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Standard Chinese, also known as Modern Standard Mandarin and Putonghua, sometimes simply referred to as "Mandarin", is a standard language that is the sole official language of both China and Taiwan, and also one of the four official languages of Singapore. The pronunciation of the standard is based on the Beijing dialect, its vocabulary is drawn from Mandarin dialects, and the grammar is based on literature in the modern written vernacular.

Like other varieties of Chinese, Standard Chinese is a tonal language. It has more initial consonants but fewer vowels, final consonants and tones than southern varieties. Standard Chinese is an analytic language, though with many compound words. Like other varieties of Chinese it is a topic-prominent language and has subject–verb–object word order. The language is written using either traditional or simplified Chinese characters, augmented by Hanyu Pinyin romanization for pedagogical purposes.


In Chinese, the standard variety is known as:

Pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話, literally "common speech") in the People's Republic of China,
Guóyǔ (國語, literally "national language") in Taiwan, and
Huáyǔ (华语/華語, literally "Chinese language") in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia.
Hànyǔ (汉语/漢語, literally the language of the Han tribe) in the United States and elsewhere in the Chinese Diaspora.
Pǔtōnghuà and Guóyǔ
In English, the governments of China and Hong Kong use Putonghua, Putonghua Chinese, and Mandarin, while those of Taiwan,[13][14] Singapore, and Malaysia, use Mandarin.

The term Guoyu had previously been used by non-Han rulers of China to refer to their languages, but in 1909 the Qing education ministry officially applied it to Mandarin, a lingua franca based on northern Chinese varieties, proclaiming it as the new "national language". The name Putonghua also has a long, albeit unofficial, pedigree. It was used as early as 1906 in writings by Zhu Wenxiong (朱文熊) to differentiate a modern standard language from classical Chinese and other varieties of Chinese.

For some linguists of the early 20th century, the Putonghua, or "common tongue", was conceptually different from the Guoyu, or "national language". The former was a national prestige variety, while the latter was the legal standard. Based on common understandings of the time, the two were, in fact, different. Guoyu was understood as formal vernacular Chinese, which is close to classical Chinese. By contrast, Putonghua was called "the common speech of the modern man", which is the spoken language adopted as a national lingua franca by conventional usage. The use of the term Putonghua by left-leaning intellectuals such as Qu Qiubai and Lu Xun influenced the People's Republic of China government to adopt that term to describe Mandarin in 1956. Prior to this, the government used both terms interchangeably.

In Taiwan, Guoyu (national language) continues to be the official term for Standard Chinese. The term Guoyu is less used in the PRC, because declaring a Beijing-dialect-based standard to be the national language would be deemed unfair to other Chinese varieties and ethnic minorities.[citation needed] The term Putonghua (common speech), on the contrary, implies nothing more than the notion of a lingua franca. During the government of a pro-Taiwan independence coalition in the ROC (2000–2008), officials promoted a different reading of Guoyu as all of the "national languages", meaning Hokkien, Hakka and Formosan as well as Standard Chinese.

Huayu, or "language of the Chinese nation", originally simply meant "Chinese language", and was used in overseas communities to contrast Chinese with foreign languages. Over time, the desire to standardise the variety of Chinese spoken in these communities led to the adoption of the name "Huayu" to refer to Mandarin. This name also avoids choosing a side between the alternative names of Putonghua and Guoyu, which came to have political significance after their usages diverged along political lines between the PRC and the ROC. It also incorporates the notion that Mandarin is usually not the national or common language of the areas in which overseas Chinese live.

The term "Mandarin" (from Sanskrit mantrin "counselor" via Portuguese mandarim) originally referred to civil officers of the Chinese empire. It was then extended to the language used by the imperial court in Beijing and sometimes by imperial officials elsewhere (simplified Chinese: 官话; traditional Chinese: 官話; pinyin: Guānhuà; literally: "speech of officials"), and as such was adopted as a synonym for Modern Standard Chinese in the 20th century, but the term became ambiguous as its use was extended to the various Northern dialects of Chinese (simplified Chinese: 北方话; traditional Chinese: 北方話; pinyin: Běifānghuà). This article will use the phrase "Mandarin dialects" for this broader usage. The name Modern Standard Mandarin is sometimes encountered among linguists who wish to distinguish the current state of the shared language from other northern and historic dialects.[24]

In English, "(Modern) Standard Chinese" tends to be used when contrasting with non-Chinese languages,[citation needed] while "Mandarin" tends to be used for both this standard and for Northern Chinese when there is a contrast with other varieties of Chinese. However, in both English and Chinese, "Mandarin" (官话, Guānhuà) has largely taken over the latter meaning,[citation needed] so phrases like "Standard Mandarin (Chinese)" have become more common.


