|Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture, Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture)|
Location of Ryukyu Islands
The Ryukyuan languages are the indigenous languages of the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago. Along with the Japanese language, they make up the Japonic language family. Although the Ryukyuan languages have sometimes been considered to be dialects of Japanese, they are not mutually intelligible with Japanese or even with each other. It is not known how many speakers of these languages remain, but language shift towards the use of Standard Japanese and dialects like Okinawan Japanese has resulted in these languages becoming endangered.
The Ryukyu Islands were populated from Mainland Japan in the first millennium CE, and since then relative isolation from the mainland allowed the Ryukyuan languages to diverge significantly from Japanese. Japanese hegemony began to increase in the 17th century, and in 1879 the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan. The Japanese government imposed a policy of forced assimilation, which continued through the post-World War II occupation of the Ryukyu Islands by the United States. This hastened the abandonment of the Ryukyuan languages by the younger generations, although recently there have been calls for language preservation by the Okinawa Prefectural Government.
Phonologically, the Ryukyuan languages have some cross-linguistically unusual features. Southern Ryukyuan languages have a number of syllabic consonants, including unvoiced syllabic fricatives (e.g. Ōgami Miyako /kss/ [ksː] 'breast'). Glottalized consonants are common (e.g. Yuwan Amami /ʔma/ [ˀma] 'horse'). Some Ryukyuan languages have phonemic central vowels, e.g. Yuwan Amami /kɨɨ/ 'tree'. Ikema Miyako has a voiceless nasal phoneme /n̥/. Many Ryukyuan languages, like Standard Japanese and most Japanese dialects, have contrastive pitch accent.
Ryukyuan languages are generally SOV, dependent-marking, modifier-head, nominative-accusative languages, like the Japanese language. Adjectives are generally bound morphemes, occurring either with noun compounding or using verbalization. Many Ryukyuan languages mark both nominatives and genitives with the same marker. This marker has the unusual feature of changing form depending on an animacy hierarchy. The Ryukyuan languages have topic and focus markers, which may take different forms depending on the sentential context. Ryukyuan also preserves a special verbal inflection for clauses with focus markers -- this unusual feature was also found in Old Japanese, but lost in Modern Japanese.
Classification and varieties 
The Ryukyuan languages belong to the Japonic language family, related to the Japanese language. The Ryukyuan languages are not mutually intelligible with Japanese -- in fact, they are not even mutually intelligible with each other -- and thus may be considered separate languages. However, for socio-political and ideological reasons, they have sometimes been classified as dialects of Japanese.
The Okinawan language is only 71% lexically similar to Tokyo Japanese. Even the southernmost Japanese dialect (Kagoshima dialect) is only 72% lexically similar to the northernmost Ryukyuan language (Amami). The Kagoshima dialect of Japanese, however, is 80% lexically similar to Standard Japanese.
Since the beginning of World War II, most mainland Japanese have regarded the Ryukyuan languages as a dialect or group of dialects of Japanese. During World War II, in an effort to build consciousness in people as subjects of the Japanese Empire, not only Ryukyuan, but also Korean, Palauan, and various other languages were referred to as "dialects" of Japanese.
There is general agreement among experts in the field that Ryukyuan varieties can be divided into 6 languages, conservatively.
|Language||Local name||Geographic distribution||Standard dialect|
|Kunigami||Yanbarukutuba||Kunigami (Yanbaru) district of Okinawa Island and the surrounding minor islands||Largest community is Nago|
|Okinawan||Uchinaaguchi||South and central Okinawa Island and the surrounding minor islands||Traditionally Shuri, modern Naha|
|Miyako||Myaakufutsu, Sumafutsu||Miyako Islands||Hirara|
|Yonaguni||Dunanmunui||Yonaguni Island in the Yaeyama district||Yonaguni|
Each Ryukyuan language is generally unintelligible to others in the same family. There is a wide diversity between them. For example, Yonaguni has only three vowels, whereas varieties of Amami may have up to 7, excluding long vowels. The table below illustrates the different phrases used in each language for "thank you" and "welcome", with standard Japanese provided for comparison.
Many speakers of the Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni languages may also be familiar with Okinawan since the language counts the most speakers and once acted as the regional standard. Speakers of Yonaguni are also likely to know the Yaeyama language due to its proximity. Since Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni are less urbanised than the Okinawan mainland, their languages are not declining as quickly as that of Okinawa proper, and some children continue to be brought up in these languages.
A widely-accepted hypothesis among linguists categorizes the Ryukyuan languages into two groups, Northern Ryukyuan (Amami–Okinawa) and Southern Ryukyuan (Miyako–Yaeyama).
