Kunigami language

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山原言葉/ヤンバルクトゥーバ Yanbaru Kutuuba
Native to Japan
Region Northern portion of Okinawa Island and some surrounding islands plus Okinoerabu Island and Yoron Island, and Kikai Island (disputed), of the Southern Amami Islands
Native speakers
5,000 (for Northern Okinawan)  (2004)[1]
  • Ryukyuan
    • Northern Ryukyuan (Amami–Okinawan)
      • Kunigami
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
xug – Kunigami (Northern Okinawan only)
okn – Oki-No-Erabu
yox – Yoron
kzg – Kikai (membership disputed)
  Northern Okinawan
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Kunigami language (山原言葉/ヤンバルクトゥーバ Yanbaru Kutuuba) is a dialect cluster spoken in southwestern Japan. It is part of the Ryukyuan languages, which are then part of the Japonic languages. The subdivision of Northern Ryukyuan is a matter of scholarly debate. The so-called Kunigami language, together with (Southern) Okinawan and (Northern) Amami, represents the three-subdivision hypothesis, which is phylogenetically-oriented rather than aimed at clustering modern languages.

The language is also known as the Okinoerabu-Yoron-Northern Okinawa dialects (沖永良部与論沖縄北部諸方言 Okinoerabu Yoron Okinawa Hokubu Shohōgen?), as the traditional languages of Okinoerabujima (島ムニ Shimamuni) and Yoronjima (ユンヌフトゥバ Yunnu Futuba) are considered dialects of Kunigami.


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.[2] 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.[3]

In the Okinawa-go jiten (1963), Uemura Yukio simply left its subgroups flat:

  • Amami–Okinawan dialect group
    • Kikaijima dialect
    • Amami Ōshima Hontō dialect
      • Northern dialect
      • Southern dialect
    • Tokunoshima dialect
    • Okinoerabu dialect
      • Eastern dialect
      • Western dialect
    • Yoronjima dialect
    • Northern Okinawan dialect (Kunigami dialect)
    • Southern Okinawan dialect

Note that Kunigami is used as an alias for Northern Okinawan and excludes Okinoerabu and Yoron. As a place name, Kunigami refers to the northern part of Okinawa Island and never includes Okinoerabu and Yoron of the Amami Islands.

Several others have attempted to create intermediate groups. One of two major hypotheses divides Northern Ryukyuan into Amami and Okinawan, drawing a boundary between Amami's Yoron Island and Okinawa Island. The same boundary was also set by early studies including Nakasone (1961) and Hirayama (1964). Nakamoto (1990) offered a detailed argument for it. He proposed the following classification.

  • Northern Ryukyuan dialect
    • Amami dialect
      • Northern Amami
      • Southern Amami
    • Okinawan dialect
      • Northern Okinawan
      • Southern Okinawan

The other hypothesis, the three-subdivision hypothesis, is proposed by Uemura (1972). He first presented a flat list of dialects and then discussed possible groupings, one of which is as follows:

  • Amami–Okinawan dialect group
    • Ōshima–Tokunoshima group
    • Okinoerabu–Northern Okinawan group
    • South–Central Okinawan dialects

The difference between the two hypotheses is whether Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan form a cluster. Karimata (2000) investigated Southern Amami in detail and found inconsistency among isoglosses. Nevertheless, he favored the three-subdivision hypothesis:

  • Amami–Okinawa dialect group
    • Amami–Tokunoshima dialects
    • Okinoerabu–Yoron-Northern Okinawan dialects
    • South–Central Okinawan dialects[3]

Karimata (2000)'s proposal is mostly on phonetic grounds. Standard Japanese /e/ corresponds to /ï/ in Northern Amami while it was merged into /i/ in Southern Amami and Okinawan.

eye hair front
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima) kʻï
Shodon, Setouchi mïː kʻïː mëː
Inokawa, Tokunoshima mïː kʻïː mëː
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima) mïː kʻïː mëː
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) miː kʻiː meː
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) miː kʻiː meː
Gushiken, China (Western Okinoerabu) miː kiː meː
Jana, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa) miː kʻiː meː
Shuritonokura, Naha (Southern Okinawa) miː kiː meː

Word-initial /k/ was changed to /h/ before certain vowels in Southern Amami and several Northern Okinawan dialects while Northern Amami uses glottalized /kʼ/. The boundary between Northern and Southern Amami is clear while Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan have no clear isogloss.