Chinese has long had considerable dialectal variation, hence prestige dialects have always existed, and linguae francae have always been needed. Confucius, for example, used yǎyán (雅 言), or "elegant speech", rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通 语), or "common language". Rime books, which were written since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, may also have reflected one or more systems of standard pronunciation during those times. However, all of these standard dialects were probably unknown outside the educated elite; even among the elite, pronunciations may have been very different, as the unifying factor of all Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese, was a written standard, not a spoken one.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) began to use the term guānhuà (官话/官話), or "official speech", to refer to the speech used at the courts. The term "Mandarin" is borrowed directly from Portuguese. The Portuguese word mandarim, derived from the Sanskrit word mantrin "counselor or minister", was first used to refer to the Chinese bureaucratic officials. The Portuguese then translated guānhuà as "the language of the mandarins" or "the mandarin language".

In the 17th century, the Empire had set up Orthoepy Academies (正音书院/正音書院 Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) in an attempt to make pronunciation conform to the standard. But these attempts had little success, since as late as the 19th century the emperor had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court, who did not always try to follow any standard pronunciation.

Before the 19th century, the standard was based on the Nanjing dialect, but later the Beijing dialect became increasingly influential, despite the mix of officials and commoners speaking various dialects in the capital, Beijing. By some accounts, as late as the early 20th century, the position of Nanjing Mandarin was considered to be higher than that of Beijing by some and the postal romanization standards set in 1906 included spellings with elements of Nanjing pronunciation.[28] Nevertheless, by 1909, the dying Qing Dynasty had established the Beijing dialect as guóyǔ (国语/國語), or the "national language".

After the Republic of China was established in 1912, there was more success in promoting a common national language. A Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation was convened with delegates from the entire country, who were chosen as often due to political considerations as they were for their linguistic expertise. A Dictionary of National Pronunciation (国音字典/國音字典) was published, which was based on the Beijing dialect. Meanwhile, colloquial literature continued to develop apace written vernacular Chinese, despite the lack of a standardized pronunciation. Gradually, the members of the National Language Commission came to settle upon the Beijing dialect, which became the major source of standard national pronunciation due to its prestigious status. In 1932, the commission published the Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (国音常用. 字汇/國音常用. 字彙), with little fanfare or official pronunciation. This dictionary was similar to the previous published one except that it normalized the pronunciations for all characters into the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect. Elements from other dialects continue to exist in the standard language, but as exceptions rather than the rule.

After the Chinese Civil War, the People's Republic of China continued the effort, and in 1955, officially renamed guóyǔ as pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話), or "common speech". By contrast, the name guóyǔ continued to be used by the Republic of China which, after the 1949 loss in the Chinese Civil War, had a territory consisting of Taiwan and some smaller islands. Since then, the standards used in the PRC and Taiwan have diverged somewhat, especially in newer vocabulary terms, and a little in pronunciation.

The advent of the 20th century has seen many profound changes in Mandarin. Many formal, polite and humble words that were in use in imperial China have not been used in daily conversation in modern-day Mandarin, such as jiàn (贱/賤 "my humble") and guì (贵/貴 "your honorable").

In 1956, the standard language of the People's Republic of China was officially defined as: "Pǔtōnghuà is the standard form of Modern Chinese with the Beijing phonological system as its norm of pronunciation, and Northern dialects as its base dialect, and looking to exemplary modern works in báihuà 'vernacular literary language' for its grammatical norms." By the official definition, Standard Chinese uses:

The phonology or sound system of Beijing. A distinction should be made between the sound system of a variety and the actual pronunciation of words in it. The pronunciations of words chosen for the standardized language do not necessarily reproduce all of those of the Beijing dialect. The pronunciation of words is a standardization choice and occasional standardization differences (not accents) do exist, between Putonghua and Guoyu, for example.
The vocabulary of Mandarin dialects in general. This means that all slang and other elements deemed "regionalisms" are excluded. On the one hand, the vocabulary of all Chinese varieties, especially in more technical fields like science, law, and government, are very similar. (This is similar to the profusion of Latin and Greek words in European languages.) This means that much of the vocabulary of Standard Chinese is shared with all varieties of Chinese. On the other hand, much of the colloquial vocabulary and slang found in Beijing dialect is not found in Standard Chinese, and may not be understood by people outside Beijing.
The grammar and idiom of exemplary modern Chinese literature, such as the work of Lu Xun, collectively known as "vernacular" (baihua). Modern written vernacular Chinese is in turn based loosely upon a mixture of northern (predominant), southern, and classical grammar and usage. This gives formal Standard Chinese structure a slightly different feel from that of street Beijing dialect.

