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About Japanese Language

Japanese (日本語?, [nihonɡo]) is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family. There are a number of proposed relationships with other languages, but none of them has gained unanimous acceptance. Japanese is an agglutinative language. It is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics reflecting the nature of Japanese society, with verb forms and particular vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned in conversation. The language has a relatively small sound inventory, and a lexically significant pitch-accent system. Japanese is a mora-timed language.

The Japanese language is written with a combination of three scripts: Chinese characters called kanji (漢字), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名) and katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名). The Latin alphabet, rōmaji (ローマ字), is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when entering Japanese text into a computer. Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace (see Japanese numerals).

Japanese vocabulary has been heavily influenced by loanwords from other languages. A vast number of words were borrowed from Chinese, or created from Chinese models, over a period of at least 1,500 years. Since the late 19th century, Japanese has borrowed a considerable number of words from Indo-European languages, primarily English. Because of the special trade relationship between Japan and first Portugal in the 16th century, and then mainly the Netherlands in the 17th century, Portuguese and Dutch have also been influential.

Geographic distribution

Although Japanese is spoken almost exclusively in Japan, it has been and sometimes still is spoken elsewhere. When Japan occupied Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, the Philippines, and various Pacific islands before and during World War II, locals in those countries were forced to learn Japanese in empire-building programs. As a result, many elderly people in these countries can speak Japanese in addition to the local language. Japanese emigrant communities (the largest of which are to be found in Brazil, with 1.4 million to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants and descendents, according to Brazilian IBGE data, more than the 1.2 million of the United States[8]) sometimes employ Japanese as their primary language. Approximately 5% of Hawaii residents speak Japanese[citation needed], with Japanese ancestry the largest single ancestry in the state (over 24% of the population). Japanese emigrants can also be found in Peru, Argentina, Australia (especially Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Cairns), the United States (notably California, where 1.2% of the population has Japanese ancestry[citation needed], and Hawaii), and the Philippines (particularly in Davao and Laguna). However, their descendants, known as nikkei (日系) rarely speak Japanese fluently after the second generation.

Official status

Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan. There is a form of the language considered standard: hyōjungo (標準語?), meaning "standard Japanese", or kyōtsūgo (共通語?), "common language". The meanings of the two terms are almost the same. Hyōjungo or kyōtsūgo is a conception that forms the counterpart of dialect. This normative language was born after the Meiji Restoration (明治維新, meiji ishin?, 1868) from the language spoken in the higher-class areas of Tokyo for communicating necessity. Hyōjungo is taught in schools and used on television and in official communications, and is the version of Japanese discussed in this article.

Formerly, standard Japanese in writing (文語, bungo?, "literary language") was different from colloquial language (口語, kōgo?). The two systems have different rules of grammar and some variance in vocabulary. Bungo was the main method of writing Japanese until about 1900; since then kōgo gradually extended its influence and the two methods were both used in writing until the 1940s. Bungo still has some relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Kōgo is the predominant method of both speaking and writing Japanese today, although bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect.

Dialects

Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

The main distinction in Japanese accents is between Tokyo-type (東京式, Tōkyō-shiki?) and Kyoto-Osaka-type (京阪式, Keihan-shiki?), though Kyūshū-type dialects form a third, smaller group. Within each type are several subdivisions. Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, with borders roughly formed by Toyama, Kyōto, Hyōgo, and Mie Prefectures; most Shikoku dialects are also that type. The final category of dialects are those that are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese; these dialects are spoken in Hachijō-jima island and a few others.

Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Kagoshima may be unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country. The several dialects of Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū are famous for being unintelligible not only to speakers of standard Japanese but to speakers of nearby dialects elsewhere in Kyūshū as well[citation needed]. This is probably due in part to the Kagoshima dialects' peculiarities of pronunciation, which include the existence of closed syllables (i.e., syllables that end in a consonant, such as /kob/ or /koʔ/ for Standard Japanese /kumo/ "spider"). A dialects group of Kansai is spoken and known by many Japanese, and Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy (See Kansai dialect). Dialects of Tōhoku and North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.

The Ryūkyūan languages, spoken in Okinawa and Amami Islands that are politically part of Kagoshima, are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family. However, many Japanese common people tend to consider the Ryūkyūan languages as dialects of Japanese. Not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryūkyūan languages.

Recently, Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and increase of mobility networks within Japan, as well as economic integration.

Classification

Japanese is a member of the Japonic languages. As these closely related languages are commonly treated as dialects of the same language, Japanese is often called a language isolate. Linguists have investigated a number of possible relatives of Japanese, but there is no consensus about more distant relationships.

Sounds

All Japanese vowels are pure—that is, there are no diphthongs, only monophthongs. The only unusual vowel is the high back vowel /ɯ/ listen (help·info), which is like /u/, but compressed instead of rounded. Japanese has five vowels, and vowel length is phonemic, so each one has both a short and a long version.

