Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The languages of Japan

Thanks to David Paul (LinkedIn) for pointing out a great post by Keiko Tanaka (GlobalVoices) about endangered languages in Japan, in which she interviewed Byron Fija (official site).
Tanaka's interview shed light on a number of issues related to definitions of and attitudes towards those languages in Japan, in particular, the tagging of a group of them, Ryukyuan languages, as dialects. The interview post included a detailed map of the Ryukyuan languages by Fija, with transliterations by Tanaka. The lines across the East China Sea in the map as well as the text of the interview highlighted lack of homogeneity among the languages of Japan.

To lean in and round up the discussion, I'd like to share a mashup of notes about disputed higher level classifications of Japanese and arguably related languages that I'd sent to a student working on a graduation paper last year. Here is the mashup:
I used the DigitalColor Meter app (a Mac app.) to check the area north and east of Korea and Japan [in a map from Before It's News, 2013], both of which were color-coded as isolates. Though it was [coded] the same color, the area to the NE of Korea and Japan may actually be a Yupik branch of Eskimo-Aleut (Wikipedia, Eskimo-Aleut languages, ¶4).
(close-up from Before It's News, 2013)

That same area NE of Korea and Japan is color-coded as Paleo-Siberian in another map (Wikipedia, Primary Human Language Families Map). The Primary Human Language Families Map still coded Korean as an isolate, but coded Japonic as a separate family of languages, one which may include Ryukyuan languages (Lewis, 2013).
There is plenty of controversy about relationships among Japanese, Korean, and other languages, for instance: "According to its [Altaic's] proponents, Altaic is a language family comprising at least TurkicMongolic, and Tungusic" (Wikipedia, Classification of Japonic, Altaic hypothesis, ¶1). 
The idea of a Japanese-Korean relationship overlaps the extended form of the Altaic hypothesis..., but not all scholars who argue for one also argue for the other. For example, Samuel Martin, who was a major advocate of a Japanese-Korean relationship, only provided cautious support to the inclusion of these languages in Altaic, and Talat Tekin, an Altaicist, includes Korean, but not Japanese, in Altaic....  
 (Wikipedia, Classification of Japonic, Korean hypothesis, ¶6).
Pereltsvaig (2012) summed up controversy about an Altaic language family, suggesting similarities [among those languages] might be due to borrowing rather than genetic[, but the matter is by no means resolved]. Lewis (2013) reexamined related issues.
Lewis, Martin W. (2013). Altaic and Related Languages. GeoCurrents. Retrieved from http://www.geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/linguistic-geography/altaic-and-related-languages 
Pereltsvaig, Asya. (2012). The Altaic family controversy. GeoCurrents. Retrieved from http://www.geocurrents.info/place/russia-ukraine-and-caucasus/siberia/the-altaic-family-controversy
(pab, personal correspondence, 2013.12.14)

Viewed from both up and down the human language family tree, it seems clear that the languages of Japan are neither homogeneous nor unique. Hopefully we'll achieve a modicum of certainty before the majority of those languages in the far reaches of Japan die out completely.

[501 words]

1 comment:

  1. Here's a 2012 YouTube video of Fija lecturing in Uchinaakuchi, with Japanese and English subtitles:
    Byron Fija on Ryukyuan Languages in Uchinaaguchi.


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