Current Role

From an official point of view, Standard Chinese serves the purpose of a lingua franca — a way for speakers of the several mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese, as well as the Chinese minorities, to communicate with each other. The very name Putonghua, or "common speech," reinforces this idea. In practice, however, due to Standard Chinese being a "public" lingua franca, other Chinese varieties and even non-Sinitic languages, have shown signs of losing ground to the standard, to the chagrin of certain local culture proponents.

In both China and Taiwan, the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in the educational system and in the media has contributed to the spread of Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken fluently by most people in China and Taiwan.

Although both China and Taiwan use Standard Chinese in the official context and are keen to promote its use as a national lingua franca, there is no explicit official intent to have Standard Chinese replace the regional varieties. Practically some elderly or rural Chinese-language speakers do not speak Standard Chinese fluently, if at all, though most are able to understand it. But the younger generations are almost all fluent in Standard Chinese, some to the extent of being unable to speak their local dialect.

In the predominantly Han areas in mainland China, while the use of Standard Chinese is encouraged as the common working language, the PRC has been sensitive to the status of minority languages and has not discouraged their use. Standard Chinese is commonly used for logistical reasons,[citation needed] as, in many parts of southern China, the linguistic diversity is so large that neighboring city dwellers may have difficulties communicating with each other without a lingua franca.

In Taiwan, the relationship between Standard Chinese and other varieties, particularly Taiwanese Hokkien, has been more politically heated. During the martial law period under the Kuomintang (KMT) between 1949 and 1987, the KMT government revived the Mandarin Promotion Council and discouraged or, in some cases, forbade the use of Hokkien and other non-standard varieties. This produced a political backlash in the 1990s. Under the administration of Chen Shui-Bian, other Taiwanese varieties were taught in schools. The former President, Chen Shui-Bian, often spoke in Hokkien during speeches, while after the late 1990s, former President Lee Teng-hui, also speaks Hokkien openly.

In Hong Kong and Macau, which are now special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China, Cantonese has been the primary language spoken by the majority of the population, for historical and linguistic reasons. Cantonese remains the official government language of Hong Kong and Macau. After Hong Kong's handover from the United Kingdom and Macau's handover from Portugal, Putonghua is the language used by the governments of the two territories to communicate with the Central People's Government of the PRC. There have been widespread efforts to promote usage of Putonghua in Hong Kong since the handover,[32] with specific efforts to train police and teachers.

In Singapore, the government has heavily promoted a "Speak Mandarin Campaign" since the late 1970s. The use of other Chinese varieties in broadcast media is prohibited and their use in any context is officially discouraged. This has led to some resentment amongst the older generations, as Singapore's migrant Chinese community is made up almost entirely of people of south Chinese descent. Lee Kuan Yew, the initiator of the campaign, admitted that to most Chinese Singaporeans, Mandarin was a "stepmother tongue" rather than a true mother language. Nevertheless, he saw the need for a unified language among the Chinese community not biased in favor of any existing group.

Mandarin is now spreading overseas beyond East Asia and Southeast Asia as well. In New York City, USA, use of Cantonese that dominated the Manhattan Chinatown for decades is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.

Standard Chinese and Education System

In both the PRC and Taiwan, Standard Chinese is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Standard Chinese, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week in Taiwan starting in the mid-1990s.

In December 2004, the first survey of language use in the People's Republic of China revealed that only 53% of its population, about 700 million people, could communicate in Standard Chinese. This 53% is defined as a passing grade above 3-B (a score above 60%) of the Evaluation Exam. In 2014, the Ministry of Education estimated that about 70% of the population of China speaks some Standard Chinese, but only one tenth of those could speak smoothly.