Japanese /ka/ /ko/ /ke/ /ku/ /ki/
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima)
Shodon, Setouchi
Inokawa, Tokunoshima
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima)
Shitooke, Kikai (Northern Kikai) h
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) h ʧ
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) h ʧ
Wadomari, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) h ʧ
Gushiken, China (Okinoerabu) h
Gusuku, Yoron h k
Benoki, Kunigami (Northern Okinawa) h k
Ōgimi, Ōgimi (Northern Okinawa) h k
Yonamine, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa) h
Kushi, Nago (Northern Okinawa)
Onna, Onna (Northern Okinawa)
Iha, Ishikawa (Southern Okinawa) k ʧ
Shuri, Naha (Southern Okinawa) k ʧ

The pan-Japonic shift of /p → ɸ → h/ can be observed at various stages in Northern Ryukyuan. Unlike Northern Amami and Southern Okinawan, Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan tend to maintain labiality although the degrees of preservation vary considerably.

Japanese /ha/ /he/ /ho/ /hu/ /hi/
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima) h
Shodon, Setouchi h
Inokawa, Tokunoshima h
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima) h
Shitooke, Kikai (Northern Kikai) ɸ
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) ɸ h ɸ
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) ɸ
Gushiken, China (Western Okinoerabu) ɸ h ɸ h
Gusuku, Yoron ɸ
Benoki, Kunigami (Northern Okinawa) ɸ
Ōgimi, Ōgimi (Northern Okinawa) ɸ ɸ
Yonamine, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa)
Kushi, Nago (Northern Okinawa) ɸ
Onna, Onna (Northern Okinawa)
Iha, Ishikawa (Southern Okinawa) h
Shuri, Naha (Southern Okinawa) h ɸ h ɸ

These shared features appear to support the three-subdivision hypothesis. However, Karimata also pointed out several features that 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/ corresponds to /-oː/ in Amami and /-aː/ in Okinawan. Uemura (1972) also argued that if the purpose of classification was not of phylogeny, the two-subvdivision hypothesis of Amami and Okinawan was also acceptable.

The membership of Kikai Island remains highly controversial. The northern three communities of Kikai Island share the seven-vowel system with Amami Ōshima and Tokunoshima while the rest is grouped with Okinoerabu and Yoron 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.[3] Lawrence (2011) argued that lexical evidence supported the Kikai cluster although he refrained from determining its phylogenetic relationship with other Amami dialects.[4]

As of 2014, Ethnologue presents another two-subdivision hypothesis: it groups Southern Amami, Northern Okinawa and Southern Okinawa to form Southern Amami–Okinawan, which is contrasted with Northern Amami–Okinawan. It also identifies Kikai as Northern Amami–Okinawan.[5]


The existence of the so-called Kunigami language depends on the three-subdivision hypothesis. Those who do not support the hypothesis do not gave a name to the supposed group. Interestingly, Uemura, a proponent of the three-subdivision hypothesis, only recognized two (Northern and Southern Ryukyuan) or five (Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni) languages. In other words, he did not identify Kunigami as a language but called the cluster as the Okinoerabu–Northern Okinawan group. Karimata (2000) used the label Okinoerabu–Yoron–Northern Okinawan dialects.[3] The name of the Kunigami language is used by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.[6]

Ethnologue, which does not support the three-subdivision hypothesis, reserves the name of Kunigami for Northern Okinawan. Okinoerabu (Oki-No-Erabu) and Yoron are treated as separate languages.[5]

Folk terminology[edit]

