Language of the Month: Ainu (アィヌ・イタㇰ/Aynu Itak)

In North America, there were countless tribes and nations before the arrival of Europeans. This diversity was also seen in the linguistic make up of the continent in its Pre-Colombian state. Ranging from Uto-Aztecan Comanche to Algic Ojibwe to the Yupik languages of Alaska and dozens of unclassified languages, from a linguistic standpoint, North America was a kaleidoscope. Unfortunately, after the arrival of Europeans, Native American nations were decimated by disease and genocide and their languages oftentimes followed them. While this tragedy is heavily lamented worldwide (including in North America), we must also remember that similar events have happened elsewhere; we must remember that this sort of thing also happened here in what is now under the jurisdiction of Japan.

In my first Language of the Month article I covered Okinawan and detailed the historical attrition of it and the other Ryuukyuuan languages. Although the Ryuukyuuan people and their languages suffered tremendously, in many ways the Ainu have gone through much worse. While the Ryuukyuuan languages suffered institutional discrimination and were declared to be uncultured hougen (dialects) that were to be exterminated (through means such as abusing children who spoke them in school and shooting Okinawans who spoke their native language on the battlefield), they never lost as much as the Ainu as they still have 1.1 million speakers at best, a literary tradition, a prefecture-sponsored recovery, and are widespread in Okinawa and the Amami Islands (albeit mostly used by the elderly). Ainu, on the other hand, has only about 15 native speakers and perhaps a few hundred people who've learned the language. Although this is partly because the Ainu were never numerous to begin with, the main reason is because the Japanese government decided that outright genocide would be the most efficient way to deal with them as they were viewed as barbarians while the Ryuukyuuans who had their own prosperous kingdom were seen as a conquered people to be assimilated. The only advantage Ainu currently has over the Ryuukyuuan languages is that the vast majority of Japanese people are aware of its existence and recognize it as a distinct language (unlike the Ryuukyuuan languages which are still widely perceived as uncultured hougen).

The ethnogenesis of the Ainu was the result of peoples of the hunter-gatherer Okhotsk culture and the Paleolithic partly agricultural Satsumon culture mixing around the 12th Century. Although this suggests that the Ainu were confined to Ezo (Hokkaido), Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands, there is substantial evidence that the Ainu were more widespread and even inhabited Honshu and Kamchatka. Regardless, in the 13th Century, the Ainu were in control of most of Ezo and even expanded their territory to the North through wars with the Nivkh people (this led to conflict with Mongolians). During this era, the Ainu also started having contacts with the Japanese who lived in Honshu and engaged in both trade and conflict with them. Over the next few hundred years, the Ainu had continued conflict with the Japanese as the latter established bases in southern Ezo and attempted to dominate the Ainu. This erupted into full-scale war when chief Koshamin organized the Ainu to attack and capture the Japanese forts Mobetsu and Hanazawa and massacred many Japanese there. Although conflicts still continued, in 1550, Lord Kakizaki of the Japanese Matsumae clan established an agreement with Ainu chieftains in southern Ezo that stipulated that the Matsumae would keep their bases but pay the Ainu a portion of their collected taxes in return. Afterwards, the Ainu continued to trade with the Matsumae and were generally left alone. During the Edo era (1603-1868), however, the Matsumae expanded their territory in Ezo and this led to increased contacts with Ainu and led to epidemics of diseases like Smallpox that decimated the Ainu and led to their increased reliance on Japanese trade as well as more conflict between Ainu and Japanese. In 1669, the Ainu chieftain Shakushain, in response to a regional dispute over hunting and fishing rights, united Ainu clans from across Ezo and launched a war against the Japanese called "Shakushain's Rebellion" which would last until 1672 and was the largest conflict ever between the two peoples. When peace negotiations started, agents from the Matsumae clan assassinated Shakushain, crippling the Ainu forces. The Matsumae further expanded their area of control and forced many Ainu into slavery and treated them as sub-humans (an example being how Ainu had to grovel and smear their face on soil when they met a Japanese samurai or face immediate decapitation) while crushing any resistance through reprisals.

The rise of the Meiji in 1868 was the death knell for the Ainu as it marked the beginning of a gradual and methodical genocide against them. In 1869, Ezo was renamed Hokkaido and annexed by Japan. The Meiji government flooded Hokkaido with Japanese colonizers because it needed a source of jobs for the recently deposed samurai class and also sought to exploit Hokkaido's natural resources while having the island serve as a bulwark against the expanding Russian Empire. While this process was at first referred to as "takushoku" (拓殖, colonization), it was later changed to the currently common "kaitaku" (開拓), which conveys a sense of opening up or "reclaiming" the Ainu lands. In the spirit of this policy, the Ainu were classified as "former aborigines" and given automatic Japanese citizenship (this effectively denied them the status of an indigenous group) and were pressured to assimilate with the Japanese colonizers by being "encouraged" to engage in agriculture and learn to speak and read Japanese. Many Ainu traditions (such as funeral customs) were banned during this time, children were abducted and sent to state-run boarding schools, and the Ainu were obliged to relinquish their land and resources. When the Japanese won the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), southern Sakhalin (where many Ainu lived relatively better lives under Russian rule) came under Japanese control and the Ainu there started to suffer like the ones in Hokkaido and the Kuriles. The Ainu would continue to suffer discrimination until the early 1990s and by then the Ainu language was practically extinct.

