Ainu language

Ainu language

nativename= _ai. アイヌ イタ "Aynu itak"
pronunciation=/ainu itak/
states=Japan, Russia
region=Hokkaidō; formerly also southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula (disputed), and theTōhoku Region in Honshū (disputed)
speakers=near-extinct, 15 speakers in Japan were known in 1991 [SIL Ethnologue, 15th edition (2005)]
family=Unclassified language; various opinions; often classed as language isolate
iso2=ain [cite web | title=ISO 639-2/RA Change Notice - Codes for the representation of names of languages (Library of Congress) | url= | accessmonthday=15 November | accessyear=2005 ] |iso3=ain

The Ainu language (Ainu: _ai. アイヌ イタ, "aynu itak"; Japanese: _ja. アイヌ語 "ainu-go") is spoken by the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō.

Until the twentieth century, Ainu was also spoken throughout the southern half of the island of Sakhalin and by small numbers of people in the Kuril Islands.

It is often reported that Ainu was the language of the indigenous Emishi people of the northern part of the main Japanese island of Honshu, and that it was also spoken on the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The main evidence for this is the presence of placenames that appear to be of Ainu origin in both locations. For example, the "-betu" common to many northern Japanese place names is believed to derive from the Ainu word "pet" "river". [Miller 1967:239.] [Shibatani 1990:3.]

Relation to other languages: different theses

Ainu has no generally accepted genealogical relationship to any other language. The most frequent proposals for relatives of Ainu are given below. None have received wide acceptance as of 2008.

A language isolate

Ainu is a language isolate, that is, a language that has no demonstrable relationship to any other language or language family.

It is sometimes grouped with the Paleosiberian languages, but this is merely a blanket term for several unrelated language families that were present in Siberia prior to the advances of Turkic and Tungusic languages there. The "Paleosiberian" languages do not form a language family, that is, a group of languages descended from a common ancestral language.

A relationship to Japanese and Korean

John C. StreetStreet, John C. (1962). Review of N. Poppe, "Vergleichende Grammatik der altaischen Sprachen", Teil I (1960). Language 38, 92–98.] (1962) proposed linking Ainu, Korean, and Japanese in one family and Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic in another, with the two families linked in a common "North Asiatic" family. Street's grouping was an extension of the Altaic hypothesis, which in its more common form links Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic, often adding Korean and fairly often Japanese (see Altaic languages).

From a perspective more centered on Ainu, James PatriePatrie, James (1982). "The Genetic Relationship of the Ainu Language". Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii. ISBN 0-8248-0724-3.] (1982) adopted the same grouping, namely Ainu-Korean-Japanese and Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic, with these two families linked in a common family, as in Street's "North Asiatic".

Joseph GreenbergGreenberg, Joseph H. (2000-2002). "Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives". Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3812-2, ISBN 0-8047-4624-9.] (2000-2002) likewise classed Ainu with Korean and Japanese (or more precisely "Japanese-Ryukyuan"). He regarded "Korean-Japanese-Ainu" as forming a distinct subgroup within his proposed Eurasiatic language family. He did not hold Korean-Japanese-Ainu to have an especially close relationship with Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic within this family, partially contradicting the theses of Street and Patrie.

A distant relationship to Austro-Asiatic

Alexander VovinVovin, Alexander (1993). "A Reconstruction of Proto-Ainu". Leiden: E. J. Brill. ISBN 90-04-09905-0.] (1993) presented evidence suggesting a distant connection with the Austro-Asiatic languages, which include many of the languages of Southeast Asia, with outliers in India. He regarded this hypothesis as preliminary.

A link to Austronesian

The eminent Japanese linguist Shichirō Murayama tried to link Ainu to the Austronesian languages, which include the languages of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Polynesia, through both vocabulary and cultural comparisons, and in recent years this approach has been further developedfact|date = September 2008.

A member of the Austric macrofamily

Some linguists believe that Austro-Asiatic and Austronesian are linked in a larger family, called Austric. John Bengtson [Bengtson, John D. (2006). "A multilateral look at Greater Austric." Mother Tongue (Journal) 11, 219–258.] (2006) has suggested that Ainu is an Austric language.

Two broad categories

These various proposals for classifying Ainu fall into two broad categories: proposals that group Ainu with other languages of northern Eurasia and proposals that group Ainu with languages of the more southern Pacific.

Interaction with other languages

The Ainu appear to have experienced intensive contact with the Nivkhs during the course of their history. It is not known to what extent this has affected the language. Some linguists believe the shared vocabulary between Ainu and Nivkh (spoken in the northern half of Sakhalin and on the Asian mainland facing it) is due to borrowing.

There are also loanwords from both Ainu to Japanese and Japanese to Ainu.


Ainu is a moribund language, and has been endangered for at least the past few decades. Most of the 150,000 ethnic Ainu in Japan speak only Japanese. In the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Hokkaidō) where many of the remaining native speakers live, there are 100 speakers, out of which only 15 used the language every day in the late 1980s. The number of speakers today (by whatever definition one may use) is not known with any certainty. In all of Hokkaidō, it is estimated that there are perhaps 1,000 native speakers, almost all older than 30.Fact|date=February 2007 Among Ainu speakers (broadly defined), second-language learners presently outnumber native ones.

However, use of the language is on the rise. There is currently an active movement to revitalize the language — mainly in Hokkaidō but also elsewhere — to reverse the centuries-long decline in the number of speakers. This has led to an increasing number of second-language learners, especially in Hokkaidō, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of the late Ainu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, himself a native speaker.


Ainu syllables are CV(C) (that is, they have an obligatory syllable onset and an optional syllable coda) and there are few consonant clusters.

There are five vowels:

Basic syllables

Long vowels

There are long vowels in Sakhalin dialect. Either circumflex or macron is used in Latin, long vowel sign (ー) is used in katakana.

Example with initial "k":

Oral literature

The Ainu have rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called Yukar, which retain a number of grammatical and lexical archaisms.

See also

*List of Ainu terms
*Ainu music
*Kannari Matsu
*Chiri Mashiho
*Chiri Takao
*Kyōsuke Kindaichi
*Bronisław Piłsudski
*Shigeru Kayano


References and further reading

* Bengtson, John D. (2006). "A multilateral look at Greater Austric." "Mother Tongue (Journal)" 11, 219–258.
* cite book | author=Greenberg, Joseph H. | title=Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives | publisher=Stanford University Press | location=Stanford | year=2000-2002 |id=ISBN 0-8047-3812-2, ISBN 0-8047-4624-9
* Street, John C. (1962). Review of N. Poppe, "Vergleichende Grammatik der altaischen Sprachen", Teil I (1960). "Language" 38, 92–98.

External links

* [ Literature and materials for learning Ainu]
* [ The "Book of Common Prayer" in Ainu]
* [ Ethnologue entry for Ainu]
* [ Information at the Rosetta Project]
* [ Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Ainu] in Samani, Hokkaidō
* [ "A Grammar of the Ainu Language"] by John Batchelor
* [ "An Ainu-English-Japanese Dictionary", including "A Grammar of the Ainu Language"] by John Batchelor
* [ "The 'Greater Austric' hypothesis"] by John Bengtson (undated)
* [ "Ainu for Beginners"] by Kane Kumagai, translated by Yongdeok Cho


*jp icon [ Radio lessons on Ainu language presented by Sapporo TV]
*jp icon [ Ainu word list]

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