There is no census data for the Ryukyuan languages, and the number of speakers is unknown. As of 2005, the total population of the Ryukyu region was 1,452,288, but fluent speakers are restricted to the older generation, generally in their 50's or older, and thus the true number of Ryukyuan speakers should be much lower.
Today, the number of children still being brought up with the Ryukyuan languages is becoming increasingly rare throughout the islands, and usually only occurs when the children are living with their grandparents. The Ryukyuan languages are still used in traditional cultural activities, such as folk music, folk dance, poem and folk plays. There is also a radio news program in the Naha dialect since 1960.
In Okinawa, people under the age of 40 have little proficiency in the native Okinawan language. A new mixed language, based on Japanese and Okinawan, has developed, known as ウチナーヤマトゥグチ (Uchinaa Yamatuguchi "Okinawan Japanese"). Although it has been largely ignored by linguists and language activists, this is the language of choice among the younger generation.
Similarly, the common language now used in everyday conversations in the Amami Ōshima is not the traditional Amami language, but rather a regional variation of Amami-accented Japanese, locally nicknamed トン普通語 (Ton Futsūgo, literally meaning "common potato language") by older speakers.
Japonic speakers are believed to have migrated to the Ryukyu Islands at some point between the 2nd and 9th centuries CE. However, Ryukyuan may have already begun to diverge from early Japanese before this migration, while its speakers still dwelt in the main islands of Japan. After this initial settlement, there was little contact between the main islands and the Ryukyu Islands for centuries, allowing Ryukyuan to diverge as a separate linguistic entity. This situation lasted until the Kyushu-based Satsuma Domain conquered the Ryukyu Islands in the 17th century.
The Ryukyu Kingdom retained autonomy until 1879, when it was invaded and annexed by Japan. The Japanese government adopted a policy of forcible assimilation, appointing mainland Japanese to political posts and suppressing native culture and language. Students caught speaking Ryukyuan were made to wear a dialect card (方言札 hougen fuda), a method of public humiliation.[nb 1] Students who regularly wore the card would receive corporal punishment. In the World War II era, speaking Ryukyuan was officially illegal, although in practice the older generation was still monolingual. This policy of linguicide lasted into the post-war US administration of the Ryukyu Islands.
Nowadays, in favor of multiculturalism, preserving Ryukyuan languages has become the policy of Okinawa Prefectural government. However, the situation is not very optimistic, since the vast majority of Okinawan children are now monolingual in Japanese.
Geographic distribution 
The Ryukyuan languages are spoken on the Ryukyu Islands, which comprise the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago There are four major island groups which make up the Ryukyu Islands: the Amami Islands, the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands. The former is in the Kagoshima Prefecture, while the latter three are in the Okinawa Prefecture.
Older Ryukyuan texts are often found on stone inscriptions. Tamaudun-no-Hinomon (玉陵の碑文 "Inscription of Tamaudun tomb") (1501), for example. Within the Ryukyuan Kingdom, official texts were written in kanji and hiragana, derived from Japan. However, this was a sharp contrast from Japan at the time, where classical Chinese writing was mostly used for official texts, only using hiragana for informal ones. Classical Chinese writing was sometimes used in Ryukyu as well, read in kundoku (Ryukyuan) or in Chinese. In Ryukyu, katakana was hardly used.
Commoners did not learn kanji. Omorosōshi (1531–1623), a noted Ryukyuan song collection, was mainly written in hiragana. Other than hiragana, they also used Suzhou numerals (suuchuuma すうちゅうま in Okinawan), derived from China. In Yonaguni island in particular, there was a different writing system called Kaidā logogram (カイダー字 or カイダーディー). Under Japanese influence, all of those numerals became obsolete.
Nowadays, perceived as "dialects", Ryukyuan languages are not often written. When they are, Japanese characters are used in an ad hoc manner. There are no standard orthographies for the modern languages. Sounds not distinguished in the Japanese writing system, such as glottal stops, are not properly written.
Ryukyuan languages often share many phonological features with Japanese, including a voicing opposition for obstruents, CV(C) syllable structure, moraic rhythm, and pitch accent. However, many individual Ryukyuan languages diverge significantly from this pan-Japonic base. For instance, Ōgami does not have phonemic voicing in obstruents, allows CCVC syllables, and has unusual syllabic consonants such as /kff/ [kf̩ː] ‘make’.