The large language group of Kunigami is a product of comparative linguistics and is not recognized by its speakers. They have various words for "language," "dialect," and "style of speech." For example, linguist Nakasone Seizen (1907–1995) stated that the dialect of his home community Yonamine, Nakijin Village of Northern Okinawa had (corresponding Standard Japanese word forms in parentheses): /ku⸢cii/ (kuchi), /hutˀuu⸢ba/ (kotoba) and /munu⸢ʔii/ (monoii). The language of one's own community was referred to as /simaagu⸢cii/ or /sima(a)ku⸢tˀuu⸣ba/.[7] The Yonamine dialect was part of Nakijin's western dialect called /ʔiriɴsimaa kutˀuba/.[8] The northern part of Okinawa was colloquially known as Yanbaru and hence its language was sometimes called /'jaɴ⸢ba⸣rukutˀuuba/.[9]

Takahashi Takayo (b. 1967), a cultural anthropologist from Okinoerabu Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, stated that the language of each community or the island as a whole was called shimamuni. Each language variety within the island had distinctive characteristics. The language of the community of Kunigami on the island (not to be confused with Northern Okinawa), for example, was referred to as Kunigami-bushi. It retained mutually intelligiblity with the languages of the island's other communities. It is said that Okinoerabu was mutually unintelligible with neighboring Yoron and Tokunoshima.[10]

According to Kiku Hidenori, who leads conservation activities, people of Yoron Island, Kagoshima Prefecture call their language "Yunnu Futuba."[11] More precisely, a dictionary compiled by his mother Kiku Chiyo (b. 1927) gives /juɴnuhu⸢tuba/ as the word form of her home community, Mugiya-higashiku. Other words she collected include /juɴnu⸢juɴ/ (Yoron accent) and /nizjaɴcju⸢juɴ/ (accent of people of Mugiya-higashiku and Mugiya-nishiku).[12] Yamada Minoru (b. 1916) provides the word forms of the community of Chabana: /⸢ju⸣ɴnu ⸢fu⸣tuba/ and /⸢ʃi⸣ma ⸢fu⸣tuba/ (the island's language).[13]

As for the language(s) of Kikai Island, whose membership is disputed, it was called /simajumita/ in the dialect of Aden (no accent information is provided).[14]

Geographic distribution[edit]

Northern Okinawan is spoken in the northern part of Okinawa Island and some surrounding islands. On Okinawa Island, the boundary between Northern and Southern Okinawan can be drawn between Ishikawa, Uruma City and Yaka, Kin Town on the east coast and between Onna, Onna Village and Tancha, Onna Village on the west coast. This corresponds to the administrative boundary between Yuntanza Magiri and Kin Magiri before Onna Magiri was created in 1673. Karimata conjectured that the linguistic boundary could be dated back at least to the Sanzan period, when a polity named Sanhoku supposedly controlled the modern-day Kunigami region.[3] Small islands around Okinawa Island show complex patterns. Nakamoto labeled the south–central islands of Kudaka and Tsuken as Northern Okinawan-like while he regarded the northern islands of Iheya and Izena as pretty Southern Okinawan-like.[15]

The languages of Okinoerabu, Yoron and Kikai (disputed) are spoken on the corresponding islands of Kagoshima Prefecture. The shared characteristics of these languages with Northern Okinawan are likely to be rooted in contacts prior to 1609, when Satsuma Domain of southern Kyūshū put the Amami Islands under direct control.[3]


None of the languages has an official status. Ethnologue identifies the statuses of Kunigami (Northern Okinawan), Oki-No-Erabu (Okinoerabu) and Yoron as 7 (Shifting).[5] The younger generation mostly speaks Japanese as their first language.


