Okinawan language

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  • Okinawan: ウチナーグチ / 沖縄口 (uchinaa-guchi)

The Okinawan language is one of several Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. It is spoken chiefly on the island of Okinawa, and by members of the Okinawan diaspora in mainland Japan, and elsewhere in the world. The Ryukyuan languages, along with Japanese, form the Japonic language group. The split in the proto-Japonic language which led to the separate development of the Japanese and Ryukyuan languages is generally believed to have occurred around the third or fourth century CE.[1]

Okinawan is generally divided into two dialects. The Nakijin dialect, spoken in Northern Okinawa, and sometimes called the Kunigami language or dialect, takes its name from Nakijin, the former capital of the northern Okinawan kingdom of Hokuzan. The Southern Okinawan dialect, also known as the Shuri-Naha dialect, is the more dominant of the two, and is a combination of the aristocratic dialect of Shuri (the royal capital of the Kingdom of Ryûkyû) and that of Naha (the kingdom's chief port).


Vocabulary and Phonology

The Okinawan language derives chiefly from the same roots as classical Japanese, and thus the vast majority of words in the language are cognates of words in classical or modern Japanese. Though some Okinawan vocabulary represents borrowing from Chinese and Southeast Asian sources, overall the language borrows from Chinese significantly less than modern Japanese; for many words, the Okinawan vocabulary corresponds more closely with the kun-yomi ("native Japanese") reading for a kanji such as would have been used more commonly in classical Japanese, rather than the on-yomi ("Chinese-style") reading used more commonly today in modern Japanese.

For the most part, the Okinawan language features the same sounds as the Japanese language, albeit shifted slightly. That is to say, the precise pronunciation of a given sound, e.g. /o/ or /chi/, is somewhat different in Okinawan from the Japanese pronunciation. However, overall, the Okinawan language operates on the same syllabary as the Japanese language. Some exceptions are the inclusion in Okinawan of some sounds not found in Japanese, such as /fa/, /fe/, /fi/, /si/, /ti/, /di/, /tu/, and /du/, and the lack of differentiation between some sounds differentiated in Japanese. The sounds /su/ and /shi/, for example, are often interchangeable in Okinawan, the former an element of the Naha dialect, and the latter prominent in the Shuri dialect. The word gusuku, meaning "fortress" or "castle," and alternatively written/pronounced as gushiku, is a good example of this.

Many vowel and consonant sounds are shifted, in a largely regular and predictable manner, as compared to cognates in the Japanese language. The word "Uchinaa" (J: Okinawa) itself is a good example of this, as it reflects that Okinawan words often use 'u' where their Japanese equivalents use 'o', 'chi' in place of 'ki', and 'aa' in place of 'awa'.

No word in Okinawan consists of only a single mora, and vowel sounds are often lengthened as compared to the corresponding word in Japanese. One example of this is the word for "eye" (me め in Japanese, mii' みー in Okinawan).

Japanese sound Okinawan sound Examples
e i fune->funi, mame->maami, te->tii
o u tori->tui, Yamato->Yamatu
ki chi Okinawa->Uchinaa
tsu chi tsume->chimi, tsukuru->chikuin
ari, ori, uri ai, ui, ui hari->haai, tori->tui, Shuri->Sui
awa aa Okinawa->Uchinaa

Many other words in the Okinawan language bear no direct resemblance or correspondence to the Japanese word of the same meaning. Some examples of this include the word gusuku for "fortress" or "castle" (rather than the Japanese shiro or ), nishi for "north" (in contrast to the Japanese kita), and nchu for "person of" in contrast to the Japanese no hito (e.g. J: Shima-no-hito, O: Shimanchu). The Okinawan words for east and west, agari and iri, bear no linguistic connection to the Japanese higashi and nishi, but do show obvious relation to the Japanese words for "rise" (as in rising in the east, agaru) and "enter" (as in, to sink below the horizon in the west, iru).

Okinawan also makes use of a glottal stop, like the 'okina in the Hawaiian language (e.g. as in the word "Hawai'i"), which Japanese does not. The Okinawan language makes a distinction between the words 'yaa (with a glottal stop at front, meaning "you") and yaa (without a glottal stop, meaning "house").


Okinawan sentence structure and grammar bears strong similarities with modern Japanese, and even stronger similarities with classical Japanese. Like Japanese, it relies heavily on the use of particles to connect parts of speech, and places the verb at the end of sentences (or clauses). Like classical Japanese, but somewhat unlike modern Japanese, Okinawan conjugates not only verbs, but adjectives and adverbs as well. The phenomenon of kakari-musubi, all but absent in modern Japanese but prominent in classical Japanese, plays a significant role in Okinawan as well.

In the aristocratic literary language of Shuri, or when trying to lend a more classical or high-class feel to one's speech, the sound ya (や) is the standard topic marker, equivalent to ha (は) as used in Japanese. However, in the Naha dialect, and generally in non-literary Okinawan, the topic marker takes different forms depending on the sound immediately preceding it, often simply lengthening that sound. The first-person pronoun wan (related to the Japanese ware 我) takes an irregular topic marker, becoming wannee.

