Japanese Language History: Everything You Need To Know

Written byIchika Yamamoto

Chinese words started to be largely added to Japanese language as early as 5th century. At the same time, tough in a smaller amount, Korean and Ainu words were accepted too. From the first contact with Europeans (in 16th century), words of European origin (called “gairaigo”) have been infiltrating Japanese. First, it was Portuguese and Dutch. Later (after the Meidgi reform), it was German, French and English. Presently, English has given the highest influence.

Japanese Language

The language consists of a combination of Chinese characters “kanji” (漢字) and 2 phonetically syllabic scripts “hiragana” (ひらがな) and “katakana” (カタカナ or 片仮名). The hiragana and katakana are indicated with common name Kana. Latinka (romaji) is used in today’s Japanese too. The language employs 2 numeric systems: Japanese (for numbers from 1 to 10) and Sino-Japanese (for other numbers). Nevertheless, you can commonly meet with Arabic numerals nowadays.

Japanese language does not flex names and its verbs are in a basic form without using inflection.

The kanji is used to express radix of a word while endings and particles are completed with hiragana. The katakana applies to phonetic transcription of words of foreign origin as well as to cases when some parts of text need to be highlighted (likewise Italics).

The hiragana and katakana are syllabic alphabets while the kanji is an ideographic script. It is possible to read most kanji characters by means of 2 or more ways. The hiragana applies to cases when a pronunciation of a character needs to be shown. On the other hand, the kanji enables to recognize a sense of a homonym that is very common in Japanese.

Words are written without using spaces between words. Characters are traditionally ordered in columns and they are written from above down within a column. Columns are ranked from right to left side. Alternatively, it is possible to write in line from left to right. Japanese books are written from behind from an English point of view.

Honorific System

Japanese grammatical system helps to recognize politeness of speech that applies to persons of different social status. This has been influenced by various factors such as job, age, experience, and even psychological state (e.g., when asking a favour one needs to do so in a very polite way).

  • Plain – not used in a common conversation, just when speaking to someone of a lower social status or in a very intimate relationship.
  • Intimate (familiar) – used within a family, close friends or close colleagues as well as by children up to 10 years of age and towards children in general. This level also applies to non-personal articles contained in newspapers, etc.
  • Teineigo”- a polite language used in an inflectional system. This way of speech is most common and one will never mistake by using it. It applies towards adults who are not a part of own group (see below).
  • Sonkeigo”- represents a respectful language and it used towards people of the higher social status (e.g. director of a company, president) than the person speaking. It also applies towards markedly older people, famous artists and eminent people in general.
  • Kenjōgo” – a humble language (e.g. a person in a lower position is expected to use a humble language while the one in a higher position might employ a plainer level.

The levels referring to a person, speech, or actions of any particular individual differ depending on the relationship (either in-group or out-of-group) between the speaker and listener. It depends on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents too.

Most Japanese people apply politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity, e.g. for new acquaintances. Nevertheless, if a relationship becomes more intimate the way of speech will change.

One should know that to manage the honorific system is very important for all Japanese as each Japanese considers another person in terms of language politeness during first contact!

History of the Japanese Language


Not much about this period of time is known. A common ancestor of both, Japanese and Ryukyuan languages is considered to have been brought to Japan by settlers coming from either the continent or Pacific islands, or alternatively both. This happened from the beginning to the mid of the 2ndcentury BC. This language has replaced the language(s) of the original Jōmon inhabitants (14,000 BC to 300 BC) with the inclusion of the ancestor of the modern Ainu language (spoken only in the Japanese island of Hokkaidō, however, Ainu languages were also spoken throughout the south part of Sakhalin Island and partially in the Kuril Islands until the 20thcentury).

Old Japanese

This is the first proven written form of Japanese and is represented by the Kojiki, the first text, which dates back to the early 8th century AD. The end of usage of the form coincides with the end of the Nara period (794 AD). The form was based on the Man'yōgana– an ancient writing system using Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language. Man'yōgana used kanji for its phonetic and semantic values. The Old Japanese is supposed to have been reconstructed.

The script has 88 distinct syllables. (Number of the syllables decreased to 67 with the usage of Early Middle Japanese.) Old Japanese contained up to 8 vowels, which means more than Modern Japanese 5 vowels! Supposedly, this vowel system had been reduced before the kana creation in the early 9th century. The 8-vowel system evokes a system of the Uralic and Altaic language families. However, this is unclear yet.

Several elements of the ancient language remain nowadays (e.g. the genitive particle “tsu”, which is substituted by modern “no”), has been preserved in words such as “matsuge”.

Early Middle Japanese

This language was spoken between 794 and 1185 AD, i.e. during the Heian Period. The language reflexed strong Chinese influence on its phonology. In practice, that means that length distinctions turned into phonemic form for both consonants and vowels, and series of labialised (e.g. kwa) as well as palatalised (e.g. kya) consonants were figured in. By the 11th century, Intervocalic “ɸ” was integrated with “w”. The late period of Early Middle Japanese usage is considered to be the initial turning point when the attributive form was slowly replaced by the uninflected form.

Late Middle Japanese

This language was used between 1185 and 1600. Usage of the language is divided into 2 parts, which more or less correspond to the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) and the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573).This latter language form was the first Japanese language documented by Europeans such as Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. Some forms similar to Modern Japanese began to appear. In this period of time, first words of European origin appeared too, for example Portuguese “pan” (bread) or “tabako” (tobacco).

Modern Japanese

The beginning of usage of this modern form falls approximately in the year 1600, which equal to the beginning of the Edo period (period of time under reign of the Tokugawa family shoguns). So called Standard Japanese had been represented by Kansai dialect (Kyoto in particular) since the time of the Old Japanese to the Middle Japanese forms. When Edo (today’s Tokyo) turned into the largest Japanese city during the Edo period, Edo (Tokyo) dialect became the Standard Japanese. European languages have raised their influence to Japanese noticeably since 1853 that refers to the end of Sakoku (i.e. "locked country" – aJapanese foreign relations policy, which meant that no foreigner could enter the country nor any Japanese could leave the country under threat of death penalty). Mostly, English language has been impacting Japanese in last decades of years, which is evident especially on technological words.

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Author: Ichika Yamamoto
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