Classification of Japonic

Classification of Japonic

The classification of the Japonic languages (Japanese and Ryukyuan) is unclear. The group is traditionally considered to consist of dialects of a single language isolate.

The possibility of a genetic relationship to the Goguryeo (Koguryŏ) language has the most currency. Goguryeo itself may be related to Korean, and a Korean-Japonic grouping is widely considered.

Independent of the question of the Korean-Japonic subgrouping, both the Japonic languages and Korean are sometimes included in the Altaic and hypothetical Eurasiatic proposals by proponents of these linguistic macrofamilies.


Koguryoic hypothesis

The Japanese-Koguryoic proposal dates back to Shinmura Izuru's (1916) observation that the attested Goguryeo numerals, 3, 5, 7, and 10, were very similar to Japanese. 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.

Supporters of this theory do not include modern Korean as part of that family because it is thought to have derived from the Silla language and it has been shown that the Korean and Buyeo-Goguryeo languages share only a few lexical items, which are typical cultural loanwords.[citation needed]

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, including all the grammatical morphemes, is related to Japanese.

Korean hypothesis

William George Aston suggested in 1879 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society that Japanese is related to Korean. A relationship between Japanese and Korean was endorsed by the Japanese scholar Shōsaburō Kanazawa in 1910. Some 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). Other linguists advocating 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 Altaic relationship.

The possible lexical relationship between Korean and Japanese can be briefly exemplified by such basic vocabulary items, see table below and Martin 1966.

Comparison with Japanese
Old Japanese Japanese meaning  Mid-Korean Korean meaning
midu mizu water myr mul water
midu mizu water mos mot pond
ki, ku, ko ki(te), ku(ru), ko(nai) to come ga- ga- to go
kata- kata- to be hard gut- gut- to be hard
wi- i- to sit (Old Japanese)
to be (in a certain place, said of an animate being)
i- (after a consonant-final root) ~ zero (after a vowel-final root) i- (after a consonant-final root) ~ zero (after a vowel-final root) to be (copula)
naɸ- na- to be not ani ani, an not
mïna mina all, everyone man-hɔ- manh- to be many, to be much
kasa kasa wide-brimmed hat, sombrero
umbrella, parasol
gat gat traditional Korean top hat

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).

Next to similarities in basic vocabulary, the hypothesis is also based on typological and grammatical similarity.

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 with 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 in Altaic but not Japanese (Georg et al. 1999:72, 74).

Altaic hypothesis

According to its proponents, Altaic is a language family consisting at a minimum of 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, published in 1971, included Japanese in Altaic as well. The most important recent work in favor of this expanded Altaic family is An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages (3 volumes) by Sergei Starostin, Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak (2003).

The Altaic family is by no means generally accepted, either in its core form of Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic or its expanded form of Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese. The best-known critiques are those of Gerard Clauson (1956) and Gerhard Doerfer (1963, 1988). Currently active critics include Stefan Georg and Alexander Vovin.

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

(pre-WWII orthog)
Turkish English gloss notes
take dağ "mountain"
i-, yo- iyi "good"
kazan 火山 kazan "volcano" Turkish kazan actually means "couldron"; Japanese written as ka-san, Chinese for 'fire mountain'
mizu su "water"
yama yamaç "mountain" Turkish yamaç actually means "the hillside of the mountain".
ishi taş "stone"
yo dört "four"
kura kürtün "saddle"
yak- ya(k)- "to burn" Turkish yak- is exclusively transitive ("to burn (it)", "to light (it) on fire"); intransitive counterpart is yan-
kir- 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 it "dog" cf. Manchu indahŭn, Nanai ida, Ainu seta, Chinese "zodiacal dog" 戌 *zyüt, Jeju "puppy" gaŋsæŋi
yaban 野蛮 yaban "savage" Yabancı means "alien/foreigner" in Turkish. In Japanese Yaban-ji means "barbarian".
kuro kara "black" cf. Ainu kur "shadow", *kur-ne > kunne "black; dark"
kura- karar- "to be dark" cog. with preceding
e -ye "to" In Turkish, "-ye" is an inflection particle at the end of the some words which add same meaning as does destination indicator e (*pe) in Japanese.(e.g. göl-e; mizuumi e)
sore それ şu "that"
nani ne "what" cf. Ainu ne (interrogative stem) as in nep "what" and nen "who(m)," Mandarin Chinese "which," Korean nugu "who(m)"
Sore wa nan desu ka?
Şu ne dir ki? "What is that?"

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

Nostratic and Eurasiatic macrofamilies

Suggestions of connections to 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.[1]

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.

Like other language classifications of Greenberg's, the Eurasiatic family is often attacked on the ground that it is based on "mass lexical comparison"; however, this is a fictitious method. Greenberg's own terminology was originally "mass comparison", which he later changed to "multilateral comparison"; from his first use of it in the 1950s on, it always involved comparison of grammatical formatives as well as of lexical items, along with considerable attention to typologically probable paths of sound change (cf. Greenberg 2005).

In contrast to Greenberg, many historical linguists remain convinced that systematic phonological reconstruction is necessary to establish genetic relationship between languages, and consequently reject the Eurasiatic hypothesis.


  • 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). A relationship between Japanese and Dravidian has more recently been advocated by the Japanese scholars Susumu Shiba, Akira Fujiwara, and Susumu Ōno (n.d., 2000).
  • The phonological similarities and geographical proximity of Japanese to the Austronesian languages have led to the theory that Japanese may be a kind of very early creole language, with an Altaic superstratum and an Austronesian substratum, or vice versa including Eskimo–Aleut languages influence.[citation needed]
  • One of the less accepted theories is that Japanese is a purely Austronesian language.[citation needed]
  • Some Japanese linguists such as Nishida Tatsuo consider Japanese to be related to the Tibeto-Burman languages.[citation needed]

See also



Works cited

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1966. "Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese." Language 12.2, 185-251.
  • 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.
  • 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 4000017586.
  • 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.
  • 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

  • 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.

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