Some Japanese consonants have several allophones, which may give the impression of a larger inventory of sounds. However, some of these allophones have since become phonemic. For example, in the Japanese language up to and including the first half of the twentieth century, the phonemic sequence /ti/ was palatalized and realized phonetically as [tɕi], approximately chi listen (help·info); however, now /ti/ and /tɕi/ are distinct, as evidenced by words like tī [tiː] "Western style tea" and chii [tɕii] "social status".

The "r" of the Japanese language (technically a lateral apical postalveolar flap), is of particular interest, sounding to most English speakers to be something between an "l" and a retroflex "r" depending on its position in a word. The "g" is also notable; unless it starts a sentence, many speakers pronounce it /ŋ/, like the ng in "sing".

The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple: the only consonant clusters allowed within a syllable consist of one of a subset of the consonants plus /j/. These type of clusters only occur in onsets. However, consonant clusters across syllables are allowed as long as the two consonants are a nasal followed by a homorganic consonant. Consonant length (gemination) is also phonemic.

Sentence structure

Japanese word order is classified as Subject Object Verb. However, unlike many Indo-European languages, the only strict rule of word order is that the verb must be placed at the end of a sentence; other elements in the sentence may be in various orders for emphasis, or possibly omitted. This is because the Japanese sentence elements are marked with particles that identify their grammatical functions.

The basic sentence structure is topic-comment. For example, Kochira-wa Tanaka-san desu (こちらは田中さんです). kochira ("this") is the topic of the sentence, indicated by the particle -wa. The verb is desu, a copula, commonly translated as "to be" or "it is" (though there are other verbs that can be translated as "to be"), though technically it holds no meaning and is used to give a sentence 'politeness'. As a phrase, Tanaka-san desu is the comment. This sentence loosely translates to "As for this person, (it) is Mr./Mrs./Miss Tanaka." Thus Japanese, like Chinese, Korean, and many other Asian languages, is often called a topic-prominent language, which means it has a strong tendency to indicate the topic separately from the subject, and the two do not always coincide. The sentence Zō-wa hana-ga nagai  (象は鼻が長い) literally means, "As for elephants, their noses (are) long". The topic is zō "elephant", and the subject is hana "nose".

In Japanese the subject or the object of a sentence need not be stated, if it is obvious from context. In addition, it is commonly felt, particularly in informal spoken Japanese, that the shorter a sentence is, the better.[citation needed] As a result of this grammatical permissiveness, there is a tendency to gravitate towards brevity; Japanese speakers tend to omit pronouns on the theory they are inferred from the previous sentence, and are therefore understood. In the context of the above example, hana-ga nagai would mean "[their] noses are long," while nagai by itself would mean "[they] are long." A single verb can be a complete sentence: Yatta! "[I / we / they / etc] did [it]!". In addition, since adjectives can form the predicate in a Japanese sentence (below), a single adjective can be a complete sentence: Urayamashii! "[I'm] jealous [of it]!".

While the language has some words that are typically translated as pronouns, these are not used as frequently as pronouns in some Indo-European languages, and function differently. Instead, Japanese typically relies on special verb forms and auxiliary verbs to indicate the direction of benefit of an action: "down" to indicate the out-group gives a benefit to the in-group; and "up" to indicate the in-group gives a benefit to the out-group. Here, the in-group includes the speaker and the out-group does not, and their boundary depends on context. For example, oshiete moratta (教えてもらった) (literally, "explained" with a benefit from the out-group to the in-group) means "[he/she/they] explained [it] to [me/us]". Similarly, oshiete ageta (教えてあげた) (literally, "explained" with a benefit from the in-group to the out-group) means "[I/we] explained [it] to [him/her/them]". Such beneficiary auxiliary verbs thus serve a function comparable to that of pronouns and prepositions in Indo-European languages to indicate the actor and the recipient of an action.

Japanese "pronouns" also function differently from most modern Indo-European pronouns (and more like nouns) in that they can take modifiers as any other noun may.

Politeness

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Most relationships are not equal in Japanese society. The differences in social position are determined by a variety of factors including job, age, experience, or even psychological state (e.g., a person asking a favour tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner. See uchi-soto.

Whereas teineigo (丁寧語) (polite language) is commonly an inflectional system, sonkeigo (尊敬語) (respectful language) and kenjōgo (謙譲語) (humble language) often employ many special honorific and humble alternate verbs: iku "go" becomes ikimasu in polite form, but is replaced by irassharu in honorific speech and ukagau or mairu in humble speech.

