American occupation forces generally promoted the reforming of a separate Ryukyuan culture, many Okinawan officials continued to strive for Japanification as a form of defiance.

Nowadays, in favor of multiculturalism, preserving Ryukyuan languages has become the policy of Okinawa Prefectural government, as well as the government of Kagoshima Prefecture's Ōshima Subprefecture. However, the situation is not very optimistic, since the vast majority of Okinawan children are now monolingual in Japanese.

Geographic distribution

The Ryukyuan languages are spoken on the Ryukyu Islands, which comprise the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago[3] There are four major island groups which make up the Ryukyu Islands: the Amami Islands, the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands.[3] The former is in the Kagoshima Prefecture, while the latter three are in the Okinawa Prefecture.[3]


Letter of Kanamaru
A letter from King Shō En to Shimazu oyakata (1471); an example of written Ryukyuan.

Older Ryukyuan texts are often found on stone inscriptions. Tamaudun-no-Hinomon (玉陵の碑文 "Inscription of Tamaudun tomb") (1501), for example. Within the Ryukyu Kingdom, official texts were written in kanji and hiragana, derived from Japan. However, this was a sharp contrast from Japan at the time, where classical Chinese writing was mostly used for official texts, only using hiragana for informal ones. Classical Chinese writing was sometimes used in Ryukyu as well, read in kundoku (Ryukyuan) or in Chinese. In Ryukyu, katakana was hardly used.

Historically, official documents in Ryukyuan were primarily written in a form of classical Chinese writing known as Kanbun, while poetry and songs were often written in the Shuri dialect of Okinawan.

Commoners did not learn kanji. Omoro Sōshi (1531–1623), a noted Ryukyuan song collection, was mainly written in hiragana. Other than hiragana, they also used Suzhou numerals (sūchūma すうちゅうま in Okinawan), derived from China. In Yonaguni in particular, there was a different writing system, the Kaidā glyphs (カイダー字 or カイダーディー).[24][25] Under Japanese influence, all of those numerals became obsolete.

Nowadays, perceived as "dialects", Ryukyuan languages are not often written. When they are, Japanese characters are used in an ad hoc manner. There are no standard orthographies for the modern languages. Sounds not distinguished in the Japanese writing system, such as glottal stops, are not properly written.

Sometimes local kun'yomi are given to kanji, such as agari (あがり "east") for , iri (いり "west") for 西, thus 西表 is Iriomote.


Ryukyuan languages often share many phonological features with Japanese, including a voicing opposition for obstruents, CV(C) syllable structure, moraic rhythm, and pitch accent.[20] However, many individual Ryukyuan languages diverge significantly from this pan-Japonic base.[20] For instance, Ōgami does not have phonemic voicing in obstruents, allows CCVC syllables, and has unusual syllabic consonants such as /kff/ [kf̩ː] "make".[20]


The Northern Ryukyuan (Amami-Okinawa) languages are notable for having glottalic consonants.[26] Phonemically these are analyzed of consisting of a cluster /ʔ/ + C, where the consonant /ʔ/ consists of its own mora.[26] For instance, in the Amami dialect Yuwan the word /ʔma/ [ˀma] "horse" is bimoraic.[26] Tsuken (Central Okinawan) restricts glottalization to glides and the vowels /a i/.[26] Southern Ryukyuan mostly has little to no glottalization, with some exceptions (e.g. Yonaguni).[26] For instance, the Irabu dialect of the Miyako language only allows glottalization with /t/ and /c/: /ttjaa/ [ˀtʲaː] "then", /ccir/ [ˀtɕiɭ] "pipe".[26]

Southern Ryukyuan stands out in having a number of syllabic consonants.[26] These consonants are contextually nucleic, becoming syllabic when not adjacent to a vowel.[26] Examples:

Irabu Miyako:

  • /nam/ [nam] "wave"
  • /mna/ [mna] "shell"
  • /mm/ [mː] "potato"
  • /pžtu/ [ps̩tu] "man"
  • /prrma/ [pɭːma] "daytime"

Ōgami Miyako

  • /us/ [us] "cow"
  • /ss/ [sː] "dust"
  • /kss/ [ksː] "breast"

Ōgami even shows a three-way length distinction in fricatives, though across a syllable boundary:[27]

  • /fɑɑ/ [fɑː] "child"
  • /f.fɑ/ [fːɑ] "grass"
  • /ff.fɑ/ [fːːɑ] "comb", "top"

Ikema (a Miyako dialect) has a voiceless moraic nasal phoneme /n̥/, which always precedes another nasal onset and assimilates its place of articulation to the following nasal.[28]


Amami has high and mid central vowels.[26] Yonaguni only has three contrasting vowels, /i/, /u/ and /a/.


