Classification of the Japonic languages

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The classification of the Japonic languages (Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages) is unclear. Linguists traditionally consider the Japonic languages to belong to an independent family; indeed, until the classification of Ryukyuan as separate languages within a Japonic family rather than as dialects of Japanese, Japanese was considered a language isolate. Among more distant connections, the possibility of a genetic relationship to the Goguryeo (Koguryŏ) languages, or perhaps to Kara (Gaya), has the most currency. Goguryeo itself may be related to Korean, and a Japonic–Korean grouping is widely considered plausible. Independent of the question of a Japonic–Korean connection, both the Japonic languages and Korean were often included in the largely discredited[1][2][3][4] Altaic family. The relevance for Old Korean and modern Korean is unknown.

Koguryoic hypothesis[edit]

Further information: Goguryeo language

The Japanese–Koguryoic proposal dates back to Shinmura Izuru's (1916) observation that the attested Goguryeo numerals—3, 5, 7, and 10—are very similar to Japanese.[citation needed] The hypothesis proposes that Japanese is a relative of the extinct languages spoken by the Buyeo-Goguryeo cultures of Korea, southern Manchuria, and Liaodong. The best attested of these is the language of Goguryeo, with the more poorly attested Buyeo languages of Baekje and Buyeo believed to also be related.

A monograph by Christopher Beckwith (2004) has established about 140 lexical items in the Goguryeo corpus. They mostly occur in place-name collocations, many of which may include grammatical morphemes (including cognates of the Japanese genitive marker no and the Japanese adjective-attributive morpheme -sa) and a few of which may show syntactical relationships. He postulates that the majority of the identified Goguryeo corpus, which includes all of the grammatical morphemes, is related to Japanese.

Japanese-Korean hypothesis[edit]

Japanese and Korean languages share a substantial number of similarities, such as an agglutinative morphology including verbs being preffixes, a subject–object–verb (SOV) typology, important systems of honorifics (see Japanese honorifics and Korean honorifics), besides some few lexical resemblances. Factors like these led some historical linguists to suggest a genetic relationship between the two languages.

William George Aston suggested in 1879 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society that Japanese is related to Korean.[5] A relationship between Japanese and Korean was endorsed by the Japanese scholar Shōsaburō Kanazawa in 1910. Other scholars took this position in the twentieth century (Poppe 1965:137). Substantial arguments in favor of a Japanese–Korean relationship were presented by Samuel Martin, a leading specialist in Japanese and Korean, in 1966 and in subsequent publications (e.g. Martin 1990). Linguists who advocate this position include John Whitman (1985) and Barbara E. Riley (2004), and Sergei Starostin with his lexicostatistical research, The Altaic Problem and the Origins of the Japanese Language (Moscow, 1991). A Japanese–Korean connection does not necessarily exclude a Japanese–Koguryo or an Altaic relationship.

The possible lexical relationship between Korean and Japanese can be briefly exemplified by such basic vocabulary items as are found in the tables below.

word/term Korean
we uri orera Both have alternative forms
not ani, an -na-, -nu ('be not (in a certain place), have not')
to scratch kŭlg- kak-
sun hae hi, -bi IPA approximates /hɛ/ and /hi/, respectively; the first may also mean "year", the second may also mean "day" or "fire"
water mul mizu
lake mos mizuumi
cloud kurŭm kumo
island sŏm shima
bear kom kuma
to be hard kut- kata-
crane turumi tsuru

The same possible cognates are often observed in other members of the potential Altaic family, especially among the Tungusic languages. Compare, for instance, Nanai muke "water"; giagda- "to walk on foot"; anaa, anna "not" (from Starostin's database).

Some critics of this hypothesis (such as Alexander Vovin) claim that there are difficulties in establishing exact phonological laws and that Japanese and Korean have few shared innovations. There are also drastic differences between the native Korean and Japanese number systems.

The idea of a Japanese–Korean relationship overlaps the extended form of the Altaic hypothesis (see below), but not all scholars who argue for one also argue for the other. For example, Samuel Martin, who was a major advocate of a Japanese–Korean relationship, only provided cautious support to the inclusion of these languages in Altaic, and Talat Tekin, an Altaicist, includes Korean, but not Japanese, in Altaic (Georg et al. 1999:72, 74).

Altaic hypothesis[edit]

The Altaic language family was a hypothesized group composed of, at its core, languages categorized as Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. G.J. Ramstedt's Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft ('Introduction to Altaic Linguistics') in 1952–1957 included Korean in Altaic. Roy Andrew Miller's Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages (1971) included Japanese in Altaic as well. The most important recent work that favored the expanded Altaic family (i.e. that Korean and Japanese could both be included under the Altaic language family) is An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages (3 volumes) by Sergei Starostin, Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak (2003).

