Language Families and Japanese

Did you know languages can be grouped into “families”?   For example, English is a Germanic language, and the Romance Family includes Latin and all its derivatives, including Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

I was thinking about this during my recent trip to Japan.  To a Westerner like me, the writing systems in Asia all look similar, so I asked our guide in Kyoto if Japanese was in a language family.

Her answer surprised me: no.  She said Japanese is a unique language.  For a Japanese to try to understand Korean is the same as one of us trying to understand Japanese.

Since I’m home, I’ve been doing a bit of research.  The scholarly opinion on this is more nuanced.  Apparently linguists are trying to place it somewhere.  I found this on the Internet, posted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology —


“Through painstaking research, we now have conclusive evidence for the genetic relationships of the major languages of the world. English, along with a host of languages spoken in Europe, Russia, and India, belong to the Indo-European family of languages. In contrast, there is no conclusive evidence relating Japanese to a single family of languages. The most prominent hypothesis places Japanese in the Altaic family, which includes Turkish, Tungusic, Mongolian, and Korean, with the closest relationship to Korean. According to Roy Andrew Miller, the original Altaic language was spoken in the Transcaspian steppe country, and the speakers of this language undertook massive migrations before 2,000 B.C., spreading this language family from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east. However, this hypothesis is inconsistent with some major features of Japanese, leading some scholars to turn to the languages of the South Pacific in the Austronesian family for clues of genetic relationship. A hypothesis that has currency among a number of Japanese historical linguists is a “hybrid” theory that accepts the relationship to the Altaic family, but also hypothesizes influence from Austronesian languages possibly through heavy lexical borrowing. It is also important to note that in the northern island of Hokkaido, the Ainu people, who are physically and culturally different from the rest of the Japanese, speak a language that has even more successfully escaped attempts to relate it to a single language family.

“With the introduction of the writing system from China starting about 1,500 years ago, the Japanese people began to extensively record their language through poetry and prose. The language of that era, called Old Japanese, had a number of features that have been lost through time. For example, Susumu Ono has argues that Old Japanese had eight vowels instead of the five that we see today. There were also a number of grammatical and morphological features that no longer exist. The transition from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese took place from about the twelfth century, A.D., to the sixteenth century, A.D.”

The mention of Old Japanese caught my eye.  All languages evolve; today it’s almost impossible for us to make sense out of Old English.  When I was in Greece a few years ago, I was told the same thing — just because you know Greek doen’t mean you’d be able to read any of those inscriptions on the old monuments.

In case you were wondering, Japanese does have regional dialects.  For the full explanation, go to And there is a Japanese alphabet (, although that’s way above my head.

Maybe it’s a small world after all!

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