The Ryukyuan languages operate based on the mora.[29] Most Ryukyuan languages require words to be at least bimoraic, thus for example in Hateruma the underlying noun root /si/ "hand" becomes /siː/ when it is an independent noun, though it remains as /si/ when attached to a clitic, e.g. /si=nu/.[29][nb 2] However, the syllable may still sometimes be relevant—for instance, the Ōgami topic marker takes a different form after open syllables with short vowels:[30]

  • "staff" /pɑu + =ɑ//pɑu=iɑ/
  • "vegetable" /suu + =ɑ//suu=iɑ/
  • "person" /pstu + =ɑ//pstɑ=ɑ/

Ryukyuan languages typically have a pitch accent system where some mora in a word bears the pitch accent.[31] They commonly either have two or three distinctive types of pitch accent which may be applied.[31] The category of foot also has relevance to the accentual systems of some Ryukyuan languages, and some Miyako varieties have a cross-linguistically rare system of tonal foot.[31] However, Irabu Miyakoan does not have lexical accent.[31]



The Ryukyuan languages consistently distinguish between the word classes of nouns and verbs, distinguished by the fact that verbs take inflectional morphology.[32] Property-concept (adjectival) words are generally bound morphemes.[33] One strategy they use is compounding with a free-standing noun:[33]



Compounding is found in both Northern and Southern Ryukyuan, but is mostly absent from Hateruma (Yaeyama).[33]

Another way property stems are used is by verbalization:[33]

Yuwan Amami:[34]

an kɨɨ=ja taa-sar-oo
that tree=top tall-vlz-supp
"That tree is supposed to be tall."

Miyako is unique in having stand-alone adjectives.[33] These may be formed by reduplication of the root, e.g. Irabu Miyako imi- "small" → imii-imi "small (adj.)".[35] They may also be compounded with a grammaticalized noun munu "thing", e.g. Irabu imi-munu 'small (thing)'.[33]


Ryukyuan languages are generally SOV, dependent-marking, modifier-head, nominative-accusative languages.[36] They are also pro-drop languages.[36] All of these features are shared with the Japanese language.[36]

In many Ryukyuan languages, the nominative and genitive are marked identically, a system also found, for example, in Austronesian languages.[36] However, Ryukyuan has the unusual feature that these markers vary based on an animacy hierarchy.[32] Typically there are two markers of the form =ga and =nu, which are distinguished based on animacy and definiteness.[32] In Yuwan Amami, for instance, the nominative is marked with =ga/=nu and the genitive by =ga/=nu/ based on the following hierarchy:[32]

Yuwan Amami nominative marker
human pronouns demonstratives elder kinship terms other nouns
=ga =nu
Yuwan Amami genitive marker
human pronouns, adnominal demonstratives human names elder kinship terms other nouns
=ga =nu

In the Miyako varieties, the object in a dependent clause of clause-chaining constructions has a special marker, homophonous to a topic marker.[32] This might even be interpreted as another function of the topic marker.[32]

Hateruma Yaeyama stands out in that it is a zero-marking language, where word order rather than case marking is important:[36]

pïtu=Ø budur-ja-ta-n
person=core dance-prf-past-rls
"People danced."
aboa=Ø ija=Ø mir-i bir-ja-ta-n
mother=ore father=core look=med prog-prf-past-rls
"(My) mother was looking at (my) father."

