The Japonic or Japanese–Ryukyuan language family includes the Japanese language, spoken in the main islands of Japan, and the Ryukyuan languages, spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The term Japonic was coined by Leon Serafim and the family is universally accepted by linguists.[1] The common ancestral language is known as Proto-Japonic or Proto-Japanese–Ryukyuan.[2] The essential feature of this classification is that the first split in the family resulted in the separation of all dialects of Japanese from all varieties of Ryukyuan. According to Shirō Hattori, this separation occurred during the Yamato period (250–710).[3]

Japan, historically possibly in the Korean peninsula
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5jpx
Japanese dialects-en.png
Japonic languages and dialects



The extant Japonic languages comprise two well-defined branches.


Mainland Japanese dialects, spoken on Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido, are generally grouped as:

The Hachijō language, spoken on Hachijō-jima and the Daitō Islands, including Aogashima, is highly divergent.

The oldest attestation of the Japanese branch is Old Japanese, recorded using Chinese characters in the 7th and 8th centuries.[4]


The Ryukyu Islands

The Ryukyuan languages were originally and traditionally spoken throughout the Ryukyu Islands chain. Most are considered "definitely" or "critically endangered" due to the influence of mainland Japanese which followed the conquest of the Ryukyu Kingdom by Meiji Japan. Most are considered dialects of Japanese in Japan, despite little intelligibility with Japanese or even amongst each other. They are divided into two groups:

Since Old Japanese displays several innovations not shared with Ryukyuan, the two branches must have separated before the 7th century.[5] The move to the Ryukyus from Kyushu may have occurred later, possibly conciding with the rapid expansion of the agricultural Gusuku culture in the 10th and 11th centuries.[6]

Peninsular JaponicEdit

Korea in the late 4th century

There is some evidence suggesting that now-extinct Japonic languages were spoken in the southern part of the Korean peninsula:[7]

  • Chapter 37 of the Samguk sagi (compiled in 1145) contains a list of pronunciations and meanings of placenames in the former kingdom of Goguryeo. As the pronunciations are given using Chinese characters, they are difficult to interpret, but several of those from central Korea, in the area south of the Han River captured from Baekje in the 5th century, seem to correspond to Japonic words.[8][9][10] Scholars differ on whether they represent the language of Goguryeo or of people they conquered.[9][11]
  • A single word is explicitly attributed to the language of the southern Gaya confederacy. It is a word for 'gate', and appears similar in form to the Old Japanese word to2 with the same meaning.[12][13]
  • Alexander Vovin suggests that the ancient name for the kingdom of Tamna on Jeju Island, tammura, may have a Japonic etymology tani mura 'valley settlement' or tami mura 'people's settlement'.[14]

Proposed relationshipsEdit

The relationship of the Japonic (or Japanese–Ryukyuan) languages to other modern languages and language families is controversial. There are numerous hypotheses, none of which is generally accepted. Japonic is classified as an isolated language family[15] and shows in its proto-form strong similarities to Southeast Asian languages.[16]


Proto-Japonic, the proto-language ancestral to all present-day Japonic languages and dialects reconstructed using the comparative method, has been reconstructed by Martin (1987) and Vovin (1994).[17][18] Reconstructed Proto-Japonic forms from Vovin (1994: 109–111) are given below.