The Ainu language is either an Isolate language (meaning it has no relation to any language) or a small group of languages by itself with three variants (Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kurile) of which only the Hokkaido one survives in a moribund state. The language has been influenced by Japanese (evident in words like カㇺビ, paper, from Japanese 紙) and to a lesser extent by Nivkh and Russian (this can be seen in the Sakhalin dialect). Conversely, Ainu has also influenced Japanese with words like ラッコ (sea otter), トナカイ (reindeer, from Ainu トゥナッカィ) and 柳葉魚 (a type of fish, from スサㇺ) being commonly used and similar words like カムイ(comparable to Japanese 神) existing. The language has two writing systems: a Roman alphabet roughly equivalent to that of English with the differences being that c denotes ch and an equal sign (=) is used to denote divisions between vowels and consonants (an example being "suy unukar=an ro" which has to be written this way to avoid confusion between r and ra), and a Katakana-derived one with significant differences from Japanese Katakana. The most prominent difference being the presence of small forms of ㇰ,ㇷ゚, ㇺ, and ㇻㇼㇽㇾㇿ to mark consonant endings like k, p, m, and r (the latter ending changes depending on the preceding vowel). Grammatically, Ainu is similar to Japanese as it's an SOV language with lexical features similar to Japanese such as differing words for certain concepts like the pronouns "I" (which can be ク, クアニ, or チョカイ) and "you" (エ, エアニ, アオカ, or ヤニ [the last one is equivalent to Japanese てめえ]). There are also no third person pronouns per se in Ainu and this is expressed in a way comparable to Japanese. The phrases タン グル, タン ウタラ, and タㇺ ベ can be compared to the Japanese phrases with the same meaning which are respectively この人, これらの人, and この物.

Due to it being better known than Okinawan and other Ryuukyuuan languages, materials for learning Ainu are much easier to find and there are even many non-Japanese resources for the language. The most notable non-Japanese language resources are the Ainu grammar/dictionary by John Batchelor (an English missionary who protected Ainus from Japanese discrimination), and the research conducted by Bronisław Piłsudski (a Polish anthropologist who conducted outstanding research on the Sakhalin Ainu). In Japanese, notable materials include the Ainu-Japanese dictionary by Shigeru Kayano (who was the only Ainu member of the Japanese parliament), the アイヌ語電子辞書 by Takashi Tomita, the online introduction to Ainu grammar by the musician/newspaper editor Takashi Hamada, and アイヌ語ラジオ講座 offered by STV. There are also several cultural centers and revivalist hubs in Hokkaido (most prominently the Ainu village of Nibutani) where Ainu is spoken and occasionally taught.

It was only on June 6, 2008 that the Japanese government finally recognized the Ainu as an indigenous community and accepted guilt for past crimes. However, this recognition came at a time when Ainu is on the verge of extinction and the lack of recognition as an indigenous group had hindered Ainu revival efforts for years (as the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulated that recognized indigenous nations have the right to maintain their languages) and has therefore not had a major impact on Ainu revival. The number of people studying Ainu both in and out of Japan is increasing, however, and this will hopefully lead to a revival of the language. Since Sakhalin Ainu died out in 1994 and Kurile Ainu disappeared decades earlier, the survival of Hokkaido Ainu is imperative if any trace of the Ainu language is to be preserved. The tragedy of the Ainu is a crime committed by Japan that has not been fixed. Fortunately, we're in a situation where we can reverse this.

English Ainu/ アィヌ・イタㇰ Disclaimer: I had to make a few phrases by myself

Hello (also "Nice to meet you") イランカラㇷ゚テ Irankarapte

Thank you イヤィラィケレ Iyairaykere

You're welcome ピㇼカ ワ ピㇼカ ワ Pirka wa pirka wa

Excuse me/I'm sorry クヤヤカプ Ku=yayakapu

I don't understand ク エラミシカリ Ku eramisikari

Help me! エンカスィ ワ エンコレ! Enkasuy wa enkore!

Where is the toilet? アシニ フナㇰ アン? Asini hunak an?

Goodbye ピㇼカノ オカ ヤン Pirkano oka yan

How are you? エ イワンケ ヤー? E iwanke yaa

I am fine クィワンケ ワ Kuywanke wa

How do you say _ in Ainu? _アイヌ イタㇰ ネコナ ネ エポロセ アン? _Ainu itak nekona ne eporose an?

My name is…. クレヘ アナㇰネ...ネ Kurehe anakne...ne

Can you speak Ainu? アイヌ イタㇰ イェ エコイタㇰ アン?Ainu itak ye ekoitak an?
English アメリカ イタㇰ Amerika Itak
Japanese シサㇺ イタㇰ Sisam itak
Russian ヌチャ イタㇰ Nuca itak

I don't speak Ainu クアニ アイヌ イタㇰ ケウェニウケㇱ Kuani Ainu itak keweniwkes

Yes/No/And エ/ソモ/ワ(マ) E/Somo/Wa (Ma)

Good/Bad ピㇼカ/ウェン Pirka/Wen

Happy Birthday! アナアカイェ ト アウㇰ ワ オンカミアンナ Anaakayet auk wa onkamianna

1 シネㇷ゚ shinep

2 トゥㇷ゚ tup

3 レㇷ゚ rep

4 イネㇷ゚ inep

5 アシㇰネㇷ゚ ashiknep

6 イワンペ iwanpe

7 アㇻワンペ arwanpe

8 トゥペサンペ tupesanpe

9 シネペサンペ shinepesanpe

10 ワンペ wanpe