The Ryukyuan languages mark both topic and focus grammatically.[35] The typical form of the topic marker is =(j)a, or in Southern Ryukyuan =ba; the typical focus marker is =du.[35] In some Ryukyuan languages there are many focus markers with different functions; for instance, Irabu has =du in declarative clauses, =ru in yes-no interrogative clauses, and =ga in wh-interrogative clauses.[35] The focus markers trigger a special verbal inflection—this typologically unusual focus construction, known as kakari-musubi, was also found in Old Japanese, but has been lost in Modern Japanese.[35]

Examples from Yuwan Amami:[37]

kurɨ=ba=du jum-ju-i
this=acc-foc read=ipfv-npst
"(I) read this."
uroo kun hon=ba=du jum-jur-ui?
2sg.nhon this book=acc-foc read=ipfv-foc.ynq
"Will you read this book?" (yes-no question)
uroo nuu=ba=ga jum-jur-u? what=acc-foc read=ipfv-foc.whq
"What will you read?" (wh-question)

While in many Japonic languages this special inflection is often identical to the verbal inflection in relative clauses, in Yuwan Amami is different (the relative inflection is -n/-tan).[37] There is some variation among the Ryukyuan languages as to the form of kakari-musubi—for example, in Irabu Miyako a focus marker blocks a specific verb form, rather than triggering a special inflection.[38]

Cultural vocabulary

Pellard (2015)[39] reconstructs the following cultural vocabulary words for Proto-Ryukyuan, the hypothetical proto-language of the Ryukyuan languages.

  • *kome B ‘rice’
  • *mai A ‘rice’
  • *ine B ‘rice plant’
  • *momi A ‘unhulled rice’
  • *mogi B ‘wheat’
  • *awa B ‘foxtail millet
  • *kimi B ‘broomcorn millet
  • *umo B ‘taro, yam’
  • *patake C ‘field’
  • *ta B ‘rice paddy’
  • *usi A ‘cow’
  • *uwa C ‘pig’
  • *uma B ‘horse’
  • *tubo A ‘pot’
  • *kame C ‘jar’
  • *pune C ‘boat’
  • *po A ‘sail’
  • *ijako B ‘paddle’

See also


  1. ^ This punishment was taken from the 19th French language policy of Vergonha, especially by Jules Ferry, where the regional languages such as Occitan (Provençal), Catalan, or Breton were suppressed in favor of French; see also Welsh Not, for a similar system in Britain. The same system was also used in other parts of Japan, such as the Tōhoku region.
  2. ^ In fact, in Irabu Miyako lengthening occurs even before a clitic, thus underlying /ti/ "hand" becomes /tiː/ independently and /tiː=nu/ with attached clitic. Shimoji & Pellard (2010:6)