The Kunigami language presents some unique phonological characteristics that set it apart from other Japonic languages. One of the most notable characteristics of Kunigami phonology is the existence of a full series of "tensed" or "glottalized" consonants, including stops, nasals, and glides. Kunigami is also notable for the presence of an /h/ phoneme separate from /p/, which is believed to be the historical source of /h/ in modern dialects of the Japanese language. Thus, for example, the Nakijin dialect of Kunigami has /haʔkáí/ (“a light, a lamp, lamplight; a shōji, a translucent paper screen, a translucent paper sliding door”; accented vowels indicate morae pronounced with a high tone), which is cognate with Japanese /akárí/ (“light, bright light, a ray of light, a beam of light; a light, a lamp, lamplight”); the Kunigami form is distinguished from its Japanese cognate by the initial /h/, glottalized /ʔk/, and elision of Proto-Japonic *r before *i. The Kunigami language also makes distinctions in certain word pairs, such as Nakijin dialect /ʔkumuú/ (cloud) and /húbu/ (spider), which both appear as /kúmo/ in Japanese.[citation needed]


The phonology of the Mugiya dialect on Yoron Island, Kagoshima Prefecture is based on Hirayama et al. (1969).[16]


Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal Moraic
Nasal m n  [Q]
Stop p b t d k ɡ ʔ
Fricative s z h
Approximant j w
Flap r


  • The null phoneme /'/ may be added. It is contrasted with glottal /h/ and /ʔ/.
  • /h/ is [ç] before /i/, and [ɸ] before /u/. /hwa/ is phonetically realized as [ɸa].
  • /si/, /se/ and /ʧu/ is realized as [ʃi], [ʃe], and [tsu], respectively.
  • [ʧa], [ʧu] and [ʧo] are phonemically analyzed as /ʧja/, /ʧju/ and /ʧjo/, respectively.
  • [ʃa], [ʃu] and [ʃo] are phonemically analyzed as /sja/, /sju/ and /sjo/, respectively.


The Yoron language has /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/.

Correspondences to Standard Japanese[edit]

Only major sound correspondences are listed.

  • Standard Japanese /e/ is merged into /i/.
  • Standard Japanese /o/ is merged into /u/.
  • Yoron /e/ and /o/ are of secondary origin and mostly correspond to Standard Japanese diphthongs.
  • Yoron retains /p/ while it has changed to /h/ in Standard Japanese.
  • Standard Japanese /ʧu/, /su/ and /zu/ correspond to /ʧi/ [ʧi], /si/ [ʃi] and /zi/ [dʒi].
  • Standard Japanese /k/ shows complex correspondences. Standard Japanese /ka/ corresponds to both Yoron /ka/ and /ha/. /ki/ corresponds to /ki/ and /si/. /ke/ corresponds to /si/ with some exceptions. /ku/ corresponds to /hu/.
  • Standard Japanese /ni/ corresponds to Yoron /mi/.
  • Yoron /r/ is dropped when it is surrounded by a vowel and /i/.
  • Standard Japanese /o/ that comes from earlier /wo/ corresponds to Yoron /hu/.

Eastern Okinoerabu[edit]

The phonology of the Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) dialect on Okinoerabu Island, Kagoshima Prefecture is based on Hirayama et al. (1969).[16]


Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal Moraic
Nasal m n  [Q]
Stop p b t d k ɡ ʔ
Affricate tʃˀ
Fricative s z h
Approximant j w
Flap r


  • The null phoneme /'/ may be added. It is contrasted with glottal /h/ and /ʔ/. A minimal pair is /ʔiː/ /[ʔiː]/ (stomach), /hiː/ /[çiː]/ (day) and /'iː/ /[iː]/ (soft rush).
  • /kˀ/, /tˀ/ /ʧˀ/ are in process of being merged into /k/, /t/ and /ʧ/, respectively.
  • /h/ is [ç] before /i/ and /j/, and [ɸ] before /u/.
  • /p/ is rare. The sole syllable attested is /pa/.
  • /si/ and /ʧu/ is realized as [ʃi] and [tsu], respectively.
  • /z/ is [dz] before /a/ and /o/ while it is [dʒ] before /i/ and /j/.
  • [ʃa], [ʃu] and /ʃo/ is phonemically analyzed as /sja/, /sju/, /sjo/, respectively.
  • [ʧa], [ʧu] and /ʧo/ is phonemically analyzed as /ʧja/, /ʧju/, /ʧjo/, respectively.


Eastern Okinoerabu has /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/.

Correspondences to Standard Japanese[edit]

Only major sound correspondences are listed.

