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Summary of the Japanese Language

The Language of Japan





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Japanese is the sixth most spoken language in the world, with over 99% percent of the country's population using it.  Amazingly, the language is spoken in scarcely any region outside Japan.  

There are many theories about the origin of the Japanese language, some believe it is close to Altaic languages like Turkish or Mongolian, it's similarity in syntax to Korean is recognized. There is also evidence that its morphology and vocabulary were influenced by Malayo-Polynesian languages to the south.  The writing system itself comes from the Chinese, but the difference in the two languages is immense.

Standard Japanese, based on the speech of Tokyo, has been spreading through the country by the use of television, radio and movies.

In addition to standard Japanese, there are many local dialects, particularly those by the people of Kyoto and Osaka, that continue to be popular.

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The short vowels in the Japanese language are spoken similarly to those of the Spanish and Italian languages, whereas the long vowel sounds are usually comprised of doubling the short vowel sounds.  As with many other languages, the pronunciation of these vowel sounds is important because each sound changes the meaning of a word.

Comparing Japanese and English, there is a striking difference, Japanese gives equal stress to each syllable (therefore, no stress accent).  One similarity though is that Japanese has a system of pitch accents varying from high to low.

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Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese use 2 distinct forms of phonetic script, kana, to use along with Chinese characters.  Sometimes it is necessary to include roman letters (for newer words, "Xerox", etc) for acronyms or foreign words, thus increasing the number of scripts used to four.

Kanji, known as Chinese characters, symbolizes an idea or thing.  This is called an ideogram and it's not uncommon for kanji to have more than one pronunciation or sound.  They are used in Japan to write Chinese words or native Japanese words.

There are two forms of kana script.  One is hiragana, used mainly by women in earlier days, and consists of 48 characters.  This form is used to write native Japanese words, particles, verb endings.  Katakana, the other kana script, is composed of 48 characters as well.  It is used mainly for emphasis, flora and fauna scientific names as well as for writing loan words.  These forms of writing are by far easier to write than the Chinese form they come from.

Japanese has started printing books in the Western fashion of horizontal lines in recent times, left to right - front to back.  It is still customary though for Japanese books to be printed or written vertically.  This means the book is to be opened to the back and read from top to bottom starting on the right side.

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Loan words are words that are "borrowed" from another language and incorporated into Japanese everyday language.  These words are often from the Chinese language but may also be English or a European language.   Many Chinese character have evolved in Japanese by taking the characters and making a new combination, distinctly unique and used by modern Japanese.  In addition to evolution of Chinese characters, English words have been combined to make a "new" word, such as "nighter" for night games.  The tendency to combine or borrow words has become increasingly evident in recent years.

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As with other cultures, the Japanese have a different language on that shows honor or respect and it is called "keigo."  Keigo is simply a method of speaking that shows the speaker's respect to the person he is speaking to.  There are many different levels and words or expressions are selected depending on how polite the person wants or needs to be.  Depending on the status of the speaker to the recipient, a simple sentence can be stated 20 different ways!

There are many different factors to take into account when determining what degree of politeness is necessary.  Some of the factors include age, social status, gender, and even if a favor is owed or done or any combination thereof!  There is also a level of language that is considered neutral if you don't know the status of the person to whom you are speaking.  Generally, women speak more politely than men and use it in many more circumstances.

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Japan is no different from other Asian countries when it comes to name order.  Unlike Westerners, who use first or given name then last or family name, Japanese use their family name first, followed by their given name.  Given names are chosen (and the Chinese character equivalent) for their meanings in the hope of bringing good luck to the child.

There are titles that need to be used as well, depending on who you are talking to.  The Japanese equivalent to "Mr.", "Mrs." is san, which is said after the family name. If you are speaking to someone like a teacher or doctor, there are other titles that need to be added after the family name. If it's a child or a close friend, then the suffix chan is used.

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