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Ryukyuan". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2014-03-16.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Shimoji & Pellard (2010:1)
  4. ^ a b Pellard (2015)
  5. ^ "JPRI Occasional Paper No. 8". 1972-05-15. Retrieved 2014-03-16.
  6. ^ 沖縄語辞典 (Okinawan dictionary). "前書き" (Preface). 国立国語研究所 1998
  7. ^ 言語学大辞典セレクション:日本列島の言語 (Selection from the Encyclopædia of Linguistics: The Languages of the Japanese Archipelago). "琉球列島の言語" (The Languages of the Ryukyu Islands). 三省堂 1997
  8. ^ a b c d Shimoji & Pellard (2010:2)
  9. ^ a b c Sugita (2007:245)
  10. ^ 沖縄言語研究センター. "今帰仁方言音声データベース ヤンバルクトゥーバ". Retrieved 2014-02-16.
  11. ^ 沖縄言語研究センター. "宮古方言音声データベース ミャークフツ". Retrieved 2014-02-16.
  12. ^ 沖縄映像センター. "おきなわBBtv★沖縄の方言ニュース★沖縄の「今」を沖縄の「言葉」で!ラジオ沖縄で好評放送中の「方言ニュース」をブロードバンドでお届けします。". Archived from the original on 2014-01-02. Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  13. ^ Sugita (2007:244)
  14. ^ "島口(奄美の方言)入門その1-あなたもシマンチュに". Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  15. ^ "○しまくとぅばの日に関する条例" (in Japanese). Retrieved 2014-01-25.
  16. ^ "鹿児島県/大島地区「方言の日」". Retrieved 2014-02-17.
  17. ^ Trinkaus, Erik; Ruff, Christopher B. (1996-04-30). "Early modern human remains from eastern Asia: the Yamashita-cho 1 immature postcrania". Journal of Human Evolution. 30 (4): 299–314. doi:10.1006/jhev.1996.0025.
  18. ^ Nakagawa, Ryohei; Doi, Naomi; Nishioka, Yuichiro; Nunami, Shin; Yamauchi, Heizaburo; Fujita, Masaki; Yamazaki, Shinji; Yamamoto, Masaaki; Katagiri, Chiaki; Mukai, Hitoshi; Matsuzaki, Hiroyuki; Gakuhari, Takashi; Takigami, MAI; Yoneda, Minoru (2010). "Pleistocene human remains from Shiraho-Saonetabaru Cave on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan, and their radiocarbon dating". Anthropological Science. 118 (3): 173–183. doi:10.1537/ase.091214.
  19. ^ Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages. 2015. doi:10.1515/9781614511151. ISBN 9781614511151. Retrieved 2014-03-16.
  20. ^ a b c d e Shimoji & Pellard (2010:4)
  21. ^ a b Takara (2007:14)
  22. ^ a b c d Takara (2007:15)
  23. ^ Heinrich, Patrick. Hōgen ronsō: the great Ryukyuan languages debate of 1940. Contemporary Japan - Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, Tokyo. Aug2013, Vol. 25 Issue 2, p167-187. 21p. 4 Charts. ISSN 1869-2729
  24. ^ "カイダー字: 与那国島にある象形文字。 (KaidaJi - MemoWiki)". Retrieved 2014-01-01.
  25. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-07-18. Retrieved 2007-01-14.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i Shimoji & Pellard (2010:5)
  27. ^ Shimoji & Pellard (2010:118)
  28. ^ Shimoji & Pellard (2010:170)
  29. ^ a b Shimoji & Pellard (2010:6)
  30. ^ Shimoji & Pellard (2010:119)
  31. ^ a b c d Shimoji & Pellard (2010:7)
  32. ^ a b c d e f Shimoji & Pellard (2010:9)
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h Shimoji & Pellard (2010:10)
  34. ^ Shimoji & Pellard (2010:52)
  35. ^ a b c d e Shimoji & Pellard (2010:11)
  36. ^ a b c d e Shimoji & Pellard (2010:8)
  37. ^ a b Shimoji & Pellard (2010:75)
  38. ^ Shimoji & Pellard (2010:12)
  39. ^ Pellard, Thomas. 2015. The Linguistic archeology of the Ryukyu Islands. In Heinrich, Patrick and Miyara, Shinsho and Shimoji, Michinori (eds.), Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages: History, Structure, and Use, 13-37. Berlin: DeGruyter Mouton.


Further reading

  • Sanseido (1997). 言語学大辞典セレクション:日本列島の言語 (Selection from the Encyclopædia of Linguistics: The Languages of the Japanese Archipelago). "琉球列島の言語" (The Languages of the Ryukyu Islands).
  • Ashworth, D. E. (1975). A generative study of the inflectional morphophonemics of the Shuri dialect of Ryukyuan. Thesis (Ph. D.)—Cornell University, 1973.
  • Heinrich, Patrick (2004): Language Planning and Language Ideology in the Ryūkyū Islands, in: Language Policy 3.2, (2004): 153-179.
  • Heinrich, Patrick, Shinsho Miyara, Michinori Shimoji, eds. 2015. Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Serafim, L. A. (1985). Shodon: the prehistory of a Northern Ryukyuan dialect of Japanese. [S.l: s.n.
  • Shimabukuro, Moriyo. 2007. The accentual history of the Japanese and Ryukyuan languages: a reconstruction. Languages of Asia series, v. 2. Folkestone, Kent: Global Oriental. ISBN 978-1-901903-63-8
  • Thorpe, Maner Lawton (1983). Ryūkyūan language history (PhD thesis). University of Southern California.
  • Uemura, Yukio, and Wayne P. Lawrence. 2003. The Ryukyuan language. Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim (Series), A4-018. Osaka, Japan: ELPR.

External links

Amami Ōshima language

The Amami language or languages (島口, シマユムタ, Shimayumuta), also known as Amami Ōshima or simply Ōshima ('Big Island'), is a Ryukyuan language spoken in the Amami Islands south of Kyūshū. The southern variety of Setouchi township may be a distinct language more closely related to Okinawan than it is to northern Ōshima.