  • Standard Japanese /e/ is merged into /i/.
  • Standard Japanese /o/ is merged into /u/.
  • Eastern Okinoerabu /e/ and /o/ are of secondary origin and mostly correspond to Standard Japanese diphthongs.
  • Standard Japanese /ʧu/, /su/ and /zu/ correspond to /ʧi/ [ʧi], /si/ [ʃi] and /zi/ [dʒi].
  • Standard Japanese /k/ corresponds to /h/ by default. /ki/ and /ku/ are usually identical, but some words have /ʧi/ for Standard Japanese /ki/. /kˀ/ is occasionally used too.
  • Eastern Okinoerabu /r/ is dropped when it is surrounded by a vowel and /i/.


One notable difference in the use of certain morphological markers between Kunigami language and Standard Japanese is the use of the /-sa/ form as an adverb in Kunigami: e.g. Nakijin dialect /tuusá panaaɽíʔtun/, which is equivalent to Standard Japanese toókú hanárete irú ("It is far away"). In Standard Japanese, the /-ku/ form is used adverbially, while the /-sa/ form is used exclusively to derive abstract nouns of quality ("-ness" forms) from adjectival stems.[citation needed]


  • Okinawa Nakijin hōgen jiten (1983) by Nakasone Seizen. A dictionary for the dialect of Yonamine, Nakijin Village of Northern Okinawa. Since it is home to the professional linguist Nakasone Seizen, this dialect is well studied.
  • Yorontō-go jien (1995) by Yamada Minoru. The author is from Chabana, Yoron Island of the Amami Islands but also collected data from other communities on the island.
  • Yoron hōgen jiten (2005) by Kiku Chiyo and Takahashi Shunzō. A dictionary for Kiku's home community, Mugiya-higashiku, Yoron Island of the Amami Islands.
  • 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. ^ Kunigami (Northern Okinawan only) at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Oki-No-Erabu at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Yoron at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Kikai (membership disputed) at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ 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). 
  3. ^ a b c d e f 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. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ a b c "Amami-Okinawan". SIL International. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  6. ^ "Kunigami". UNESCO. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  7. ^ "Nakijin Dialect Dictionary: kotoba" (in Japanese). Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  8. ^ "Nakijin Dialect Dictionary: Nakijin-hōgen gaisetsu" (in Japanese). Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  9. ^ "Nakijin Dialect Dictionary: yanbaru kotoba" (in Japanese). Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  10. ^ Takahashi Takayo 高橋孝代 (2006). "Okinoerabu-jima no gaikan 沖永良部島の概観". Kyōkaisei no jinruigaku 境界性の人類学 (in Japanese). pp. 65–111. 
  11. ^ Kiku Hidenori 菊秀史 (2011). "Yoron no kotoba de hanasō 与論の言葉で話そう". Nihon no hōgen no tayōsei o mamoru tame ni 日本の方言の多様性を守るために (in Japanese). pp. 12–23. 
  12. ^ Kiku Chiyo 菊千代 and Takahashi Shunzō 高橋俊三 (205). Yoro hōgen jiten 与論方言辞典 (in Japanese). 
  13. ^ Yamada Minoru 山田實 (1995). Yorontō-go jiten 与論島語辞典 (in Japanese). 
  14. ^ Iwakura Ichirō 岩倉市郎 (1977[1941]). Kikai-jima hōgen-shū 喜界島方言集 (in Japanese). p. 119. 
  15. ^ Nakamoto Masachie 中本正智 (1976). "Okinawa hōgen no on'in 沖縄方言の音韻". Ryūkyū hōgen on'in no kenkyū 琉球方言音韻の研究 (in Japanese). pp. 275–311. 
  16. ^ a b Hirayama Teruo 平山輝男, Ōshima Ichirō 大島一郎 and Nakamoto Masachie 中本正智 (1969). "Gengo 言語". In Hirayama Teruo 平山輝男. Satsunan shotō no sōgōteki kenkyū 薩南諸島の総合的研究 (in Japanese). pp. 235–478. 

Further reading[edit]