Japanese is an Asian language spoken by nearly 128 million people, over 1 million of which learned it as a second language. It’s the eleventh most commonly spoken language in the world, despite the fact that it has such a small geographical concentration—over 99% of the people who speak Japanese are actually located in Japan. Very little is known about when the language originated, and the first substantial text dates back to the 8th century, which isn’t very long bearing in mind that humans have been writing in various forms since around 3,000 BC. Below are some more compelling facts about this enigmatic language.
JAPAN REFERS TO ITSELF AS 日本語
This is traditionally pronounced “Nihon” or “Nippon”. In that same vein, the language is pronounced differently by native speakers. You may think you’re speaking Japanese, but technically you’re speaking Nihongo. The version most English speakers use today originated from early Portuguese explorers that misunderstood the pronunciation.
JAPANESE IS NOT RELATED TO ANY OTHER LANGUAGE
English, for example, is majorly influenced by Latin and Germanic languages. Japanese has no direct relation to any other dialect on this earth. Expert linguists have classified it as a “language isolate” for this very reason.
THE JAPANESE LANGUAGE IS FULL OF HOMOPHONES
For reference, homophones are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings (like “knew” and “new” or “so” and “sow”). Some Japanese words, such as “shin”, can have up to eight completely unique definitions.
JAPANESE IS ONE OF THE FASTEST SPOKEN LANGUAGES
Recent studies suggest native Japanese speakers often say around 7.84 syllables per second. Compare that to English with 6.19 syllables per second, and you may find it a bit difficult to keep up when speaking Japanese.
JAPAN HAS THREE DIFFERENT WRITING SYSTEMS
There are “kanji”, “hiragana”, and “katakana”. All three systems are used together in every script, and often within the same sentence. Kanji and hiragana are used to form words and sentences, and katakana to add emphasis to a statement or when foreign loanwords are needed.
JAPAN’S HISTORY OF PRIMARY ORALITY
For centuries, Japanese was strictly a spoken language with no written alphabet whatsoever. At some point during the 5th century, Japanese scholars started learning to read Mandarin and eventually adopted letters from the classic Chinese alphabet to form their own writing. It wasn’t until three centuries later that any substantial script was produced.
THERE ARE NO PLURALS IN THE JAPANESE LANGUAGE
And yes, this confuses me too, as with many other English speakers newly introduced to Japanese. For example, there could be four cats in your yard, but you would still say “there is a cat”, regardless of how many there are.
JAPAN IS QUITE LITERATE
Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Over 99% of its citizens can read, write, and communicate clearly. Education, and literacy in particular, has been a top priority in Japan since the Tokugawa regime of 1600 to 1827. Over the years, the emphasis on education never swayed. Enrolment rates are currently 100% for school-aged children and teens in cities, and 97% for students in rural areas. Students in the United States average a 95% enrolment rate for all ages across the board.
YOU CAN LEARN JAPANESE TOO
Learning Japanese is actually easier than most people think. There are no fluctuating tones, all words are gender-neutral, and equal emphasis is given to each syllable of a word. The most difficult part of learning Japanese is writing the characters.
COMMON JAPANESE LANGUAGE MISTAKES
Have you ever worried about putting your foot in your mouth by pronouncing something wrong in a different country? Be forewarned that Japan has a common culprit. One of the ways most foreigners tend to embarrass themselves is when they go to a Japanese bar and saying “chin chin”, thinking they’re making a toast, when in reality, they’re saying “penis” twice. The actual word is “cin cin”, and it’s pronounced “cheen cheen”. So during your next visit to Japan, maybe use “kanpai” instead.
So, there you have it, some of the most interesting facts about this fascinating language. It’s encouraging to know that Japanese is so much easier to learn than other languages out there, especially considering the dominance of this language in e-commerce. If you’re interested in learning another language, Japanese (or rather, Nihongo) is very useful and exciting to know.