Word ending Topicalizer Example Topicalized Example
Double-vowel ya Uchinaa (Okinawa); mii (eye) Uchinaa-ya; mii-ya
single 'a' lengthened aa Naafa (Naha) Naafaa
single 'e' or 'i' lengthened ee funi (boat); tui (bird) funee; tuee
single 'o' or 'u' lengthened oo toofu (tofu); gusuku (fortress) toohoo; gusukoo
single 'nu', 'no', or 'n' lengthened noo sanshin sanshinoo


Documents in the Ryûkyû Kingdom were typically written either entirely in Chinese characters, as in the Japanese practice of kanbun, in a combination of Chinese characters and Japanese phonetic kana, or purely in kana. Internal administrative documents were typically written almost entirely in kana, with a minimum of Chinese characters, and in the Okinawan language; communications with China were written in Chinese, and from quite early, communications with Japan were written in the Japanese form of writing known as wayô kanbun.[2]

Some modern linguists have invented new kana to represent those sounds in Okinawan which differ from their Japanese pronunciations, or which do not exist in Japanese. However, outside of such contexts, Okinawan is typically written using the standard kana characters used in Japanese. Katakana is frequently used in Japan for Okinawan words, marking them as foreign (e.g. ウチナー, uchinaa), though many in Okinawa use hiragana, marking these words as non-foreign (e.g. うちなー, uchinaa).

Reading traditional Okinawan texts is complicated by the traditional tendency to use the kana for the equivalent Japanese pronunciation, even though the Okinawan writer & reader would likely see it and pronounce it in the Okinawan manner. For example, a traditional document might use the kana おきなわ, corresponding directly to o-ki-na-wa, intending it to be read u-chi-na-a, and would not write うちなー, as we might today to explicitly indicate the Okinawan reading/pronunciation.


Though generally regarded as a language by linguists and other scholars, on account of its internal consistencies and lack of mutual intelligibility with standard Japanese, Okinawan continues to be typically referred to as a dialect (hôgen) by Japanese people in more general contexts.

In the early 20th century, concerted efforts were made by the Japanese government to standardize Japanese language across the country, and to suppress local dialects, including the Ryukyuan languages. A debate on this issue was a prominent issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, and created harsh divides between Okinawan Studies scholars from around 1940 through at least 1955. In this debate, today often referred to as the Okinawa hôgen ronsô ("Okinawa dialect debate"), one side argued that pressing Okinawans to learn standard Japanese was essential to ensuring their success in this new modern Japan, both in society and in employment, and that if Okinawans were allowed to maintain their local dialects, and not to more fully adopt standard Japanese, it would only invite ridicule and disparaging attitudes; not being able to speak proper standard Japanese would make someone seem less educated, less intelligent, and/or less cosmopolitan, less modern, thus hiding their true talents and abilities, and if Okinawans were to be treated poorly as a result, it would only lead to them feeling self-pity, feelings of inadequacy, and so forth.[3]

Yanagi Sôetsu was among those who led the opposition to the suppression of local dialects, and of the Okinawan language. He wrote that the encouragement of standard Japanese is damaging, and that it imposes a feeling of self-abasement or self-deprecation on the prefecture, that Okinawa should feel it is backwards, and inferior. Sôetsu and other members of the mingei (folk crafts) movement, along with Okinawan scholars such as Kishaba Eijun and Higaonna Kanjun, wrote that Okinawa was the only place where a purer Japanese-like culture still survived, which did not in a modernized (mainland) Japan, and that the Okinawan language, further, preserved elements of the ancient Japanese language more than any dialect in (mainland) Japan. Yanagi wrote that there was much to be learned from the Ryukyuan languages, and that plotting to eliminate them was to bring uncalled-for disdain and contempt upon all regional dialects. Yanagi similarly opposed assimilation programs in Colonial Korea, aimed at suppressing or eliminating Korean language and culture, and assimilating the Korean people into Japanese language, culture, and attitudes. To the Japanese officials governing Okinawa, Yanagi wrote that the most important thing at that time was an awareness of the value of Ryûkyû. Engaging in development efforts starting from this basis of a positive appreciation of Ryûkyû's value, he wrote, was the most proper course.[3]

Okinawan Studies pioneer Ifa Fuyû agreed with the need for the spread of standard Japanese in Okinawa, but was concerned that suitable methods be employed in its teaching and spread, and so expressed his support for Yanagi and the mingei faction, to a certain extent. Thinking of the practical and social consequences, and influenced by his own ideas about Japanese and Ryukyuans being essentially the same race or ethnicity, Ifa was an advocate for Okinawans assimilating as quickly as possible, saying so explicitly in a letter to Higa Shunchô in 1910.[3]


  • Sakihara Mitsugu and Stewart Curry (ed.). Okinawan-English Wordbook. University of Hawaii, 2006.
  1. Thompson, Robin. The Music of Ryukyu. Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. p304.
  2. Chan, Ying Kit. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526).” Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 70.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 11-13.
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