The Altaic proposal has largely been rejected (in both its core form of Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic as well as its expanded form that includes Korean and/or Japanese).[1][2][3][4] The best-known critiques are those by Gerard Clauson (1956) and Gerhard Doerfer (1963, 1988). Current critics include Stefan Georg and Alexander Vovin. However, even critics[who?] agree to some degree of pre-historic areal contact having occurred between even the languages of the expanded group (e.g. between Turkic and Japonic), as similarities of common origin appear to exist in the languages.[citation needed]

Evidence for this grouping was mostly based upon claimed correspondences in vocabulary, as shown in the following table, although attempts have been made to reconstruct a number of suffixes.

Japanese Turkish English gloss notes
take (*taka) dağ (*dāg) "mountain"
i-, yo- 良い (*yə) yeğ (*yęg) "good"
ishi (*isi) taş (*diāĺ) "stone"
yo (*yə) dört (*dȫrt) "four"
kura (*kura) kürtün (*kürtün) "saddle"
yak- 焼く (*yak-) yak- (*yak-) "to burn" Turkish yak- is exclusively transitive ("to burn (it)", "to light (it) on fire"); intransitive counterpart is yan-
kir- 切る (*kir-) kır- (*Kır-) "to cut" Turkish kır- actually means "to break; to split, to chop (wood); to fold; to destroy, to break (resistance, pride, desire, etc.); to reduce (price); to offend, to hurt": cf. Turkish kırma, the deverbal noun derived from the verb kır-: "a pleat, a fold; folding, collapsible; groats; hybrid, mongrel". Turkish kes- is more specifically "to cut".
inu (*inu) it (*ıt ~ it) "dog" cf. Manchu indahŭn, Nanai ida, Ainu seta, Chinese "zodiacal dog" *zyüt, Jeju gaŋsæŋi "puppy"
kuro (*kurua) kara (*Kara) "black" cf. Ainu kur "shadow", *kur-ne > kunne "black; dark"
so-re それ (*sə) şu (*-sı) "that" Turkish is 3rd-person possessive suffix
nani (*nV) ne, neme (*nē-) "what" The only Turkic root beginning with *n-. Compare Ainu ne (interrogative stem) as in nep "what" and nen "who(m)," Korean nugu "who(m)"

These examples come from Starostin's database, which contains a comprehensive list of comparisons and hypothetical Altaic etymologies.



The phonological similarities of Japanese to the Austronesian languages and the geographical proximity of Japan to Formosa and the Malay Archipelago have led to the theory that Japanese may be a kind of very early creole language, with an Altaic superstratum and an Austronesian substratum.[6] Alexander Vovin reconstructed the morphology of proto-japanese, and found many similarities between proto-japanese ans several southeast asian languages.[7] Several Japanese linguists classify Japanese as Para-Austronesian. Others put it in the bigger Austric languages.


Further information: Dravidian language family

A more rarely encountered hypothesis is that Japanese is related to the Dravidian languages. The possibility that Japanese might be related to Dravidian was raised by Robert Caldwell (cf. Caldwell 1875:413) and more recently by Susumu Shiba, Akira Fujiwara, and Susumu Ōno (n.d., 2000).


Further information: Eurasiatic languages

Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002) argued for the inclusion of Japanese in his proposed Eurasiatic language family. In contrast to Sergei Starostin, he rejected the inclusion of Korean in Altaic. According to Greenberg, Japanese–Ryukyuan, Korean, and Ainu form a separate subgroup within Eurasiatic.

In contrast to Greenberg, many historical linguists remain convinced that systematic phonological reconstruction is necessary to establish genetic relationships among languages and reject his "mass comparison" methodology and, consequently, the Eurasiatic hypothesis.


Further information: Nostratic

Suggestions of connections among Japanese, Altaic, and Dravidian were made by Hermann Jacobi in 1897 (Compositum und Nebensatz, pp. 106–131), who further noted structural similarities to Proto-Indo-European.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "While 'Altaic' is repeated in encyclopedias and handbooks most specialists in these languages no longer believe that the three traditional supposed Altaic groups, Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic, are related." Lyle Campbell & Mauricio J. Mixco, A Glossary of Historical Linguistics (2007, University of Utah Press), pg. 7.
  2. ^ a b "When cognates proved not to be valid, Altaic was abandoned, and the received view now is that Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic are unrelated." Johanna Nichols, Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time (1992, Chicago), pg. 4.
  3. ^ a b "Careful examination indicates that the established families, Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic, form a linguistic area (called Altaic)...Sufficient criteria have not been given that would justify talking of a genetic relationship here." R.M.W. Dixon, The Rise and Fall of Languages (1997, Cambridge), pg. 32.
  4. ^ a b "...[T]his selection of features does not provide good evidence for common descent....we can observe convergence rather than divergence between Turkic and Mongolic languages--a pattern than is easily explainable by borrowing and diffusion rather than common descent," Asya Pereltsvaig, Languages of the World, An Introduction (2012, Cambridge). This source has a good discussion of the Altaic hypothesis on pp. 211-216.
  5. ^ [1] Archived May 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Benedict (1990), Lewin (1976), Matsumoto (1975), Miller (1967), Murayama (1976), Shibatani (1990).
  7. ^
  8. ^ Winfred P. Lehmann. "Proto-Indo-European Syntax". Archived from the original on 22 January 2015. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 


Works cited[edit]

