Amami language

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島口/シマユムタ Shimayumuta
Northern Amami Oshima linguistic sameness.svg
Map of Northern Amami Ōshima, Kagoshima Prefecture. Each orange area indicates where people think the same language as theirs is spoken.
Native to Japan
Region Northern portion of the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture
Native speakers
ca. 17,000  (2004)[1]
plus unknown number of Kikai
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
ryn – Northern Amami-Oshima
ams – Southern Amami-Oshima
kzg – Kikai (membership disputed)
tkn – Toku-No-Shima
Glottolog nucl1644[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 (Japanese: 島口, シマユムタ, Shimayumuta) is spoken in the Amami Islands south of Kyūshū. 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. Amami is a Ryukyuan language, most closely related to Okinawan. As it does not have recognition within Japan as a language, it is officially known as the Amami dialect (奄美方言 Amami Hōgen?) or the Amami-Tokunoshima Dialects (奄美徳之島諸方言 Amami Tokunoshima Shohōgen?).


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, Amami–Okinawan covers the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. The subdivisions of Amami–Okinawan, however, remain 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 Amami–Okinawan: two or three. The two-subdivision hypothesis, which was presented by Nakasone (1961), Hirayama (1964) and Nakamoto (1990) among others, divides Amami–Okinawan into Amami and Okinawan. This means that Northern and Southern Amami form 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. Standard 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. Standard Japanese /e/ corresponds to /ï/ in Northern Amami while it was merged into /i/ in Southern Amami and Okinawan.[4]

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 is defined as an endangered language in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.[8] Other sources do not use the name "Amami language" 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]

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 (no accent information is provided).[13]

Geographic distribution[edit]

Northern Amami Ōshima 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]



Consonants, disregarding gemination, coda nasals, and /Cj/ sequences, are:[citation needed][It appears this is just a conversion from the orthography]

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops and
p    b t    d k kw    ɡ ɡw ʔ
Flaps ɺ̠
Fricatives θ s    z x h hw
Nasals m ʔm n ʔn
Approximants j ʔj w ʔw


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

 Front   Central   Back 
 High  i ɨ u
 Mid  e ɘ o
 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 (18th ed., 2015)
    Southern Amami-Oshima at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Kikai (membership disputed) at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Toku-No-Shima at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nuclear Amami". Glottolog. 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 ) (PDF) (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.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

Further reading[edit]

In Japanese