With the fast development of China, more Chinese people leaving rural areas for cities for job or study opportunities, and the Putonghua Evaluation Exam (普通话水平测试) has quickly become popular. Many university graduates take this exam before looking for a job. Employers often require varying proficiency in Standard Chinese from applicants depending on the nature of the positions. Applicants of some positions, e.g. telephone operators, may be required to obtain a certificate. People raised in Beijing are sometimes considered inherently 1-A (一级甲等)(A score of at least 97%) and exempted from this requirement.[citation needed] As for the rest, the score of 1-A is rare. According to the official definition of proficiency levels, people who get 1-B (A score of at least 92%) are considered qualified to work as television correspondents or in broadcasting stations.[citation needed] 2-A (A score of at least 87%) can work as Chinese Literature Course teachers in public schools.[citation needed] Other levels include: 2-B (A score of at least 80%), 3-A (A score of at least 70%) and 3-B (A score of at least 60%). In China, a proficiency of level 3-B usually cannot be achieved unless special training is received. Even though many Chinese do not speak with standard pronunciation, spoken Standard Chinese is widely understood to some degree.

The China National Language And Character Working Committee was founded in 1985. One of its important responsibilities is to promote Standard Chinese proficiency for Chinese native speakers.


Although Chinese speakers make a clear distinction between Standard Chinese and the Beijing dialect, there are aspects of Beijing dialect that have made it into the official standard. Standard Chinese has a T–V distinction between the polite and informal "you" that comes from the Beijing dialect, although its use is quite diminished in daily speech. In addition, it also distinguishes between "zánmen" (we including the listener) and "wǒmen" (we not including the listener). In practice, neither distinction is commonly used by most Chinese, at least outside the Beijing area.

The following samples are some phrases from the Beijing dialect which are not yet[citation needed] accepted into Standard Chinese:

倍儿 bèir means 'very much'; 拌蒜 bànsuàn means 'stagger'; 不吝 bù lìn means 'do not worry about'; 撮 cuō means 'eat'; 出溜 chūliū means 'slip'; (大)老爷儿们儿 dà lǎoyermenr means 'man, male'.
The following samples are some phrases from Beijing dialect which have become accepted as Standard Chinese:

二把刀 èr bǎ dāo means 'not very skillful'; 哥们儿 gēménr means 'good male friend(s)', 'buddy(ies)'; 抠门儿 kōu ménr means 'parsimonious' or 'stingy'.

Writing System

The writing system for almost all the varieties of Chinese is based on a set of written logograms that has been passed down with little change for more than two thousand years. Each of these varieties of Chinese has developed some new words during this time, words for which there are no matching characters in the original set. While it is possible to invent new characters (as was done to represent many elements in the periodic table), a more common course of development has been to borrow old characters that have fallen into disuse on the basis of their pronunciations. Chinese Characters were traditionally read from top to bottom, right to left, but in modern usage it is more common to read from left to right.

In Classical Chinese, the demonstrative pronouns were 此 cǐ "this" and 彼 bǐ "that". These terms were rare in spoken Mandarin, where zhè and nà (or regional variants of them) were used instead. None of the original characters had those meanings associated with those pronunciations, so the character 这/這 for zhè "to meet" was borrowed to write "this", and the character 那 for nà, the name of a country and later a rare surname, was borrowed to write "that".

The government of the PRC (as well as some other governments and institutions) has promulgated a set of simplified forms. Under this system, the forms of the words zhèlǐ ("here") and nàlǐ ("there") changed from 這裏/這裡 and 那裏/那裡 to 这里 and 那里.







Korean (한국어/조선말) is the official language of both South Korea and North Korea, as well as one of the two official languages in China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. About 80 million people speak Korean worldwide. For over a millennium, Koreans wrote with adapted Chinese characters called hanja, complemented by phonetic systems like hyangchal, gugyeol, and idu. In the 15th century, Sejong the Great commissioned a national writing system called Hangul, but it only came into widespread use in the 20th century, because of the yangban aristocracy's preference for hanja.

Historical linguists classify Korean as a language isolate.The idea that Korean belongs to a putative Altaic language family has been generally discredited. The Korean language is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax.

Korean is descended from Proto-Korean, Old Korean, Middle Korean, and Modern Korean. Since the Korean War, contemporary North–South differences have developed in standard Korean, including variance in pronunciation, verb inflection, and vocabulary.


The Korean names for the language are based on the names for Korea used in North and South Korea.