As Amami does not have recognition within Japan as a language, it is officially known as the Amami dialect (奄美方言, Amami Hōgen).

Japonic languages

The Japonic or Japanese–Ryukyuan language family includes the Japanese language, spoken in the main islands of Japan, and the Ryukyuan languages, spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The family is universally accepted by linguists and significant progress has been made in reconstructing the proto-language. The reconstruction implies a split between all dialects of Japanese and all Ryukyuan varieties, probably before the 7th century. The Hachijō language spoken on the Izu Islands is also included, but its position within the family is unclear. There is also some fragmentary evidence suggesting that Japonic languages may once have been spoken in central and southern parts of the Korean peninsula.

Possible genetic relationships with many other language families have been proposed, most systematically with Korean, but none have been conclusively demonstrated.


KNDI is a radio station located in Honolulu, Hawaii. The station is owned by Geronimo and Nellie Malabed, through licensee Geronimo Broadcasting, LLC, and offers a multicultural format, broadcasting at 1270. Its on-air liners are "Voices from Around the World" and has been on the air since 1960. It was also Hawaii's first radio station to have an all-female airstaff, hence the KNDI calls, which phonetically spells out "Candy." KNDI features programming in Philippine languages (Ilocano and Tagalog), Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Okinawan, Vietnamese, Lao, Spanish, Samoan, Tongan, Marshallese, Chuukese, Pohnpeian and English.

Kikai language

The Kikai language (しまゆみた Shimayumita) is spoken on Kikai Island, Kagoshima Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is debated whether it is a single dialect cluster. Regardless, all Kikai dialects are members of the Amami–Okinawan languages, which are part of the Japonic languages.

As Kikai does not have recognition within Japan as a language, it is officially known as the Kikai Island dialect (喜界島方言, Kikai-jima hōgen).

Kunigami language

The Kunigami or Northern Okinawan language (Yanbaru Kutuuba (山原言葉/ヤンバルクトゥーバ)) is a Ryukyuan language of northern Okinawa Island in Kunigami District and city of Nago, otherwise known as the Yanbaru region, historically the territory of the kingdom of Hokuzan.

The Nakijin dialect is often considered representative of Kunigami, analogous to the Shuri-Naha dialect of Central Okinawan. The number of fluent native speakers of Kunigami is not known. As a result of Japanese language policy, the younger generation mostly speaks Japanese as their first language.

Languages of Japan

The most widely spoken language in Japan is Japanese, which is separated into numerous dialects with Tokyo dialect considered standard Japanese.

In addition to the Japanese language, Ryukyuan languages are spoken in Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima in the Ryukyu Islands. Along with Japanese, these languages are part of the Japonic language family, but they are separate languages, and are not mutually intelligible with Japanese, or with each other. All of the spoken Ryukyuan languages are classified by UNESCO as endangered.

In Hokkaido, there is the Ainu language, which is spoken by the Ainu people, who are the indigenous people of the island. The Ainu languages, of which Hokkaido Ainu is the only extant variety, are isolated and do not fall under any language family. Ever since the Meiji period, Japanese has become widely used among the Ainu people and consequently Ainu languages have been classified critically endangered by UNESCO.

In addition, languages such as Orok, Evenki and Nivkh spoken in formerly Japanese controlled southern Sakhalin are becoming more and more endangered. After the Soviet Union took control of the region, speakers of these languages and their descendants migrated to mainland Japan and still exist in small numbers.

Speakers of Korean, Chinese and Zainichi Korean, which stems from Korean, also reside in Japan.

Macro-Yaeyama languages

Macro-Yaeyama is one of the two branches of the Southern Ryukyuan languages, comprising the Yaeyama and Yonaguni languages. It is defined by the development of "know" as a potential auxiliary, the semantic extension of "nephew" to being gender-neutral, and unique forms of the words exhibited by the table below.

Although Yonaguni has historically been classified as either a primary branch of Ryukyuan or of the Southern Ryukyuan languages, its close relationship with Yaeyama is clear.

