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Hi, I was reading somewhere recently that the Japanese spoken today is far different than what was spoken back in feudal Japan. Why is this? Was it similar to China eventually adopting a single dialect out of many for its national language or did it just evolve into what it is today? If it is the latter, how did it evolve, as many languages today are similar or the same to what they were hundreds of years ago, why is Japanese so different?
03-05-2003, 05:27 PM
the difficulty in getting a handle on the answer to your question lies in the materials we have to research.
yes, written Japanese from a few hundred years ago is quite different from its modern counterpart, but not so different that i can't read it altogether, for example. it's not that dissimilar to the present-day native speaker of English reading Shakespeare: it just takes some getting used to. since the Japanese are fastidious in their record-keeping, we have plenty of sources to work from.
on the other hand, we have no absolutely reliable way of knowing how people spoke Japanese in all its variants centuries ago. we can try to draw conclusions from written sources, but there might have been great discrepancies between the written and spoken language. we can also research the extant variants or dialects of the language by simply talking to living Japanese and attempt to draw conclusions from those examples. NHK did a series on Japanese a few months back and reported that at some point in the not-too-distant past there were 4 distinct linguistic regions in Nagano Prefecture alone. still, those who speak the variants are slowly dying off and those who are left use more and more language forms influenced by nation-wide media.
in short, my impression is that Japanese is similar to other languages in that it undergoes constant evolution. the reasons for that evolution might be distinct, but not the evolution itself. i don't know that much about the specifics, but i suspect that "standard" modern Japanese (sometimes labelled "Tokyo dialect") probably grew out of the central military government system that controlled Japan during its decades of official isolation. any component of Japanese society that had no direct dealings with the central government likely clung to their regional dialects more strongly, allowing many of those variants to survive until the present.
i'll turn the discussion over to the more knowledgeable at this point, 'cuz that's about all that i can pull of out my sleeve!
Wow, thanks guys, that was some really great information, very much appreciated.
03-05-2003, 07:38 PM
further to Andrew's comments on the origins of Japanese, the author Ohno Susumu has conducted some extensive research on the relationship between his mother tongue and Tamil. the similarities in phonology and meaning of various words are quite astounding. if you read Japanese and can track it down, i highly recommend Ohno's Nihongo no Kyoushitsu from Iwanami. many of his books contain fascinating little insights into the Japanese language and they're written in a concise, clear style which is great for foreign readers. enjoy.
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