Amami language

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Native to Japan
Region Northern portion of the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture
Native speakers
c. 25,000  (2004)[1]
  • Ryukyuan
    • Northern Ryukyuan (Amami–Okinawan)
      • Amami
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
ryn – Northern Amami-Oshima
ams – Southern Amami-Oshima
kzg – Kikai (membership disputed)
tkn – Toku-No-Shima
Glottolog amam1245[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Amami language is a dialect cluster spoken in the northern portion of the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It constitutes the northern branch of the Ryukyuan languages, which are then part of the Japonic languages. The subdivision of Northern Ryukyuan is a matter of scholarly debate. The name of Amami is sometimes reserved for another hypothetical taxon that covers the entire Amami Islands. In this context, the Amami language concerned is referred to as Northern Amami.


The basic unit of language or language variety in Ryukyuan is a traditionally isolated village community called shima, where people used to live their entire life. Each shima has developed its own form of speech. People are well aware of differences in speeches between neighboring shima. Clustering languages of some 800 shima requires non-trivial scholarly work.[3] Understanding how they have evolved from a common ancestor is an even more challenging task.

At high level, linguists mostly agree to make the north–south division. In this framework, Northern Ryukyuan (or Amami–Okinawan) covers the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. The subdivision of Northern Ryukyuan, however, remains a matter of scholarly debate. Early studies such as the Okinawa-go jiten (1963) simply left its subgroups flat but several others have attempted to create intermediate groups. There are two major hypotheses regarding the number of primary branches of Northern Ryukyuan: two or three. The two-subdivision hypothesis, which was presented by Nakasone (1961), Hirayama (1964) and Nakamoto (1990) among others, divides Northern Ryukyuan into Amami and Okinawan. This means that Northern and Southern Amami forms a cluster. The three-subdivision hypothesis, on the other hand, treats Northern Amami as a primary branch that is contrasted with Southern Okinawan and a cluster of Northern Okinawan and Southern Amami. This hypothesis was proposed by Uemura (1972) as one of several possible groupings and was supported by Karimata (2000).[4]

The two-subdivision hypothesis is convenient for discussing modern languages since the supposed linguistic boundary corresponds to the centuries-old administrative boundary that today separates Kagoshima and Okinawa Prefectures. In addition, several isoglosses do group Northern and Southern Amami together. In Amami, word-medial /k/ is changed to /h/ or even dropped when it is surrounded by /a/, /e/ or /o/. This can rarely be observed in Okinawan dialects. Japanese /-awa/ becomes /-oː/ in Amami and /-aː/ in Okinawan.[4]

The three-subdivision hypothesis is more phylogenetically-oriented. A marked isogloss is the vowel systems. Japanese /e/ corresponds to /ï/ in Northern Amami while it was merged into /i/ in Southern Amami and Okinawan.[4] For more information, see Kunigami language#Classification.

The vowel system-based classification is not without complication. The northern three communities of Kikai Island share the seven-vowel system with Amami Ōshima and Tokunoshima while the rest is grouped with Southern Amami for their five-vowel systems. For this reason, Nakamoto (1990) subdivided Kikai:

  • Amami dialect
    • Northern Amami dialect: Northern Amami Ōshima, Southern Amami Ōshima and Northern Kikai
    • Southern Amami dialect: Southern Kikai, Okinoerabu and Yoron.

Based on other evidence, however, Karimata (2000) tentatively grouped Kikai dialects together.[4] Lawrence (2011) argued that lexical evidence supported the Kikai cluster although he refrained from determining its phylogenetic relationship with other Amami dialects.[5]

As of 2014, Ethnologue presents another two-subdivision hypothesis, in which Northern Amami–Okinawan is contrasted with Southern Amami–Okinawan, or a cluster of Southern Amami, Northern Okinawa and Southern Okinawa.[6]

As for the internal classification of (Northern) Amami, each island deserves its own group:

Amami Ōshima can be divided into Northern Amami Ōshima and Southern Amami Ōshima despite conflicting patterns of isoglosses.[7]


The Amami language as the language covering the northern portion of the Amami Islands is used by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.[8] Other sources do not use the name even if they support the three-subdivision hypothesis. Other names found in the literature include

  • Ōshima–Tokunoshima group by Uemura (1972), and
  • Amami–Tokunoshima dialects by Karimata (2000).

Supporters of the two-subdivision hypothesis reserve the name of Amami for the group covering the whole Amami Islands. For this reason, Nakamoto (1990) chose Northern Amami for the dialect group in question.[4]

Ethnologue, a linguistic splitter, does not offer a language code for its Northern Amami–Okinawan but counts 4 languages.[9]

  • Amami-Oshima, Northern
  • Amami-Oshima, Southern
  • Kikai
  • Toku-No-Shima

Folk terminology[edit]

The large language group of Amami is a product of comparative linguistics and is not recognized by its speakers. They have various words for "language," "dialect," and "style of speech." According to Osada Suma (1902–1998), the dialect of Yamatohama, Yamato Village of Amami Ōshima had /'jumuθa/ for language, /sima'jumuθa/ for the island's language(s) (i.e., Amami Ōshima) and /'jamaθoguci/ for the language of mainland Japan (i.e., Standard Japanese).[10] Another term /simaguci/ was absent from Osada's dictionary. According to Kurai Norio (b. 1923), a local historian from Amami Ōshima, shimaguchi was contrasted with Yamatoguchi while shimayumuta was associated with accentual and intonational differences among various shima.[11] Ebara Yoshimori (1905–1988), a folklorist from Naze, Amami Ōshima, conjectured that shimaguchi was of relatively recent origin, possibly made through analogy with Yamatoguchi. He thought that the dialect of one's home community was better referred to as shimayumuta.[12]