In South Korea, the language is most often called Hangungmal (한국말), consisting of Hanguk (한국, /hɐːnguk̚/), the South Korean name for Korea, and mal (말, /mal/), meaning "speech"; the /k̚/ at the end of the first word becomes /ŋ/ by the rules of consonant assimilation in Korean phonology. More formally, it may also be called Hangugeo (한국어) or Gugeo (국어; literally "national language").[citation needed]

In North Korea and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China, the language is most often called Chosŏnmal (조선말), or more formally, Chosŏnŏ (조선어).[citation needed]

The English word "Korean" is derived from Goryeo (고려), which is thought to be the first dynasty known to Western countries. Korean people in the former USSR, who refer to themselves as Koryo-saram (고려사람; also Goryeo In [고려인; 高麗人; literally, "Goryeo person(s)"]) call the language Koryo-mar (고려말).

In mainland China, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, the term Cháoxiǎnyǔ (朝鲜语 or the short form: Cháoyǔ (朝语)) has normally been used to refer to the standard language of North Korea and Yanbian, whereas Hánguóyǔ (韩国语 or the short form: Hányǔ (韩语)) is used to refer to the standard language of South Korea.[citation needed]

Some older English sources also use the spelling "Corea" to refer to the country, and its inflected form for the language and people, "Korea" becoming more popular in the late 1800s according to Google's NGram English corpus as of 2015.


Korean has numerous small local dialects (called mal (말) [literally "speech"], saturi (사투리), or bang'eon (방언) in Korean). The standard language (pyojuneo or pyojunmal) of both South Korea and North Korea is based on the dialect of the area around Seoul, though the northern standard has been influenced by the dialect of P'yŏngyang. All dialects of Korean are similar to each other and at least partially mutually intelligible, though the dialect of Jeju Island is divergent enough to be sometimes classified as a separate language. One of the more salient differences between dialects is the use of tone: speakers of Seoul dialect make use of vowel length, whereas speakers of the Gyeongsang dialect maintain the pitch accent of Middle Korean. Some dialects are conservative, maintaining Middle Korean sounds (such as z, β, ə) which have been lost from the standard language, whereas others are highly innovative.

There is substantial evidence for a history of extensive dialect levelling, or even convergent evolution or intermixture of two or more originally distinct linguistic stocks, within the Korean language and its dialects. Many Korean dialects have basic vocabulary that is etymologically distinct from vocabulary of identical meaning in Standard Korean or other dialects, such as South Jeolla dialect /kur/ vs. Standard Korean 입 /ip/ "mouth" or Gyeongsang dialect /t͡ɕʌŋ.ɡu.d͡ʑi/ vs. Standard Korean /puːt͡ɕʰu/ "garlic chives". This suggests that the Korean Peninsula may have at one time been much more linguistically diverse than it is at present. See also the Buyeo languages hypothesis.


The core of the Korean vocabulary is made up of native Korean words. A significant proportion of the vocabulary, especially words that denote abstract ideas, are Sino-Korean words,either directly borrowed from written Chinese, or coined in Korea or Japan using Chinese characters.
The exact proportion of Sino-Korean vocabulary is a matter of debate. Sohn (2001) stated 50–60%. Later, the same author (2006, p. 5) gives an even higher estimate of 65%. Jeong Jae-do, one of the compilers of the dictionary Urimal Keun Sajeon, asserts that the proportion is not so high. He points out that Korean dictionaries compiled during the colonial period include many unused Sino-Korean words. In his estimation, the proportion of native Korean vocabulary in the Korean language might be as high as 70%.

Korean has two numeral systems: one native, and one borrowed from Sino-Korean.

To a much lesser extent, some words have also been borrowed from Mongolian and other languages. Conversely, the Korean language itself has also contributed some loanwords to other languages, most notably the Tsushima dialect of Japanese.

The vast majority of loanwords other than Sino-Korean come from modern times, approximately 90% of which are from English. Many words have also been borrowed from Western languages such as German via Japanese (아르바이트 (areubaiteu) "part-time job", 알레르기 (allereugi) "allergy", 기브스 (gibseu or gibuseu) "plaster cast used for broken bones"). Some Western words were borrowed indirectly via Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea, taking a Japanese sound pattern, for example "dozen" > ダース dāsu > 다스 daseu. Most indirect Western borrowings are now written according to current "Hangulization" rules for the respective Western language, as if borrowed directly. There are a few more complicated borrowings such as "German(y)" (see names of Germany), the first part of whose endonym [ˈd̥ɔɪ̯t͡ʃʷ.la̠ntʰ] the Japanese approximated using the kanji 獨逸 doitsu that were then accepted into the Korean language by their Sino-Korean pronunciation: 獨 dok + 逸 il = Dogil. In South Korean official use, a number of other Sino-Korean country names have been replaced with phonetically oriented "Hangeulizations" of the countries' endonyms or English names.

