Language of the Month: Okinawan (沖縄口 /Uchinaaguchi)

Apart from Mandarin, Russian, and Korean, most foreign languages that are popular among Japanese people (English, Spanish, German, etc.) tend to be extremely difficult for them. This is largely due to large differences in syntax, morphology (Japanese is agglutinative and lacks grammatical gender or a case system), and phonology (Japanese has no "v" sound). The aforementioned Mandarin, Russian and Korean, tend to be easier for Japanese speakers due to them having many similarities in the lexicon (Mandarin), syntax (Russian), or both in the case of Korean.

Although it is true that the vast majority of the Japanese populace converses mainly in Japanese, Japan is by no means a completely monolingual state. Historically, Japan has had different languages spoken natively in Hokkaido (Ainu, Nivkh, and Orok), Tohoku (Emishi), Kyushu (although the nature of this language is unclear), and most vigorously in Okinawa (the Ryuukyuuan languages), which was once a completely different state altogether. Sadly, many of these languages are extinct (such as Kurile Ainu) or near extinct (like Hokkaido Ainu, Nivkh, and Yonaguni). Moreover, apart from Ainu and possibly Nivkh, many Japanese are unaware of the existence of many of these languages and insensibly refer to them as mere hougen (dialects) which are often perceived as being associated with uneducated country people. This bigotry is likely a leftover effect of the Imperial Education Policy (皇民化政策) used by the Japanese Empire where all languages apart from Japanese (specifically the Tokyo dialect) were classified as uncultured hougen that were to be exterminated. This policy even extended to languages that were different altogether such as Korean (which was called chousen hougen) and Okinawan (which even today is often called okinawa hougen).

Apart from Ainu and Nivkh, the non-Japanese languages of Japan tend to share many similarities to Japanese; the Ryuukyuuan languages in particular are very similar to Japanese as they're in the Japonic language family along with Japanese and share several cognates and a nearly identical phonology (Orok, which is Tungusic and similar to Manchu, also has similar features). Ergo, I believe that Japanese people who're interested in other languages should try studying one of the Ryuukyuuan languages (which altogether have about 1.1 million speakers).

Out of the Ryuukyuuan languages, I believe the best one to study (based on the number of speakers and its linguistic proximity to Japanese) is Okinawan, which has about 980,000 speakers and is widely used amongst elderly people in Okinawa (and is also being revived amongst young Okinawans with encouragement from the local government).

Okinawan shares many similarities with Japanese. Apart from having the same writing system and similar words ("Help!" is 助きてぃ!—tashikiti in Okinawa, similar to Japanese助けて!), it also possesses a comparable grammar. An example of this is how both Japanese and Okinawan use indicators to mark nominative-accusative nouns (nominative nouns are words like I, you, he, and she while accusative nouns are pronouns like me, you, him, and her). Japanese uses indicators such as は and が to indicate the nominative which are used to mark the subject of the sentence and accusative which are used to mark the object of the sentences such as in 私は靴を壊した. は is used to mark 私 as the subject of the sentence, while を is used to mark 靴 as the object of the sentence. In Okinawan, a sentence like 今日や早く (chuu ya feeku), would use やto indicate 今日(chuu) which means today. Japanese and Okinawan are also both SOV (subject-object-verb) in the way sentences are formed. An example in Japanese is 私は本を買いました where 私 is the subject 本 is the object and 買いました is the verb. In Okinawan an example would be 我んねーさいたまからやいびーん (wannee saitama kara yaibiin)—"I'm from Saitama." In this sentence, 我んねー (wannee—I) is the subject, さいたま (Saitama) is the object, and からやいびーん (kara yaibiin—come from) is the verb.

Although Okinawan and Japanese share many similarities, the biggest difficulty would be finding the resources to learn this language. Although I've managed to purchase a few Okinawan language manuals (沖縄語の入門 by Satoshi Nishioka and Minoru Nakahara and ウチナーグチ (沖縄語) 練習帖 by Ben Takara) at Maruzen and Kinokuniya, books on Okinawan as well as Okinawan teachers are extremely rare (as Okinawan is widely perceived in Japan as just a hougen instead of a language). The best option, therefore, would be to visit Okinawa and learn the language through immersion.

When I visited Okinawa during my H2 school trip, I was the only person in my class (and possibly the entire school) who actually studied Okinawan beforehand and actively tried to use it. This resulted in a warm reception from many Okinawans we encountered (I even received a finely made piece of pottery for free from an Okinawan craftsman). On the last day of our trip, when we were allowed to freely explore Naha (Naafa in Okinawan), I tried to use the language in communicating with nearly everyone I encountered and many of the people I encountered seemed pleased that I was using the language. However, one problem I encountered was when I went into an antique shop and when I jovially stated 今日拝なびら (chuu wuganabira)—Okinawan for hello—the shopkeeper rudely stated 方言で話さないでください—please refrain from speaking in hougen. I was taken aback by this shopkeeper's rude behavior and I immediately suspected she was not Okinawan as her skin was too light (Okinawans tend to have darker skin than Yamato Japanese). However, this was the only incident where my speaking Okinawan was questioned and everyone else I encountered seemed to appreciate my efforts.

Overall, I believe that a language that Japanese people should study more is Okinawan. Not only is it much easier for Japanese people to learn than most foreign languages, it also deserves respect as a language in its own right and it would be a tragedy if it dies out.


Phrase list

English

沖縄口 / Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan)

Welcome

めんそーれー (mensooree)

Hello

今日拝なびら (chuu wuganabira)

How are you?

頑丈やいびーみ? (ganjuu yaibiimi?)

Long time no see

見ー遠さいびーんやー (miiduusaibiinyaa)

What's your name?

う名前や何やいびーが? (u naamee ya nuu yaibiiga?)

My name is ...

... やいびーん (... yaibiin)

Where are you from?

まーから来ゃーびてぃい (maa kara chaabiti i?)

I'm from ...

我んねー…. から来ゃーびたん (wannee ….kara chaabitan)

Pleased to meet you

初みてぃ拝なびら (hajimiti wuganabira)

Good morning

起きみそーちー (ukimisoochii)

Good night

う憩いみしぇーびり (uyukuimisheebiri)

Goodbye

今から行じ来ゃーびら (namakara nji chaabira)
I'll be back - you are leaving
いめんしぇーびり (imensheebiri)
come back soon - you are staying

Cheers/Good health!

嘉例 (karii)

I don't understand

分かやびらん (wakayabiran)

Please speak more slowly

よ一んな一話し吳みしぇーびり (yoonnaa hanashi kwimisheebiri)

Please write it down

書ち吳みしぇーびり (kachi kwimisheebiri)

Do you speak Okinawan?

沖縄口話さび一み? (uchinaaguchi hanasabiimi?)

Yes, a little

う一、うふぇ一話さび一ん (uu, ufee hanasabiin)

How do you say ... in Okinawan?

...沖縄口っし何んでぃ言いびーが。
(...uchinaaguchi sshi nuu ndi 'yuibiiga?)

Excuse me

御無礼さびたん (guburii sabitan)

How much is this?

くれーちゃっさやいびーが? (kuree chassa yaibiiga?)

Sorry

悪さいびーん (wassaibiin)

Thank you

御拝でーびーる (nifee deebiiru)
一杯御拝でーびーる (ippee nifee deebiiru) –very formal

I love you

我んね一御所愛さんでぃ思と一いび一ん
(wannee unju kanasa ndi umutooibiin)

Happy Birthday

う誕生日嘉例吉うんぬきやびら
(utanjoobi kariyushi unnukiyabira)