  • Aston, William George. 1879. "A comparative study of the Japanese and Korean languages." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain and Ireland, New Series 11, 317-364.
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. 2004. Koguryo: The Language of Japan's Continental Relatives: An Introduction to the Historical-Comparative Study of the Japanese-Koguryoic Languages. Leiden: Brill.
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. 2006a. "Methodological observations on some recent studies of the early ethnolinguistic history of Korea and vicinity." Altai Hakpo 16, 199-234.
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. 2006b. "The ethnolinguistic history of the early Korean peninsula region: Japanese-Koguryoic and other languages in the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla kingdoms." (page 33 ff.) Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies 2.2, 34-64.
  • Benedict, Paul K. 1990. Japanese/Austro-Tai. Ann Arbor: Karoma.
  • Caldwell, Robert. 1875. A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, second edition. London: Trübner.
  • Georg, Stefan, Peter A. Michalove, Alexis Manaster Ramer, and Paul J. Sidwell. 1999. "Telling general linguists about Altaic." Journal of Linguistics 35, 65-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000–2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, 2 volumes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2005. Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kanazawa, Shōsaburō. 1910. The Common Origin of the Japanese and Korean Languages. Tokyo: Sanseidō.
  • Lewin, Bruno. 1976. "Japanese and Korean: The Problems and History of a Linguistic Comparison". Journal of Japanese Studies 2:2.389–412
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1966. "Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese." Language 12.2, 185-251.
  • Matsumoto, Katsumi. 1975. "Kodai nihongoboin soshikikõ: naiteki saiken no kokoromi". Bulletin of the Faculty of Law and Letters (Kanazawa University) 22.83–152.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1990. "Morphological clues to the relationships of Japanese and Korean." In Linguistic Change and Reconstruction Methodology, edited by Philip Baldi. Berlin:de Gruyter.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1971. Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1967. The Japanese language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Murayama, Shichiro. 1976. "The Malayo-Polynesian Component in the Japanese Language". Journal of Japanese Studies 2:2.413–436
  • Ōno, Susumu. n.d. "The genealogy of the Japanese language: Tamil and Japanese."
  • Ōno, Susumu. 2000. 日本語の形成. 岩波書店. ISBN 4-00-001758-6.
  • Poppe, Nicholas. 1965. Introduction to Altaic Linguistics. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Riley, Barbara E. 2003. Aspects of the Genetic Relationship of the Korean and Japanese Languages. PhD thesis, University of Hawaii.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1990. The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Starostin, Sergei A. 1991. Altajskaja problema i proisxoždenie japonskogo jazyka, 'The Altaic Problem and the Origin of the Japanese Language'. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Starostin, Sergei A., Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak. 2003. Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages, 3 volumes. Leiden: Brill. (Also: database version.)
  • Trombetti, Alfredo. 1922–1923. Elementi di glottologia, 2 volumes. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli.
  • Vovin, Alexander. 2003. 日本語系統論の現在:これからどこへ 'The genetic relationship of the Japanese language: Where do we go from here?'. In 日本語系統論の現在 'Perspectives on the Origins of the Japanese Language', edited by Alexander Vovin and Toshiki Osada. Kyoto: International Center for Japanese Studies. ISSN 1346-6585.
  • Whitman, John Bradford. 1985. The Phonological Basis for the Comparison of Japanese and Korean. PhD thesis, Harvard University.

Further reading[edit]

  • Katsumi, Matsumoto. 2007. 世界言語のなかの日本語 Sekaigengo no nakano Nihongo, 'Japanese in the World's Languages'. Tokyo: 三省堂 Sanseido.
  • Lewin, Bruno. 1976. "Japanese and Korean: The problems and history of a linguistic comparison." Journal of Japanese Studies 2.2, 389-412.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1968. "Grammatical elements relating Korean to Japanese." In Proceedings of the Eighth Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences B.9, 405-407.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1975. "Problems in establishing the prehistoric relationships of Korean and Japanese." In Proceedings, International Symposium Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Korean Liberation. Seoul: National Academy of Sciences.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1991. "Recent research on the relationships of Japanese and Korean." In Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, edited by Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1996. Consonant Lenition in Korean and the Macro-Altaic Question. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1980. Origins of the Japanese Language: Lectures in Japan during the Academic Year 1977-78. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1996. Languages and History: Japanese, Korean and Altaic. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2004a. "Belief or argument? The classification of the Japanese language." Eurasia Newsletter 8. Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2004b. "Swadesh 100 on Japanese, Korean and Altaic." Tokyo University Linguistic Papers, TULIP 23, 99–118.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2005. Is Japanese related to Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic? Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2007. "How the actional suffix chain connects Japanese to Altaic." Turkic Languages 11.1, 3-58.
  • Schmidt, Wilhelm. 1930. "Die Beziehungen der austrischen Sprachen zum Japanischen", 'The connections of the Austric languages to Japanese'. Wiener Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistik 1, 239-51.
  • Unger, J. Marshall. 2014. "No Rush to Judgment: The Case against Japanese as an Isolate." NINJAL Project Review, vol. 4. no. 3 pp. 211–30.