Because of such a prevalence of English in modern Korean culture and society, lexical borrowing is inevitable. English-derived Korean, or 'Konglish' (콩글리쉬), is increasingly used. The vocabulary of the Korean language is roughly 5% loanwords (excluding Sino-Korean vocabulary).

Korean uses words adapted from English in ways that may seem strange to native English speakers. For example, in soccer heading (헤딩) is used as a noun meaning a 'header', whereas fighting (화이팅) is a term of encouragement like 'come on'/'go (on)' in English. Something that is 'service' (서비스) is free or 'on the house'. A building referred to as an 'apart-uh' (아파트) is an 'apartment' (but in fact refers to a residence more akin to a condominium) and a type of pencil that is called a 'sharp' (샤프) is a mechanical pencil.

North Korean vocabulary shows a tendency to prefer native Korean over Sino-Korean or foreign borrowings, especially with recent political objectives aimed at eliminating foreign influences on the Korean language in the North. In the early years, the North Korean government tried to eliminate Sino-Korean words. Consequently, South Korean may have several Sino-Korean or foreign borrowings which are not in North Korean.

Writing System

Formerly, the languages of the Korean peninsula were written using hanja, called hyangchal or idu: the use of Chinese characters either as rebuses to stand for Korean words, or as synonyms for those words. Writing was confined to the ruling elite, who most often wrote only in Classical Chinese.

Sejong the Great promulgated the Korean alphabet, hangul, in 1446. Korean is now written almost exclusively in hangul, which is sometimes combined with hanja in South Korea. South Korean high schools still teach 1,800 hanja, while North Korea abolished hanja after 1948.

Modern Korean is written with spaces between words, a feature not found in Chinese or Japanese. Korean punctuation marks are almost identical to Western ones. Traditionally, Korean was written in columns, from top to bottom, right to left, but is now usually written in rows, from left to right, top to bottom.











Japanese (日本語 Nihongo?, [nihõŋɡo], [nihõŋŋo] ( listen)) is an East Asian language spoken by about 125 million speakers, primarily in Japan, where it is the national language. It is a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family, whose relation to other language groups, particularly to Korean and the suggested Altaic language family, is debated.

Little is known of the language's prehistory, or when it first appeared in Japan. Chinese documents from the 3rd century recorded a few Japanese words, but substantial texts did not appear until the 8th century. During the Heian period (794–1185), Chinese had considerable influence on the vocabulary and phonology of Old Japanese. Late Middle Japanese (1185–1600) saw changes in features that brought it closer to the modern language, as well as the first appearance of European loanwords. The standard dialect moved from the Kansai region to the Edo (modern Tokyo) region in the Early Modern Japanese period (early 17th century–mid-19th century). Following the end in 1853 of Japan's self-imposed isolation, the flow of loanwords from European languages increased significantly. English loanwords in particular have become frequent, and Japanese words from English roots have proliferated.

Japanese is an agglutinative, mora-timed language with simple phonotactics, a pure vowel system, phonemic vowel and consonant length, and a lexically significant pitch-accent. Word order is normally subject–object–verb with particles marking the grammatical function of words, and sentence structure is topic–comment. Sentence-final particles are used to add emotional or emphatic impact, or make questions. Nouns have no grammatical number or gender, and there are no articles. Verbs are conjugated, primarily for tense and voice, but not person. Japanese equivalents of adjectives are also conjugated. Japanese has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned.

Japanese has no genetic relationship with Chinese, but it makes extensive use of Chinese characters, or kanji (漢字?), in its writing system, and a large portion of its vocabulary is borrowed from Chinese. Along with kanji, the Japanese writing system primarily uses two syllabic (or moraic) scripts, hiragana (ひらがな or 平仮名?) and katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名?). Latin script is used in a limited fashion, such as for imported acronyms, and the numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals alongside traditional Chinese numerals.


Dozens of dialects are spoken in Japan. The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the archipelago has been inhabited, its mountainous island terrain, and Japan's long history of both external and internal isolation. Dialects typically differ in terms of pitch accent, inflectional morphology, vocabulary, and particle usage. Some even differ in vowel and consonant inventories, although this is uncommon.