The Northern Ryukyuan (Amami-Okinawa) languages are notable for having glottalized consonants. Phonemically these are analyzed of consisting of a cluster /ʔ/ + C, where the consonant /ʔ/ consists of its own mora. For instance, in the Amami dialect Yuwan the word /ʔma/ [ˀma] 'horse' is bimoraic. Tsuken (Central Okinawan) restricts glottalization to glides and the vowels /a i/. Southern Ryukyuan mostly has little to no glottalization, with some exceptions (e.g. Yonaguni). For instance, the Irabu dialect of the Miyako language only allows glottalization with /t/ and /c/: /ttjaa/ [ˀtʲaː] 'then', /ccir/ [ˀtɕiɭ] 'pipe'.
- /nam/ [nam] 'wave'
- /mna/ [mna] 'shell'
- /mm/ [m:] 'potato'
- /pžtu/ [ps̩tu] 'man'
- /prrma/ [pɭ:ma] 'daytime'
- /us/ [us] 'cow'
- /ss/ [sː] 'dust'
- /kss/ [ksː] 'breast'
Ōgami even shows a three-way length distinction in fricatives, though across a syllable boundary:
- /fɑɑ/ [fɑː] ‘child’
- /f.fɑ/ [fːɑ] ‘grass’
- /ff.fɑ/ [fːːɑ] ‘comb=top’
Ikema (a Miyako dialect) has a voiceless moraic nasal phoneme /n̥/, which always precedes another nasal onset and assimilates its place of articulation to the following nasal.
Amami has high and mid central vowels. Yonaguni only has three contrasting vowels, /i/, /u/ and /a/.
The Ryukyuan languages operate based on the mora. Most Ryukyuan languages require words to be at least bimoraic, thus for example in Hateruma the underlying noun root /si/ 'hand' becomes /siː/ when it is an independent noun, though it remains as /si/ when attached to a clitic, e.g. /si=nu/.[nb 2] However, the syllable may still sometimes be relevant -- for instance, the Ōgami topic marker takes a different form after open syllables with short vowels:
- ‘staff’ /pɑu + =ɑ/ → /pɑu=iɑ/
- ‘vegetable’ /suu + =ɑ/ → /suu=iɑ/
- ‘person’ /pstu + =ɑ/ → /pstɑ=ɑ/
Ryukyuan languages typically have a pitch accent system where some mora in a word bears the pitch accent. They commonly either have two or three distinctive types of pitch accent which may be applied. The category of foot also has relevance to the accentual systems of some Ryukyuan languages, and some Miyako varieties have a cross-linguistically rare system of tonal foot. However, Irabu Miyakoan does not have lexical accent.
The Ryukyuan languages consistently distinguish between the word classes of nouns and verbs, distinguished by the fact that verbs take inflectional morphology. Property-concept (adjectival) words are generally bound morphemes. One strategy they use is compounding with a free-standing noun:
- imi- 'small' + ffa 'child' → imi-ffa 'small child'
- kjura- 'beautiful' + ʔkin 'kimono' → kjura-gin 'beautiful kimono'
Compounding is found in both Northern and Southern Ryukyuan, but is mostly absent from Hateruma (Yaeyama).
Another way property stems are used is by verbalization:
an kɨɨ=ja taa-sar-oo that tree=top tall-VLZ-SUPP 'That tree is supposed to be tall.'
Miyako is unique in having stand-alone adjectives. These may be formed by reduplication of the root, e.g. Irabu Miyako imi- 'small' → imii-imi 'small (adj.)'. They may also be compounded with a grammaticalized noun munu 'thing', e.g. Irabu imi-munu 'small (thing)'.
Ryukyuan languages are generally SOV, dependent-marking, modifier-head, nominative-accusative languages. They are also pro-drop languages. All of these features are shared with the Japanese language.
In many Ryukyuan languages, the nominative and genitive are marked identically, a system also found, for example, in Austronesian languages. However, Ryukyuan has the unusual feature that these markers vary based on an animacy hierarchy. Typically there are two markers of the form =ga and =nu, which are distinguished based on animacy and definiteness. In Yuwan Amami, for instance, the nominative is marked with =ga/=nu and the genitive by =ga/=nu/=Ø based on the following hierarchy:
|human pronouns||demonstratives||elder kinship terms||other nouns|
|human pronouns, adnominal||demonstratives||human names||elder kinship terms||other nouns|
In the Miyako varieties, the object in a dependent clause of clause-chaining constructions has a special marker, homophonous to a topic marker. This might even be interpreted as another function of the topic marker.
pïtu=Ø budur-ja-ta-n person=core dance-prf-past-rls 'People danced.'
aboa=Ø ija=Ø mir-i bir-ja-ta-n mother=ore father=core look=med prog-prf-past-rls '(My) mother was looking at (my) father.'