Miyako language

The Miyako language (宮古口/ミャークフツ Myaakufutsu/Myaakufutsї [mjaːkufutss̩] or 島口/スマフツ Sumafutsu/Sїmafutsї) is a language spoken in the Miyako Islands, located southwest of Okinawa. The combined population of the islands is about 52,000 (as of 2011). Miyako is a Southern Ryukyuan language, most closely related to Yaeyama. The number of competent native speakers is not known; as a consequence of Japanese language policy which refers to the language as the Miyako dialect (宮古方言, Miyako hōgen), reflected in the education system, people below the age of 60 tend to not use the language except in songs and rituals, and the younger generation mostly uses Japanese as their first language. Miyako is notable among the Japonic languages in that it allows non-nasal syllable-final consonants, something not found in most Japonic languages.

N (kana)

ん, in hiragana, or ン in katakana, is one of the Japanese kana, which each represent one mora. ん is the only kana that does not end in a vowel sound (although in certain cases the vowel ending of kana, such as す, is unpronounced). The kana for mu, む/ム, was originally used for the n sound as well, while ん was originally a hentaigana used for both n and mu. In the 1900 Japanese script reforms, hentaigana were officially declared obsolete, and ん was officially declared a kana to represent the n sound.

In addition to being the only kana not ending with a vowel sound, it is also the only kana that does not begin any words in standard Japanese (other than foreign loan words such as "Ngorongoro", which is transcribed as ンゴロンゴロ) (see Shiritori). Some regional dialects of Japanese feature words beginning with ん, as do the Ryukyuan languages (which are usually written in the Japanese writing system), in which words starting with ン are common, such as the Okinawan word for miso, nnsu (transcribed as ンース). In the Ainu language, ン is interchangeable with the small katakana ㇴ as a final n.

The kana is followed by an apostrophe in some systems of transliteration whenever it precedes a vowel or a y- kana, so as to prevent confusion with other kana. However, like every other kana, it represents an entire mora, so its pronunciation is, in practice, as close to "nn" as "n". The pronunciation can also change depending on what sounds surround it. These are a few of the ways it can change:

[n] (before n, t, d, r, ts, z, ch and j )

[m] (before m, p and b )

[ŋ] (before k and g)

[ɴ] (at the end of utterances)

[ũ͍] (before vowels, palatal approximants (y), consonants h, f, s, sh and w)

[ĩ] (after the vowel i if another vowel, palatal approximant or consonant f, s, sh, h or w follows.)

Northern Ryukyuan languages

The Northern Ryukyuan languages are a group of languages spoken in the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is one of two primary branches of the Ryukyuan languages, which are then part of the Japonic languages. The subdivisions of Northern Ryukyuan are a matter of scholarly debate.

Okinawan Japanese

Okinawan Japanese (ウチナーヤマトグチ, 沖縄大和口, Uchinaa Yamato-guchi) is the Japanese language as spoken by people of Okinawa Prefecture. Okinawan Japanese's accents and words are influenced by traditional Ryukyuan languages. Okinawan Japanese has some loanwords from American English due to the United States administration after the Battle of Okinawa. Okinawan Japanese is a Japanese dialect (方言), unlike the Okinawan language (which is, nevertheless, also officially considered a Japanese dialect in Japan).

Okinawan scripts

This article describes the modern Okinawan writing system. See the Okinawan language article for an overview of the language. For the writing systems in Ryukyuan languages in general, see the Ryukyuan languages article.

Okinawan language, spoken in Okinawa Island, was once the official language of the Ryukyu Kingdom. At the time, documents were written in kanji and hiragana, derived from Japan.

Nowadays, most Japanese, as well as most Okinawans, tend to think of Okinawan as merely a dialect of Standard Japanese, even though the language is not mutually intelligible to Japanese speakers. As a "dialect", modern Okinawan language is not written frequently. When it is, the Japanese writing system is generally used with an ad hoc manner. There is no standard orthography for the modern language. Nonetheless, there are a few systems announced by scholars and laypeople alike. None of them are widespread among the native speakers, but those systems can write the language with less ambiguity than the ad hoc conventions. The Roman alphabet in some form or another is used in some publications, especially those of an academic nature.

Okinoerabu dialect cluster

The Okinoerabu dialect cluster (島ムニ Shimamuni), also Oki-no-Erabu, is a dialect cluster spoken on Okinoerabu Island, Kagoshima Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is part of the Amami–Okinawan languages, which are part of the Japonic languages.