The main distinction in Japanese accents is between Tokyo-type (東京式 Tōkyō-shiki?) and Kyoto-Osaka-type (京阪式 Keihan-shiki?). Within each type are several subdivisions. Kyoto-Osaka-type dialects are in the central region, roughly formed by Kansai, Shikoku, and western Hokuriku regions.

Dialects from peripheral regions, such as Tōhoku or Kagoshima, may be unintelligible to speakers from the other parts of the country. There are some language islands in mountain villages or isolated islands such as Hachijō-jima island whose dialect are descended from the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese. Dialects of the Kansai region are spoken or known by many Japanese, and Osaka dialect in particular is associated with comedy (see Kansai dialect). Dialects of Tōhoku and North Kantō are associated with typical farmers.

The Ryūkyūan languages, spoken in Okinawa and the Amami Islands (politically part of Kagoshima), are distinct enough to be considered a separate branch of the Japonic family; not only is each language unintelligible to Japanese speakers, but most are unintelligible to those who speak other Ryūkyūan languages. However, in contrast to linguists, many ordinary Japanese people tend to consider the Ryūkyūan languages as dialects of Japanese. This is the result of the official language policy of the Japanese government, which has declared those languages to be dialects and prohibited their use in schools.

The imperial court also seems to have spoken an unusual variant of the Japanese of the time.

Standard Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands) due to education, mass media, and an increase of mobility within Japan, as well as economic integration.


The original language of Japan, or at least the original language of a certain population that was ancestral to a significant portion of the historical and present Japanese nation, was the so-called yamato kotoba (大和言葉 or infrequently 大和詞, i.e. "Yamato words"), which in scholarly contexts is sometimes referred to as wago (和語 or rarely 倭語, i.e. the "Wa words"). In addition to words from this original language, present-day Japanese includes a number of words that were either borrowed from Chinese or constructed from Chinese roots following Chinese patterns. These words, known as kango (漢語), entered the language from the 5th century onwards via contact with Chinese culture. According to the Shinsen Kokugo Jiten (新選国語辞典) Japanese dictionary, kango comprise 49.1% of the total vocabulary, wago make up 33.8%, other foreign words or gairaigo (外来語) account for 8.8%, and the remaining 8.3% constitute hybridized words or konshugo (混種語) that draw elements from more than one language.

There are also a great number of words of mimetic origin in Japanese, with Japanese having a rich collection of sound symbolism, both onomatopoeia for physical sounds, and more abstract words. A small number of words have come into Japanese from the Ainu language. Tonakai (reindeer), rakko (sea otter) and shishamo (smelt, a type of fish) are well-known examples of words of Ainu origin.

Words of different origins occupy different registers in Japanese. Like Latin-derived words in English, kango words are typically perceived as somewhat formal or academic compared to equivalent Yamato words. Indeed, it is generally fair to say that an English word derived from Latin/French roots typically corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Yamato equivalent.

Incorporating vocabulary from European languages began with borrowings from Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by words from Dutch during Japan's long isolation of the Edo period. With the Meiji Restoration and the reopening of Japan in the 19th century, borrowing occurred from German, French, and English. Today most borrowings are from English.

In the Meiji era, the Japanese also coined many neologisms using Chinese roots and morphology to translate European concepts;[citation needed] these are known as wasei kango (Japanese-made Chinese words). Many of these were then imported into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese via their kanji in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[citation needed] For example, seiji 政治 ("politics"), and kagaku 化学 ("chemistry") are words derived from Chinese roots that were first created and used by the Japanese, and only later borrowed into Chinese and other East Asian languages. As a result, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese share a large common corpus of vocabulary in the same way a large number of Greek- and Latin-derived words – both inherited or borrowed into European languages, or modern coinages from Greek or Latin roots – are shared among modern European languages – see classical compound.[citation needed]

In the past few decades, wasei-eigo ("made-in-Japan English") has become a prominent phenomenon. Words such as wanpatān ワンパターン (< one + pattern, "to be in a rut", "to have a one-track mind") and sukinshippu スキンシップ (< skin + -ship, "physical contact"), although coined by compounding English roots, are nonsensical in most non-Japanese contexts; exceptions exist in nearby languages such as Korean however, which often use words such as skinship and rimokon (remote control) in the same way as in Japanese.

