Amami Ōshima language

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Amami Ōshima
島口/シマユムタ Shimayumuta
Native to Japan
Region Amami Ōshima and neighboring islands, Kagoshima Prefecture
Native speakers
ca. 12,000 (2004)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
ryn – Northern
ams – Southern (Setouchi)
Glottolog oshi1235[2]
Tan in south: Southern Amami.
Green, pink, and tan in north: Northern Amami. Each orange area indicates where people characterize the local dialect as being the same language as they speak.
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 or languages (Japanese: 島口, シマユムタ, Shimayumuta), also known as Amami Ōshima or simply Ōshima ('Big Island'), is a Ryukyuan language spoken in the Amami Islands south of Kyūshū. The southern variety of Setouchi township may be a distinct language more closely related to Okinawan than it is to northern Ōshima.

As Amami does not have recognition within Japan as a language, it is officially known as the Amami dialect (奄美方言 Amami Hōgen?).


The number of competent native speakers is not known, but native speakers are found mostly among old people—as a result of Japanese language policy, the younger generations speak mostly Japanese as their first language. Estimates run around 10,000 for the northern variety and 2,000 for the southern (Setouchi) variety.[1]


Linguists mostly agree on the validity of the Amami–Okinawan languages as a family. The subdivisions of Amami–Okinawan, however, remain a matter of scholarly debate, with two major hypotheses:

  • In a two-branch hypothesis, posited by Nakasone (1961), Hirayama (1964) and Nakamoto (1990), among others, Amami–Okinawan divides into Amami and Okinawan, with the northern and southern varieties of Amami Ōshima both falling within the Amami branch.
  • In a three-subdivision hypothesis, proposed by Uemura (1972) as one of several possible classifications and supported by Karimata (2000),[3] Northern Amami Ōshima (perhaps together with Kikai) and Central/Southern Okinawa form two branches, while the intervening varieties – Southern Amami Ōshima (Setouchi), Northern Okinawan, and the dialects/languages of the islands between – form a third branch. In this proposal, Amami Ōshima does not constitute a single language, and the northern and southern varieties are not even more closely related to each other than they are to other Ryukyuan languages.

The two-subdivision hypothesis is convenient for discussing the modern languages since the posited 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.[3]

The three-subdivision hypothesis is more phylogenetically-oriented. A marked isogloss is the vowel systems. Standard Japanese /e/ corresponds to /ɨ/ in Northern Amami Ōshima while it was merged into /i/ in Southern Amami Ōshima through Okinawan.[3]

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 to the south, while the rest of Kikai falls in with Okinoerabu and Yoron even further south. Based on other evidence, however, Karimata (2000)[3] and Lawrence (2011)[4] tentatively group Kikai dialects together.


Amami Ōshima can be divided into Northern Amami Ōshima and Southern Amami Ōshima despite conflicting patterns of isoglosses.[5] The distribution of Southern Amami Ōshima roughly corresponds to Setouchi Town, including offshore islands. The rest of the main island speaks Northern Amami Ōshima.[5]

Shibata et al. (1984) takes a lexicostatistic approach to subgrouping Northern Amami Ōshima dialects:[6]

In addition, Sani, a small community on a peninsula at the northern tip of the island, is known to have distinct phonology.

Based on phonetic and lexical evidence, Shibata et al. (1984) subdivide Southern Amami Ōshima into

  • Higashi (Eastern) Magiri
  • Nishi (Western) Magiri

reflecting the administrative divisions during the Edo period. While Uke Island belonged to the Nishi Magiri district, its dialect is closer to that of Higashi Magiri.[6]

Southern Amami Ōshima contrasts with Northern Amami Ōshima in its final unreleased consonants. For example, "shrimp" is [ʔip] in Ōshama[clarification needed] (Southern) and [ʔibi] in Tatsugō (Northern); "blade" is [katna] in Ōshama and [katana] in Tatsugō.[7]


According to Osada Suma (1902–1998), the dialect of Yamatohama, Yamato Village of Amami Ōshima had yumuta /ˈjumuθa/ for 'language', shimayumuta /simaˈjumuθa/ for 'island language' (i.e. Amami Ōshima) and Yamatoguchi /ˈjamaθoɡuci/[clarification needed] for the language of mainland Japan (i.e. Standard Japanese).[8] Another term, shimaguchi /simaguci/, is absent from Osada's dictionary. According to Kurai Norio (b. 1923), a local historian from Amami Ōshima, shimaguchi contrasted with Yamatoguchi, while shimayumuta was associated with accentual and intonational differences among various shima (villages).[9] 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.[10]



Historically, vowel-initial words acquired an epenthetic glottal stop. When *wo and *we later became /u/ and /i/ without an initial glottal stop, the glottal stop elsewhere became phonemic. When still later initial consonants were elided, an initial glottal stop merged with the following consonant, establishing a series of "glottalized" consonants. While the nasals are truly glottalized, the "glottalized" stops are merely tenuis [C˭], contrasting with the default aspirated stops [Cʰ].[11]

Consonant phonemes
"N" = Northern (Naze dialect[12]), "S" = Southern (Koniya dialect[13])
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal (N) m (N) n 
Stop (S) (N) b d ɡ ʔ
Affricate t͡ʃʰ t͡ʃ˭
Fricative s (z) h
Approximant j w
Flap r[clarification needed]

In the southern Shodon dialect (just off Kakeroma Island), *pʰ has become /ɸ/, and /z/ is only found in recent loans from Japanese.