The difference between honorific and humble speech is particularly pronounced in the Japanese language. Humble language is used to talk about oneself or one's own group (company, family) whilst honorific language is mostly used when describing the interlocutor and their group. For example, the -san suffix ("Mr" "Mrs." or "Miss") is an example of honorific language. It is not used to talk about oneself or when talking about someone from one's company to an external person, since the company is the speaker's "group". When speaking directly to one's superior in one's company or when speaking with other employees within one's company about a superior, a Japanese person will use vocabulary and inflections of the honorific register to refer to the in-group superior and their speech and actions. When speaking to a person from another company (i.e., a member of an out-group), however, a Japanese person will use the plain or the humble register to refer to the speech and actions of their own in-group superiors. In short, the register used in Japanese to refer to the person, speech, or actions of any particular individual varies depending on the relationship (either in-group or out-group) between the speaker and listener, as well as depending on the relative status of the speaker, listener, and third-person referents. For this reason, the Japanese system for explicit indication of social register is known as a system of "relative honorifics." This stands in stark contrast to the Korean system of "absolute honorifics," in which the same register is used to refer to a particular individual (e.g. one's father, one's company president, etc.) in any context regardless of the relationship between the speaker and interlocutor. Thus, polite Korean speech can sound very presumptuous when translated verbatim into Japanese, as in Korean it is acceptable and normal to say things like "Our Mr. Company-President..." when communicating with a member of an out-group, which would be very inappropriate in a Japanese social context.

Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made polite by the addition of o- or go- as a prefix. o- is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas go- is affixed to words of Chinese derivation. In some cases, the prefix has become a fixed part of the word, and is included even in regular speech, such as gohan 'cooked rice; meal.' Such a construction often indicates deference to either the item's owner or to the object itself. For example, the word tomodachi 'friend,' would become o-tomodachi when referring to the friend of someone of higher status (though mothers often use this form to refer to their children's friends). On the other hand, a polite speaker may sometimes refer to mizu 'water' as o-mizu in order to show politeness.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but if a relationship becomes more intimate, they no longer use them. This occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.

Vocabulary

The original language of Japan, or at least the original language of a certain population that was ancestral to a significant portion of the historical and present Japanese nation, was the so-called yamato kotoba (大和言葉 or infrequently 大和詞, i.e. "Yamato words"), which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wa-go (和語 or rarely 倭語, i.e. the "Wa words"). In addition to words from this original language, present-day Japanese includes a great number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots following Chinese patterns. These words, known as kango (漢語), entered the language from the fifth century onwards via contact with Chinese culture. According to a Japanese dictionary Shinsen-kokugojiten (新選国語辞典), Chinese-based words comprise 49.1% of the total vocabulary, Wago is 33.8% and other foreign words are 8.8%.

Like Latin-derived words in English, kango words typically are perceived as somewhat formal or academic compared to equivalent Yamato words. Indeed, it is generally fair to say that an English word derived from Latin/French roots typically corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Yamato equivalent.

A much smaller number of words has been borrowed from Ainu. Tonakai(reindeer), rakko(sea otter) and sishamo(shishamo) are famous examples of Ainu words the Japanese borrowed. Japan has also borrowed a number of words from other languages, particularly ones of European extraction, which are called gairaigo. This began with borrowings from Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by borrowing from Dutch during Japan's long isolation of the Edo period. With the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, borrowing occurred from German, French and English. Currently, words of English origin are the most commonly borrowed.

In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using Chinese roots and morphology to translate Western concepts. The Chinese and Koreans imported many of these words into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their kanji in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, 政治 seiji ("politics"), and 化学 kagaku ("chemistry") are words derived from Chinese roots that were first created and used by the Japanese, and only later borrowed into Chinese and other East Asian languages. As a result, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese share a large common corpus of vocabulary in the same way a large number of Greek- and Latin-derived words are shared among modern European languages, although many academic words formed from such roots were certainly coined by native speakers of other languages, such as English.

In the past few decades, wasei-eigo (made-in-Japan English) has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpatān ワンパターン (< one + pattern, "to be in a rut", "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu スキンシップ (< skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in most non-Japanese contexts; exceptions exist in nearby languages such as Korean however, which often use words such as skinship and rimokon (remote control) in the same way as in Japanese.

Additionally, many native Japanese words have become commonplace in English, due to the popularity of many Japanese cultural exports. Words such as futon, haiku, judo, kamikaze, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw (from 人力車 jinrikisha), samurai, sayonara, sudoku, sumo, sushi, tsunami, tycoon and many others have become part of the English language. See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.

Writing system

Literacy was introduced to Japan in the form of the Chinese writing system, by way of Baekje before the 5th century. Using this language, the Japanese king Yūryaku presented a petition to a Chinese emperor Liu Song in AD 478. After the ruin of Baekje, Japan invited scholars from China to learn more of the Chinese writing system. Japanese kings gave an official rank to Chinese scholars (続守言/薩弘格/ 袁晋卿) and spread the use of Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, during the seventh century AD, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose (comparable to Akkadian's retention of Sumerian cuneiform), but some Japanese words were still written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when the history of Japanese as a written language begins in its own right. By this time, the Japanese language was already distinct from the Ryukyuan languages.

The Korean settlers and their descendants used Kudara-on or Baekje pronunciation (百済音), which was also called Tsushima-pronunciation (対馬音) or Go-on (呉音).

An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in AD 712. They then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as man'yōgana, a syllabic script which used Chinese characters for their sounds in order to transcribe the words of Japanese speech syllable by syllable.

Over time, a writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters were also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana which were developed based on Manyogana from Baekje.

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main systems: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin alphabet is also sometimes used. Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as 統一 tōitsu ("unification").

 

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