The popularity of many Japanese cultural exports has made some native Japanese words familiar in English, including futon, haiku, judo, kamikaze, karaoke, karate, ninja, origami, rickshaw (from 人力車 jinrikisha), samurai, sayonara, sudoku, sumo, sushi, tsunami, tycoon. See list of English words of Japanese origin for more.

Writing System

Literacy was introduced to Japan in the form of the Chinese writing system, by way of Baekje before the 5th century. Using this language, the Japanese king Bu presented a petition to Emperor Shun of Liu Song in AD 478.[a] After the ruin of Baekje, Japan invited scholars from China to learn more of the Chinese writing system. Japanese emperors gave an official rank to Chinese scholars (続守言/薩弘格/[b][c] 袁晋卿[d]) and spread the use of Chinese characters from the 7th century to the 8th century.

At first, the Japanese wrote in Classical Chinese, with Japanese names represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later, during the 7th century AD, the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose, but some Japanese words were still written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when the history of Japanese as a written language begins in its own right. By this time, the Japanese language was already very distinct from the Ryukyuan languages.

An example of this mixed style is the Kojiki, which was written in AD 712. They then started to use Chinese characters to write Japanese in a style known as man'yōgana, a syllabic script which used Chinese characters for their sounds in order to transcribe the words of Japanese speech syllable by syllable.

Over time, a writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write either words borrowed from Chinese, or Japanese words with the same or similar meanings. Chinese characters were also used to write grammatical elements, were simplified, and eventually became two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana which were developed based on Manyogana from Baekje. However this hypothesis "Manyogana from Baekje" is denied by other scholars.

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of three main systems: kanji, characters of Chinese origin used to represent both Chinese loanwords into Japanese and a number of native Japanese morphemes; and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. The Latin script (or romaji in Japanese) is used to a certain extent, such as for imported acronyms and to transcribe Japanese names and in other instances where non-Japanese speakers need to know how to pronounce a word (such as "ramen" at a restaurant). Arabic numerals are much more common than the kanji when used in counting, but kanji numerals are still used in compounds, such as 統一 tōitsu ("unification").

Hiragana are used for words without kanji representation, for words no longer written in kanji, and also following kanji to show conjugational endings. Because of the way verbs (and adjectives) in Japanese are conjugated, kanji alone cannot fully convey Japanese tense and mood, as kanji cannot be subject to variation when written without losing its meaning. For this reason, hiragana are suffixed to the ends of kanji to show verb and adjective conjugations. Hiragana used in this way are called okurigana. Hiragana can also be written in a superscript called furigana above or beside a kanji to show the proper reading. This is done to facilitate learning, as well as to clarify particularly old or obscure (or sometimes invented) readings.

Katakana, like hiragana, are a syllabary; katakana are primarily used to write foreign words, plant and animal names, and for emphasis. For example, "Australia" has been adapted as Ōsutoraria (オーストラリア), and "supermarket" has been adapted and shortened into sūpā (スーパー).

Historically, attempts to limit the number of kanji in use commenced in the mid-19th century, but did not become a matter of government intervention until after Japan's defeat in the Second World War. During the period of post-war occupation (and influenced by the views of some U.S. officials), various schemes including the complete abolition of kanji and exclusive use of rōmaji were considered. The jōyō kanji ("common use kanji", originally called tōyō kanji [kanji for general use]) scheme arose as a compromise solution.

Japanese students begin to learn kanji from their first year at elementary school. A guideline created by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the list of kyōiku kanji ("education kanji", a subset of jōyō kanji), specifies the 1,006 simple characters a child is to learn by the end of sixth grade. Children continue to study another 1,130 characters in junior high school, covering in total 2,136 jōyō kanji. The official list of jōyō kanji was revised several times, but the total number of officially sanctioned characters remained largely unchanged.

As for kanji for personal names, the circumstances are somewhat complicated. Jōyō kanji and jinmeiyō kanji (an appendix of additional characters for names) are approved for registering personal names. Names containing unapproved characters are denied registration. However, as with the list of jōyō kanji, criteria for inclusion were often arbitrary and led to many common and popular characters being disapproved for use. Under popular pressure and following a court decision holding the exclusion of common characters unlawful, the list of jinmeiyō kanji was substantially extended from 92 in 1951 (the year it was first decreed) to 983 in 2004. Furthermore, families whose names are not on these lists were permitted to continue using the older forms.