Closed syllables[edit]

In the southern Shodon dialect, the consonants /p t tɕ k ɕ r m n/ occur at the end of a word or syllable, as in /k˭upʰ/ 'neck', /sakʰra/ 'cherry blossom' and /t˭ɨrɡjo/ 'well'.[14] Other dialects are similar. Final consonants are usually the result of eliding high front vowels. Elision is partly conditioned by pitch accent. In Shodon dialect, for example, the noun with accent classes 2.1 and 2.2[clarification needed] are realized as [⎞mɨtʰ][clarification needed] (water, 2.1) and [⎞ʔiʃ][clarification needed] (stone, 2.2) while 2.3-5 nouns retain final vowels, e.g. [mi⎛miː][clarification needed] (ear, 2.3), [ha⎛riː][clarification needed] (needle, 2.4) and [ha⎛ruː][clarification needed] (spring, 2.5).[15]


There are seven distinct vowel qualities in Amami Ōshima, in addition to a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels and in some dialects oral and nasal vowels.[14]

Ōshima vowel qualities
 Front   Central   Back 
 High  i ɨ u
 Mid  e ɘ o
 Low  a

/ɨ/ and /ɘ/ are generally transcribed "ï" and "ë" in the literature.

/ɨ/ derives from *e and merges with /i/ after alveolar consonants. /ɘ/ mostly derives from a merger of *ae and *ai, and so is usually long. In several northern dialects, the nasal vowels /ã õ ɨ̃ ɘ̃/ developed from the loss of a word-medial /m/:

*pama > pʰaã 'shore', *jome > juw̃ɨ̃ 'bride', *kimo > k˭joõ 'liver', *ɕima > ɕoõ 'island', *mimidzu > mɘɘ̃dza 'earthworm'

Kasarisani dialect has 11 oral and nasal vowels, while Sani dialect adds long vowels for a total of 18, the largest inventory of any Ryukyuan dialect.


  • 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].
  • The Phonetics and Vocabulary of the Sani Dialect (Amami Oshima Island, Ryukyuan language group)' (2003) by Karimata Shigehisa. Sani is known as a language island.
  • 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).
  • Samuel E. Martin, 1970. Shodon: A Dialect of the Northern Ryukyus
  • Shigehisa Karimata, 1995–1996. The Phonemes of the Shodon dialect in Amami-Oshima[2][3]


  1. ^ a b Northern at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Southern (Setouchi) at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Oshima". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b c d 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 ) (PDF) (in Japanese). pp. 115–122. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ a b Shibata Takeshi 柴田武, Sanada Shinji 真田信治, Shimono Masaaki 下野雅昭 and Sawaki Motoei 沢木幹栄 (1984). Amami Ōshima no kotoba 奄美大島のことば (in Japanese). 
  7. ^ Nakamoto Masachie 中本正智 (1976). Ryūkyū hōgen on'in no kenkyū 琉球方言音韻の研究 (in Japanese). 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ 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). 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Samuel E. Martin (1970) "Shodon: A Dialect of the Northern Ryukyus", in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 90, no. 1 (Jan–Mar), pp. 97–139.
  12. ^ Nakamoto Masachie 中本正智 (1976). "Amami hōgen no on'in 奄美方言の音韻". Ryūkyū hōgen on'in no kenkyū 琉球方言音韻の研究 (in Japanese). pp. 312–370. 
  13. ^ Hirayama Teruo 平山輝男; et al., eds. (1966). Ryūkyū hōgen no sōgōteki kenkyū 琉球方言の総合的研究 (in Japanese). 
  14. ^ a b Shigehisa Karimata (2015) "Ryukyuan languages: a grammar overview", in Heinrich, Miyara, & Shimoji (eds) Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages: History, Structure, and Use
  15. ^ Karimata Shigehisa かりまたしげひさ (1996). "Kagoshima-ken Ōshima-gun Setouchi-chō Shodon hōgen no fonēmu (ge) 鹿児島県大島郡瀬戸内町諸鈍方言のフォネーム (下)". Nihon Tōyō bunka ronshū 日本東洋文化論集 (in Japanese) (2): 1–57. 

Further reading[edit]

In Japanese