As for the language(s) of Kikai Island, whose membership is disputed, it was called /simajumita/ in the dialect of Aden.[13]

Geographic distribution[edit]

The dialect cluster of (Northern) Amami is spoken in the northern portion of the Amami Islands, Japan, that is, Amami Ōshima, Tokunoshima and disputed Kikai Island. As for the subdivision of Amami Ōshima, the distribution of Southern Amami Ōshima roughly corresponds to Setouchi Town.[7]


None of the languages has an official status. Ethnologue identifies the statuses of Northern Amami Oshima, Southern Amami Oshima, disputed Kikai and Toku-No-Shima (Tokunoshima) as 7 (Shifting).[9] The number of competent native speakers is not known, but native speakers can be found mostly among old people—as a result of Japanese language policy, the younger generations speak mostly Japanese as their first language.[citation needed]



Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal Place-
Stops and
p pj    b bj t    d tʃj k kj kw    ɡ ɡj ɡw ʔ ʔj ʔw Q
Flaps ɺ̠ ɺ̠j
Fricatives θ s sj    z zj çj x xj h hj hw
Nasals m mj ʔm n nj ʔn ʔnj N
Approximants j


There are seven distinct vowels in Amami, in addition to a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels.

   Short   Long 
 Front   Central   Back   Front   Central   Back 
 High  i ɨ u ɨː
 Mid  e ɘ o ɘː
 Low  a


  • Amami hōgen bunrui jiten (1977–1980) by Osada Suma, Suyama Nahoko and Fujii Misako. A dictionary for the dialect of Osada's home community, Yamatohama, Yamato Village of Amami Ōshima (part of Northern Amami Ōshima). Its phonemic romanization was designed by Hattori Shirō. He also supervised the early compilation process. This dictionary is partially available online as the Amami Dialect Dictionary [1].
  • Kikaijima hōgen-shū (1977[1941]) by Iwakura Ichirō. A dictionary for the author's home community, Aden, and a couple of other southern communities on Kikai Island of the Amami Islands (its membership disputed).


  1. ^ Northern Amami-Oshima at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Southern Amami-Oshima at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Kikai (membership disputed) at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Toku-No-Shima at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Amami". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Nishioka Satoshi 西岡敏 (2011). "Ryūkyūgo: shima goto ni kotonaru hōgen 琉球語: 「シマ」ごとに異なる方言". In Kurebito Megumi 呉人恵. Nihon no kiki gengo 日本の危機言語 (in Japanese). 
  4. ^ a b c d e Karimata Shigehisa 狩俣繁久 (2000). "Amami Okinawa hōgengun ni okeru Okinoerabu hōgen no ichizuke" 奄美沖縄方言群における沖永良部方言の位置づけ (Position of Okierabu Dialect in Northern Ryukyu Dialects)". Nihon Tōyō bunka ronshū 日本東洋文化論集 (in Japanese) (6): 43–69. 
  5. ^ Wayne Lawrence (2011). "Kikai-jima hōgen no keitōteki ichi ni tsuite 喜界島方言の系統的位置について". In Kibe Nobuko et al. Shōmetsu kiki hōgen no chōsa hozon no tame no sōgōteki kenkyū: Kikai-jima hōgen chōsa hōkokusho 消滅危機方言の調査・保存のための総合的研究: 喜界島方言調査報告書 (General Study for Research and Conservation of Endangered Dialects in Japan: Research Report on the Kikaijima Dialects ) (in Japanese). pp. 115–122. 
  6. ^ "Amami-Okinawan". SIL International. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Shibata Takeshi 柴田武 (1982). "Amami Ōshima no hōgen kukaku 奄美大島の方言区画". In Kyū gakkai rengō Amami chōsa iinkai 九学会連合奄美調査委員会. Amami 奄美 (in Japanese). pp. 150–156. 
  8. ^ "Amami". UNESCO. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  9. ^ a b "Northern Amami-Okinawan". SIL International. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  10. ^ Osada Suma 長田須磨, Suyama Nahoko 須山名保子 and Fujii Misako 藤井美佐子, ed. (1980). Amami hōgen bunrui jiten gekan 奄美方言分類辞典 下巻 (in Japanese). pp. 387–388. 
  11. ^ Kurai Norio 倉井則雄 (2004). "Shimayumuta imamukashi シマユムタいまむかし". In Matsumoto Hirotake 松本泰丈 and Tabata Chiaki 田畑千秋. Amami fukki 50 nen 奄美復帰50年 (in Japanese). 
  12. ^ Ebara Yoshimori 恵原義盛 (1987). Amami no hōgen sanpo II 奄美の方言さんぽII (in Japanese). pp. 10–11. 
  13. ^ Iwakura Ichirō 岩倉市郎 (1977[1941]). Kikai-jima hōgen-shū 喜界島方言集 (in Japanese). p. 119. 

Further reading[edit]

In Japanese