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9 Surprising Facts About the Japanese Language

You know all about anime, you’ve sung karaoke to JPop tunes, and you’ve dined to your heart’s content on sushi and sashimi. Indeed, Japanese culture has certainly made its mark internationally – but how much do you know about its language? Did you know about its complex system of honorifics? Or that Japanese speakers make up less than 2% of the world population, but almost 10% of Internet users? Keep reading for more fun linguistic trivia about the Japanese language.

interestingfacts_japanese1Image via fetchcomms / Wikipedia

1. Verbs aren’t conjugated.

This one’s a relief to Japanese learners: verbs aren’t conjugated for person or number, so once you’ve learned the base verb, you don’t have to memorize tons of pesky derivatives. Instead, you can focus your attention on the complexities of the notoriously difficult Japanese writing systems.

2. Japanese bears no relation to any other major language.

Unlike English, which is closely tied to Romance (e.g., Spanish, French) and Germanic languages (e.g., German), Japanese is not closely related to any other major language. In fact, until recently, it was classified as a language isolate, meaning that it is completely unique among all current world languages. Since then, linguists have found common roots between Japanese and Ryukyuan languages, which are indigenous languages spoken in southern Japan.

3. The Japanese word for “Japan” means “Land of the Rising Sun”.

The word “Japan” is a foreign word – Japanese people call their countryにほん (Nihon) or  にっぽん (Nippon), which roughly translates to “Land of the Rising Sun”.

4. Almost 10% of Internet users speak Japanese.

Japanese is the 9th most-spoken language worldwide, but it’s the third-largest language on the Internet, behind English and Spanish. Even though Japanese speakers represent less than 2% of the world population, they make up almost 10% of Internet users.

How good is your Japanese? Put your skills to the test with this free online level test and find out!

5. The Japanese language evolved in the 6th century from the Yamato people.

Around 1500 years ago, the Yamato people set up the first dynasty in what is now known as Japan. Their language eventually evolved into modern Japanese as we know it today.

6. Japanese features loanwords from languages all over the world.

Japanese contains a vast amount of 外来語 (“gairaigo”, loanwords from other languages). However, these don’t just come from English. Some words like テレビ  (“terebi”) derive from English. Indeed, other languages are present too: パン (“pan”, bread) come from Portuguese pão, and アルバイト (“arubaito”, part-time worker) comes from the German word Arbeit (work).

7. Homophones abound.

If you thought that English has a lot of homophones (words that mean different things but are pronounced the same), try studying Japanese! All eight characters below are pronounced shin, but they mean totally different things: God, to advance, to believe, new, true, stretch, heart, and parent, from left to right.

interestingfacts_japanese2Image via James Japan

8. Honorifics abound, too.

Japanese makes extensive use of honorifics, which involve adding suffixes to words in order to show various degrees of respect. Different honorific suffixes are used for peers, children, guests, elders, colleagues, teachers, and more!

9. Japanese is one of the fastest spoken languages.

A recent study compared the speed (in syllables per second) at which native speakers of various languages talk. Japanese topped the list at a rip-roaring 7.84 syllables per second! For comparison, English is spoken at a comparatively snail-paced 6.19 syllables per second.

You may be a blackbelt in karate or a connoisseur of manga, but we’re guessing you didn’t know about Japanese loanwords from Portuguese, or the eight distinct meanings of “shin”!

There’s a lot more to Japanese than just the fun trivia on this list. If you want to learn more, consider taking tailor-made classes from a native Japanese speaker. Whether you want to learn face-to-face or via Skype, Listen & Learn’s course and package options will have something for you. Contact us to find out more information and to kick your Japanese skills into high gear!