We can all agree that Japan is a wonderful country with a rich culture and beautiful traditions. People from all over the globe dream to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun at least once in their lives. Everything from arts and literature to religion and language in the Japanese culture is intriguing. There’s always something more to ponder on even after thousands of questions already answered.
The Japanese language is not short of its own intriguing facts. Those who have learned or are learning the language will figure out that there is some stuff about the Japanese language that is unique to itself and no other language has it. Here are the 10 — even though it’s not limited to only these — interesting facts about the Japanese language!
1. There are multiple ways to say “I”
It might sound unusual for some of us who only have one way of saying “I” in their native language. In Japanese, there are so many ways to say “I” that you’d lose count after 10! In fact, there are over 20 variants of “I” in Japanese — how cool is that? Here are the top 5 ways of saying “I” in Japanese that you’ll hear more often:
- Watashi (私) — This is the most common way of saying “I”. Foreigners who are learning the Japanese language will probably be familiar with this first than the rest. Watashi is used both casually and formally, which is what makes it so special.
- Boku (僕) — This way of saying “I” is less formal than watashi. It’s more often used by males. Even though watashi is ranked higher in the formality ranking, it is still acceptable to use boku during formal occasions like meetings.
- Ore (俺) — Similar to boku, ore is only used by males. However, in terms of formality, it’s the total opposite. Ore has a harsher tone than most, and sometimes it can even be considered rude.
- Jibun (自分) — On top of “I”, this word can translate to “myself” as well. In a way, jibun is used to refer to yourself as a second person which can make things confusing. Regardless, the Japanese still use jibun for “I”.
- Atakushi (あたくし) / Atashi (あたし) — These two have a fine line to differentiate them. They’re both used by females only, and it’s often used in informal situations like speaking to a familiar friend or junior.
- Ware (我) — This is one of the higher ones in terms of formality. You won’t hear this word to refer to “I” outside of a speech or business meeting, but it is still commonly used. The plural form of this is wareware (我々).
- Washi (儂) — This way of saying “I” is more often than not heard in the Kansai region. You won’t really hear it being used other than by the people from Kansai (they are known to have an interesting dialect in the Japanese language in general). The older men and women are the ones using it.
2. One pronunciation, various characters
In the Japanese language, there are three writing systems. One of them is kanji (漢字). What’s amazing about kanji is that multiple characters that look significantly different from each other can have the same pronunciation. Let’s look at an example of how one way of reading or pronouncing can have various different characters with different meanings:
Pronouncing “shin” (しん) can be for:
真 — true
新 — new
信 — believe
伸 — stretch
神 — god
心 — heart
親 — parent
進 — advance
All of the above kanji is pronounced as “shin”. Even with 8 mentioned, there are still countless other kanjis that have the same pronunciation!
3. One character, various pronunciations
The opposite is also true. The above shows that one pronunciation can have many characters, so it’s also possible for one character to have various pronunciations. Let’s take a look at one example of such a situation:
The kanji character for “person” is 人. This specific character has various ways of pronouncing it. It can be read as hito (ひと), jin (じん), tari (たり), to (と), ri (り) and (にん). While all of the pronunciation relates to the original meaning of person, the exact meaning depends on the context. How it’s pronounced is also based on that. Hitori (一人) refers to “one person”, and has the “ri” pronunciation for the kanji character. Therefore, depending on what it’s attached to and the overall meaning, the pronunciation of the kanji character will change accordingly.
4. Romaji roots are in Christianity
One might think that the romanisation of the Japanese language was created when Japan had trade relations and interactions with the European countries in the 16th century. That’s not exactly how romaji (ローマジ) came about. Its roots are actually in Christianity!
In the 1500s, a Japanese Catholic wanted to promote the Jesuit religion in Japan to the European missionaries without having them learn the complicated ways of the Japanese language. He created the romaji to ease the process.
The first-ever Japanese-English dictionary that made use of the romaji was published by James Curtis Hepburn in the 1800s. Because of that, the Japanese romanisation is now also known as the Hepburn Romanisation!
Romaji now is used to aid non-native Japanese learners when it comes to studying the language. As Japanese sounds are clear and pronounced, the romaji reading is quite accurate for these learners to sound out the Japanese characters.
5. Japanese verbs have no conjugations
You might think that picking up another language is hard because there’s so many complications to languages. Take a look at English — there are so many conjugations of just one verb. The verb “see” can be conjugated to “saw”, “have seen” and so on. But in the Japanese language, there’s no such thing. The language is pretty straight forward, making it easier to learn! All the learner needs to memorise the main verb!
6. There are no articles
Another feature that makes the Japanese language easier to learn than most languages is that there are no articles in the language! In English, there are articles like “an”, “a” and “the”. But in the Japanese language, there’s no way to differentiate the difference as there are no particles. That’s why it’s much easier for English speakers to learn the Japanese language as it is for the Japanese to learn English, because for them, there is much more to learn.
7. Japanese is one of the world’s fastest languages
How does one measure the speed of languages? Well, there are ways to go about them. There are such things like syllabic rate, informational density and information rate. These are all confusing, so let’s explain it in easier terms.
There have been studies that compare the various languages. Even though with proper research, testing languages for their speed and information density can be a bit hard to measure. Languages have their own dialects and the speed is affected by the various personalities of people. But these studies take the average speakers to do the testing.
From it all, it is found that the Japanese is the fastest spoken language in the world! It has at least eight syllables per second, beating French, Italian and Spanish!
However, even though the Japanese language is the fastest, that doesn’t mean it delivers the most information. In fact, the Japanese language delivers the lowest amount of information based on their information density per second. In other words, even though a lot has been said, not a lot of information is being given. That’s not surprising though — it takes all eight syllables in the Japanese language to say “not”.
8. Japanese is not a tonal language
Compared to the neighbouring countries’ languages, it’s surprising that Japanese is not a tonal language. A tonal language is one where the tone is relied on to convey the meaning of words. There are fewer distinct syllables and use the inflection to differentiate between similar words.
Mandarin, Cantonese Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese are just some examples that rely on tone. All of these are in countries in East Asia where Japan is at as well, making it surprising that the Japanese language isn’t a tonal one.
This is not a bad thing, though! For those of us who are trying to learn Japanese, this comes as a relief. Tonal languages can be harder to learn and get used to. However, just like every other language, the Japanese language does have a certain rhythm and flow. That’s pretty easy to catch if you’re exposed to the language speech enough.
9. There is no plural form
This may come as a surprise to some but the Japanese language does not have plural forms! In English, to differentiate if it’s a single item or multiple items, we can add “-s” at the end of the noun. The sentence structure changes as well. It goes from “this is a book” to “these are books”. In the Japanese language, however, for both of the English sentences above, it is just “これは本です”.
The form of the word doesn’t change, whether or not it’s singular or plural. While there are counters to explain the quantity like takusan (たくさん), one has to usually take a guess or assume the quantity based on the first sentence.
10. Japanese has no relations to other languages
A popular belief is that the Japanese language is related to the Chinese language. While the Chinese characters are used as one of the Japanese writing systems, there is no genetic relation to the Chinese language family. In fact, the Japanese language is one of the most unique languages in the world! There is no direct derivative language that makes the Japanese language. It is unique, just like every other aspect of the Japanese culture.
Who would have thought that there is so much power in the Japanese language. With so many ways to say one thing as well as one way to refer to multiple things, it’s a unique language that is not at all difficult to pick up. After all, there aren’t any articles, verb conjugation and plural forms of nouns. That just cancels out a whole chunk of grammar that one would have to learn if it were English. If you were considering whether or not to learn Japanese, these interesting facts are definitely deciding factors for you!