Japanese and Chinese: A shared history, and a history of sharing.

For Western readers, it is only natural to look at Japan and China and their proximity to one another on the map and the similarities of their written language styles and assume that the two languages share a common source, some precursor language from which both sprouted and branched off as the two cultures blossomed on opposite sides of the South China Sea. Added to the geographical location and cultural similarities is the fact that Japanese borrows many words from the Chinese language to compose the Japanese kanji system. However, these similarities do not detract from the fact that there is serious debate about the nature and origin of the Japanese language and that at its root it does not appear to have developed from the same source as Chinese..

It is widely held that prior to the introduction of the Chinese writing system Japan had already developed a unique language but had not yet establised a formal way to express the language in writing. In fact, the exact origin of the Japanese language is still unknown, though there are a number of possible origins including Korean (which is similar in many ways yet vastly different in many ways as well), other south Asian language groups (like those spoken in Tibet) and perhaps the Na’vi people of the planet Pandora (just kidding on that last one).

The oldest known example of the Japanese language in its written form is the Kojiki, which was written in the 8thcentury A.D. and although it was written primarily with Chinese characters, scholars and historians can see the distinctly Japanese feel to the text and words, which led them to denote this document as significant in the development of the Japanese written language. Obviously there were people living in Japan prior to that – it is now known that there were people living in Japan for more than ten thousand years – but the language was spoken only. Since then, Japanese has gone through several changes, and there are a number of different dialects based on which island you are on, but it only takes a reasonable amount of study for most modern Japanese to read and understand early works such as the Kojiki.

Did we forget to mention that Japan is an archipeligo that is actually composed of over 7,000 islands? This has not only contributed to differences in dialects because of physical separation, but has also contributed to our lack of certainty about the origins of the language. For all we know, it could have been influenced by other earlier languages, but since there was no written language until the 8thcentury the exact origins still remain a mystery. Sadly, people in the past did not record every waking moment of every day for us! (There was no Internet!) And of course that means that archaeologists and sociologists are in some ways hamstrung due to a lack of context.

Hopefully you have enjoyed reading this so far because we are about to veer off into some pretty fancy words as we discuss the etymology of early Japanese, its origins and early usage. Japanese is considered to be the main language in the Japonic family of languages and is widely considered the only language of that kind. Although it shares some similarities with Korean, the two languages do not appear to be related, as they sound totally different. As discussed above, prior to the 8th century there is only limited knowledge about the language and after that period ended there were several more periods of growth and change, known as Early Middle Japanese, Late Middle Japanese, Early Modern Japanese and Modern Japanese. During each of these periods, the Japanese language continued to grow and refine as it borrowed more words from other languages (primarily Chinese) and speakers of the language decided on pronunciations and constructions that led to what we now know as modern Japanese.

According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, it is believed that some Chinese words were introduced in Japan around the 1st century CE, and were introduced more formally in the 4th century CE, and from the writing of the Kojiki onward the Chinese writing system was adopted and adapted to help the recording of the Japanese language in written form. To this day, Japanese continues to borrow words from other languages as needed, just like any other language. The sharing of words between Chinese and Japanese is similar in the amount and percentage of sharing, for example, that between English and Latin, and like a great half pepperoni/half cheese pizza, everybody wins when we all share!

As English has borrowed from Latin and many other languages, so too has Japan borrowed from English in the last few centuries. Although Japan has borrowed from other languages as well, a little bit of Dutch here, some Spanish for flavor over there, and, of course, English, which has been a primary source for “loan words”. For English speakers who are attempting to learn Japanese, they are in luck as many borrowed words have very similar pronunciations but with a little flourish, for example, words like beer (ビール!), which you drink from a glass (グラス).

A big thank you to Encyclopedia Brittanica for all their research. For more on this topic, go to https://www.britannica.com/topic/Japanese-language

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