Southern Ryukyuan languages

The Southern Ryukyuan languages (南琉球語群, Minami Ryūkyū gogun) form one of two branches of the Ryukyuan languages. They are spoken on the Sakishima Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. The three languages are Miyako (on the Miyako Islands) and Yaeyama and Yonaguni (on the Yaeyama Islands, of the Macro-Yaeyama subgroup). The Macro-Yaeyaman languages have been identified as "critically endangered" by UNESCO and Miyako as "definitely endangered".All Ryukyuan languages are officially labeled as dialects of Japanese by the Japanese government despite mutual unintelligibility. While the majority of Ryukyuan languages have used Chinese or Japanese script for writing, the Yaeyama Islands never had a full-featured writing system. Islanders developed the Kaidā glyphs as a simple method to record family names, items, and numerals to aid in tax accounting. This system was used until the 19th century introduction of Japanese-language education. Even today, communication in the Yaeyama or Yonaguni languages is almost exclusively oral, and written communication is done in Japanese.

Tokunoshima language

The Tokunoshima language (シマグチ (島口) Shimaguchi or シマユミィタ Shimayumiita), also Toku-No-Shima, is a dialect cluster spoken on Tokunoshima, Kagoshima Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is part of the Amami–Okinawan languages, which are part of the Japonic languages.

Wa (kana)

わ, in hiragana, or ワ in katakana, is one of the Japanese kana, which each represent one mora. It represents [wa] and has origins in the character 和. There is also a small ゎ/ヮ, that is used to write the morae /kwa/ and /gwa/ (くゎ, ぐゎ), which are obsolete in contemporary standard Japanese but still exist in the Ryukyuan languages. Katakana ワ is also sometimes written with dakuten, ヷ, to represent a /va/ sound in foreign words; however, most IMEs lack a convenient way to write this. It is far more common to represent the /va/ sound with the combination ヴァ.

The kana は (ha) is read as “wa” when it represents a particle.

Yaeyama language

The Yaeyama language (八重山物言/ヤイマムニ, Yaimamuni) is a Southern Ryukyuan language spoken in the Yaeyama Islands, the southernmost inhabited island group in Japan, with a combined population of about 53,000. The Yaeyama Islands are situated in the Southern Ryukyu Islands, southwest of the Miyako Islands and to the east of Taiwan. Yaeyama (Yaimamunii) is most closely related to Miyako. The number of competent native speakers is not known; as a consequence of Japanese language policy which refers to the language as the Yaeyama dialect (八重山方言, Yaeyama hōgen), reflected in the education system, people below the age of 60 tend to not use the language except in songs and rituals, and the younger generation exclusively uses Japanese as their first language. As compared to the Japanese kokugo, or Japanese national language, other Ryukyuan languages such as Okinawan and Amami have also been referred to as dialects of Japanese. Yaeyama is noted as having a comparatively lower "language vitality" among neighboring Ryukyuan languages.Yaeyama is spoken in Ishigaki, Taketomi, Kohama, Kuroshima, Hatoma, Aragusuku, Iriomote and Hateruma, with complications of mutual intelligibility between dialects as a result of the Yaeyama Islands' large geographic span. The speech of Yonaguni Island, while related, is usually considered a separate language. The Taketomi dialect may instead be a Northern Ryukyuan language common to Okinawan dialects that later converged with the other Yaeyama dialects..

Yonaguni language

The Yonaguni language (与那国物言/ドゥナンムヌイ Dunan Munui) is a Southern Ryukyuan language spoken by around 400 people on the island of Yonaguni, in the Ryukyu Islands, the westernmost of the chain lying just east of Taiwan. It is most closely related to Yaeyama. Due to the Japanese policy on languages, the language is not recognized by the government, which instead calls it the Yonaguni dialect (与那国方言, Yonaguni hōgen). As classified by UNESCO, the Yonaguni language is the most endangered language in all of Japan.

Yoron language

The Yoron language (ユンヌフトゥバ Yunnu Futuba) is a dialect continuum spoken on Yoronjima in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan. It is one of the Northern Ryukyuan languages, which are a sub-branch within the Japonic language family. The language is one of the most endangered languages in all of Japan.

Earlier forms
Japonic languages
Writing system
Grammar and
National language
Indigenous languages
Non-Indigenous languages
Creole languages
Sign languages


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