Very Brief Language History
There are currently around 127 million speakers of Japanese worldwide. It is a language supposed to have relations to Korean or influences from. Japanese is a relative of the Altaic language family, along with Mongolian, Tungusic, Turkish and Korean. Some ideas are that Japanese is a split from languages in East Asia such as Korean and Sino-Tibetan. A relationship between Japanese and Tamil – spoken in India – may also be possible. Japanese has an Altaic grammatical structure and Austronesian vocabulary.
Japanese has three alphabets – Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana consist of a little over 40 characters respectively and are phonetic. These are the simpler of the three. Katakana is used for borrowed words, words not native to Japan, such as バナナ (banana). Kanji, the most difficult of the three takes its characters from an old Chinese writing system. It is a system of more complicated symbols that in Japanese can be substituted in place of hiragana for words. Each individual Kanji has a Chinese reading and a Japanese reading. Kanji consists of around 2000 ‘common’ characters. These 2000 characters are what are used in Japanese newspapers. Japanese natives themselves aren’t expected to know these 2000 characters until graduating from high school.
In Japan there is variation in dialects with different emphases and colloquial terms, mostly between the East and West of Japan. Eastern Chibu and Kanto regions and eastwards speak an Eastern dialect, whereas regions from West Chibu and Kansai and eastwards apparently speak a Western dialect. The Eastern dialect is generally considered the standard Japanese, being the language of the current capitol, Tokyo.
There are also the Ryukyuan languages of the Okinawan Islands that are related to Japanese. Linguists consider them to be separate language but some people still think of them simply as dialects of Japanese.
Naturally because of media and such things the gap between dialects in Japan is decreasing for the rising generations, as they speak a mix of standard Japanese and local dialects.
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