The precise origins of the Japanese language are still debated to this day, and no evidence exists to support the idea that Japanese relates to a single family of languages. Many experts believe that Japanese is an Altaic language. By this, linguists maintain that the origins of Japanese are related to the Korean, Mongolian and Turkish dialects. Others believe that Japanese is Austronesian, relating back to Papuan, Malayan and other Pacific languages. Still others believe that Japanese is a Southeast Asian language, related to Vietnamese, Tibetan, Burmese or the languages of southern India. Historical linguists currently maintain the hypothesis that Japanese is simply a hybrid language, recognizing the relationship of several influencing languages from which Japanese has borrowed.
Regardless of the actual origin, it may be that Japanese is a combination of all three influences. Some linguists believe that the Japanese language has roots derived from Mongolian, Korean and Turkish languages, with substratums broken off from the Austronesian languages, with influences from the Tibetan languages. The Tibetan languages were introduced into Japan during the great migrations of Southeast Asia four or five thousand years ago. Combined, these three influences are what make up the modern Japanese language.
Additionally, once the Chinese culture was introduced in Japan, the Japanese language changed dramatically. New ways of thinking brought forth new ways of expression and now most Japanese words, about sixty percent or so, are derived from Chinese words.
Since the Tokugawa period (from around 1600 to the late 1800’s), the Japanese language has been highly influenced by a number of Western languages as well. Some of the basic grammatical constructions of the language have changed to fit in more closely with Western and European languages.
The Japanese language is constructed in a manner that is opposite of the English experience. Where the English language constructs sentences in a subject, verb, object pattern, the Japanese language is constructs sentences in a subject, object, verb pattern. This allows for expression of a relationship between the subject and the object that is more intimate than in the English language.
Also in contrast to the English language and other Western languages is the Japanese di-syllabic construction of their words. Most words in the Japanese language are formed with two syllables. In this system, each syllable consists only of a consonant and a vowel. There are no syllables that can be consonant-vowel-consonant. If a consonant is not followed by a vowel, then it is counted as a single syllable. This system of syllable construction, called mora, makes most English words incomprehensible when they are translated into Japanese.
The Japanese language also expresses time in their verb forms in a manner that differs from the Western languages. There are many more tenses of time expressed in the Japanese language including a tense for a ‘tentative’ action (one that has not yet been carried out). Japanese also has a “pitch” accent, rather than the typical stress accents that we find in the English language. Pitch accent refers to the fall in pitch after an accented syllable.
Perhaps one of the most interesting components of the Japanese language is it’s system of “honorifics.” Honorific components are rules of the language that represent respect according to a person’s place in society and the place of those to whom one is speaking. Taking special note of the fact that the Japanese culture has historically placed heavy emphasis on social class, it is not therefore surprising that it’s language and system of writing and speaking places emphasis on reinforcement of such social differences. Not only is the honorifics system rooted in class distinction, but in gender distinction as well. One may notice that the speech of women makes deference to the male counterparts, just as it’s social system subordinates women to men. Honorifics also extends to politeness and courtesy. If a person is addressing their own mother or father, the word used would be different from that used to address the mother of another person. Familial words all reflect a polite style of speech.
There are three categories of words in the Japanese language. The largest category of words come from words native to Japanese. Words that originated in China and were ‘borrowed’ from China earlier in history are part of the second category of vocabulary words. Finally, the last category of words comes from words borrowed over time fro various Western languages, including English. The frequency of usage in each category depends largely on the material written.
The Japanese writing system also differs from the Western tradition of left to right, and is written starting from the right side of the page. Japanese is based on two systems of orthography: Chinese characters and syllabaries. The Chinese characters, called kanji, were brought over to Japan starting about 1,500 years ago. Prior to the Chinese influence on written characters, Japanese was largely a spoken language. After the influence of the Chinese writing system, the Japanese people started to record their language in poetry and prose.
The Japanese language is spoken mainly in the country of Japan. However, with the emigration of more and more Japanese people to North America, several countries have a substantial population of Japanese speaking people. The United States has approximately 1,200,000 Japanese speaking people, and Brazil has about 1,400,000. Japanese is the official language of only Japan, and no other country. Because of the general isolation of the language to Japan, the integration of Japanese into other cultures is very difficult.
Essentially, the Japanese language (while having several dialects, particularly noted geographically) is very closely tied to Japanese culture. In order to properly speak the Japanese language, one must understand the Japanese culture. There are words that are strictly Japanese that literally do not have interpretation in other languages. Words that describe Japanese tradition, culture and heritage are among the types of words that do not translate well into other languages.
The government of Japan has basically ordained what is considered “modern” Japanese and blended the two standard versions of the language. The blurred result of both the standard (hyoujungo) and the common language (kyoutsuugo) is the now modern version of Japanese now taught in schools, used in television and in official government communications.