Gloss Proto-Japanese
all *múCí-nà
ashes *pápÍ
bark (n.) *kàpà
belly *pàrà
big *ò̱pò̱-
bird *tó̱rí
bite *kàm-
black *kùrwò
blood *tí
bone *pone
breast *ti/*titi
burn *dák-
cloud *kùmù[C]à
cold *sàmù-
come *kò̱-
die *sín-
dog *ìnù
drink *nò̱m-
dry *káw(V)rá-k-
ear *mìmì
eat *kup-
eye *mà-n
feather *рánÉ
fire *pò-Ci
fish *(d)íwó
fly (v.) *tó̱np-
foot *pànkì
full *mìt-
give *ata[-]pa-Ci
go *káywóp-; *dik-
good *dò̱-
grease *à(n)pùrá
green *àwò; *míntórì
hair *ká-Ci
hand *tà-Ci
head *tumu-; *kàsìrà
hear *kí[-]k-
heart *kòkòró
horn *tùnwò
I *bàn[u]
kill *kó̱ró̱s-
knee *pínsá; Proto-Ryukyuan *tubusin
know *sír-
land *tùtì
leaf *pá
lie *ná-
liver *kímwò
long *nànkà-
louse *sìrámí
man *bò
many *mana-Ci
meat *sìsì
moon *tùkú-
mountain *dàmà
mouth *kútú-Ci
nail *túmá-Ci
name *ná
new *àrà-ta-
night *dùCà
nose *páná
not *-an[a]-
one *pito̱
person *pítò̱
rain/sky *àmâ-Ci
red *áká-
root *mò̱tò̱
round *márú/*máró̱
sand *súná
say *(d)i[-]p-
see *mì-
seed *tàná-Ci
short *m-ìnsìkà-
sit *bí-
sleep *ui-
small *tìpìsà-
smoke *kái[-]npúrí
stand *tàt-
star *pósí
stone *(d)ísò
sun *pí
swim *ò̱yò̱-
tail *bò̱
that *ká-
this *kó̱-
tongue *sìtà
tooth *pà
tree *kò̱- < *ko̱no̱r
two *puta
warm *àta-taka-
water *mí
way *mítí
we *bàn[u]
what *nà[-]ní
white *sírà-Cu
who *tá-
woman *-mina/*míCá
yellow *kú-Ci
you (sg.) *si/*so̱-; *na

The Proto-Japonic numerals are (Vovin 1994: 106):

Gloss Proto-Japanese
one *pito̱-
two *puta-
three *mi-
four *do̱-
five *itu-
six *mu-
seven *nana-
eight *da-
nine *ko̱ko̱no̱
ten *to̱bo
hundred *mwomwo


  1. ^ Shimabukuro (2007), p. 1.
  2. ^ Miyake (2003), p. 66.
  3. ^ Heinrich, Patrick. "What leaves a mark should no longer stain: Progressive erasure and reversing language shift activities in the Ryukyu Islands" Archived 2011-05-16 at the Wayback Machine, First International Small Island Cultures Conference at Kagoshima University, Centre for the Pacific Islands, February 7–10, 2005; citing Shiro Hattori. (1954) Gengo nendaigaku sunawachi goi tokeigaku no hoho ni tsuite ("Concerning the Method of Glottochronology and Lexicostatistics"), Gengo kenkyu (Journal of the Linguistic Society of Japan), Vols. 26/27.
  4. ^ Frellesvig (2010), pp. 12–20.
  5. ^ Pellard (2015), pp. 21–23.
  6. ^ Pellard (2015), pp. 30–32.
  7. ^ Vovin (2013), pp. 222–224.
  8. ^ Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 37–43.
  9. ^ a b Vovin (2017).
  10. ^ Janhunen, Juha (2010). "Reconstructing the Language Map of Prehistorical Northeast Asia". Studia Orientalia. 108: 281–304. ... there are strong indications that the neighbouring Baekje state (in the southwest) was predominantly Japonic-speaking until it was linguistically Koreanized.
  11. ^ Beckwith (2007), pp. 50–92.
  12. ^ Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 46–47.
  13. ^ Beckwith (2007), p. 40.
  14. ^ Vovin (2013), pp. 236–237.
  15. ^ Kindaichi, Haruhiko (2011-12-20). The Japanese Language. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462902668. Archived from the original on 2017-03-22.
  16. ^ Alexander, Vovin. "Proto-Japanese beyond the accent system". Current Issues in Linguistic Theory: 141–156. Archived from the original on 2018-05-11.
  17. ^ Martin (1987).
  18. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 1994. "Long-distance Relationships, Reconstruction Methodology, and the Origins of Japanese". Diachronica 11(1): 95–114.

Works citedEdit