The Ryukyuan languages mark both topic and focus grammatically. The typical form of the topic marker is =(j)a, or in Southern Ryukyuan =ba; the typical focus marker is =du. In some Ryukyuan languages there are many focus markers with different functions; for instance, Irabu has =du in declarative clauses, =ru in yes-no interrogative clauses, and =ga in wh-interrogative clauses. The focus markers trigger a special verbal inflection -- this typologically unusual focus construction, known as kakari-musubi, was also found in Old Japanese, but has been lost in Modern Japanese.
Examples from Yuwan Amami:
kurɨ=ba=du jum-ju-i this=acc-foc read=ipfv-npst '(I) read this.'
uroo kun hon=ba=du jum-jur-ui? 2sg.nhon this book=acc-foc read=ipfv-foc.ynq 'Will you read this book?' (yes-no question)
uroo nuu=ba=ga jum-jur-u? 2sg.nhon.top what=acc-foc read=ipfv-foc.whq 'What will you read?' (wh-question)
While in many Japonic languages this special inflection is often identical to the verbal inflection in relative clauses, in Yuwan Amami is different (the relative inflection is -n/-tan). There is some variation among the Ryukyuan languages as to the form of kakari-musubi -- for example, in Irabu Miyako a focus marker blocks a specific verb form, rather than triggering a special inflection.
- This punishment was taken from the 19th French language policy of Vergonha, especially by Jules Ferry, where the regional languages such as Occitan (Provençal), Catalan, or Breton were suppressed in favor of French; see also Welsh Not, for a similar system in Britain. The same system was also used in other parts of Japan, such as the Tōhoku region.
- In fact, in Irabu Miyako lengthening occurs even before a clitic, thus underlying /ti/ 'hand' becomes /tiː/ independently and /tiː=nu/ with attached clitic. Shimoji & Pellard (2010:6)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:1)
- 沖縄語辞典 (Okinawan dictionary). “前書き” (Preface). 国立国語研究所 1998
- 言語学大辞典セレクション：日本列島の言語 (Selection from the Encyclopædia of Linguistics: The Languages of the Japanese Archipelago). "琉球列島の言語" (The Languages of the Ryukyu Islands). 三省堂 1997
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:2)
- Sugita (2007:245)
- Sugita (2007:244)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:4)
- Takara (2007:14)
- Takara (2007:15)
-  
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:5)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:118)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:170)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:6)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:119)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:7)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:9)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:10)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:52)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:11)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:8)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:75)
- Shimoji & Pellard (2010:12)
- Shimoji, Michinori; Pellard, Thomas, eds. (2010). An Introduction to Ryukyuan languages. Tokyo: ILCAA. ISBN 9784863370722. Retrieved August 21, 2012.
- Sugita, Yuko (2007). "Language revitalization or language fossilization? Some suggestions for language documentation from the viewpoint of interactional linguistics". Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory. London: SOAS. ISBN 978-0-7286-0382-0. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
- Takara, Ben (February 2007). "On Reclaiming a Ryukyuan Culture". Connect (Irifune: IMADR) 10 (4). Retrieved August 21, 2012.
Further reading 
- Sanseido (1997). 言語学大辞典セレクション：日本列島の言語 (Selection from the Encyclopædia of Linguistics: The Languages of the Japanese Archipelago). "琉球列島の言語" (The Languages of the Ryukyu Islands).
- Ashworth, D. E. (1975). A generative study of the inflectional morphophonemics of the Shuri dialect of Ryukyuan. Thesis (Ph. D.)--Cornell University, 1973.
- Heinrich, Patrick (2004): Language Planning and Language Ideology in the Ryūkyū Islands, in: Language Policy 3.2, (2004): 153-179.
- Heinrich, Patrick, Shinsho Miyara, Michinori Shimoji, eds. 2014. Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Serafim, L. A. (1985). Shodon: the prehistory of a Northern Ryukyuan dialect of Japanese. [S.l: s.n.
- Shimabukuro, Moriyo. 2007. The accentual history of the Japanese and Ryukyuan languages: a reconstruction. Languages of Asia series, v. 2. Folkestone, Kent: Global Oriental. ISBN 978-1-901903-63-8
- Uemura, Yukio, and Wayne P. Lawrence. 2003. The Ryukyuan language. Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim (Series), A4-018. Osaka, Japan: ELPR.
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