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JAPANESE AND CHINESE - PART 1: Are Japanese and Chinese Related?

Viewed 897 times 2017-3-12 05:30 |System category:Life| language

Recently I read a post on CD that speculated on the reason why Japanese writing contains Chinese characters (mixed with otherwise unintelligible writing): that Japan was originally populated by migrants from China, and that they carried some memory of Chinese characters with them.

Although it is probably likely that Japan was originally populated by migrants from China, that is not the explanation for why Chinese characters are part of Japanese writing.  The Chinese and Japanese languages are completely different and unrelated -- as different from each other as any two languages on the planet.  Chinese and Japanese are as different from each other as each of them is from English.  

From the point of view of Historical & Comparative Linguistics (the branch of Linguistic Science that deals with language change and tracing relationships among languages) it would take at least 8,000 years of separation for two language groups that were originally related to change so much that they showed no relationship at all.  That means that, even if the Japanese are descended from migrants from China, it happened so long ago that Chinese characters had not yet begun to be developed

So then, what is the actual reason for the Chinese characters in Japanese writing?  How are those characters used?  Why are the Chinese characters in Japanese mixed up with different, unintelligible writing?

I am writing this blog in two parts. The second part will answer the questions above.  The first part will look at  how different the Japanese language is from Chinese, because that has a lot to do with how Japanese writing evolved.  I will also talk a little in Part One about the branch of Linguistic science called  Historical and Comparative Linguistics, because Linguistic science is a very interesting subject for me personally, and I have a degree in it.

Historical and Comparative Linguistics studies the process of language change. Historical and Comparative Linguistics studies the relationships among different languages, close and distant.  For example, Spanish is obviously related to Italian, although the two languages are different.  Spanish is also related to German, Russian and Sanskrit, but the relationship is not so obvious,  pointing to a separation many more millennia in the past.    By studying the geographic distribution of related languages and the speed of language change, Historical & Comparative Linguistics offers important clues about the past, including when different people migrated, where they originally came from and how long ago they arrived at their present location, and also how long ago they interacted with other groups that influenced their language.   

There are three areas of comparison among languages: the sound system, the vocabulary, and morphosyntax, or grammar.  These characteristics change at different rates.   Sound systems change the fastest and in a matter of centuries, two branches of a language group can develop very different phonemic systems.  (See my blog on phonemes.)  However, the changes are consistent: if a language group substutes an /n/ sound for an /r/ sound, it will happen consistently from word to word, not randomly with some words randomly changing one way and some words another way.

Vocabulary can readily change through borrowing from other languages, but common everyday words change slowly; thus, most of the everyday language of English comes from Old English (Germanic) roots, while most of the academic-level vocabulary comes from French and Latin.  Example: the everyday word "water" is related to the German "wasser," while the elements "aqua-" and "hydro-," which also mean water, come from Latin and Greek respectively, and if you count the dictionary words that contain "aqua-" and "hydro-," they will likely outnumber the words in the dictionary that contain "water."    But if you count the number of times people say "water" every day compared to the number of times people say words containing "aqua-" or "hydro-" every day, "water" wins.    This illustrates the fact that words that people use every day are the best clues to the ancestry of the language.  

Syntax (sentence structure) and morphology (how words are built up from their elements) change the least over time, Since these two things are related and are often studied together, the words are often combined as "morphosyntax," and morphosyntax is the best clue to ancient language relationships.   As different as Greek, Farsi, Sanskrit and German seem to be, their morphosyntax is very similar -- they all belong to the Indo-European language phylum.  It is like two animal species that may appear very different, but their skeletons reveal an underlying common ancestry.  Morphosyntax is like the "skeleton" of a language, and is what persists the longest.

In common language, morphosyntax is usually called "grammar," but linguistic scientists use the word "grammar" to refer to ALL of the rules and patterns of a language, not only the morphology and syntax.  From here on I will use the word "grammar" for morphosyntax.

So let us look at Japanese and compare these three aspects -- sound system, vocabulary, and grammar -- with Chinese.

First: the sound system.  The Japanese sound system is very different from Chinese.  Most foreign learners find Japanese pronunciation to be easy (much easier than Chinese).  Japanese has no tones, but vowels are phonemically lengthened (meaning that changing the length of the vowel can change the meaning of a word -- see my blog on phonemes).    Many of the vowels and consonants found in Chinese (including sounds that are difficult for foreign learners) are not found in Japanese.  

However, as I said, similarity of  differences in sounds are the least valuable clue about the language relationships.  Indeed, if sound systems were the criteria, then we might think that Japanese was related to Italian or Indonesian.  But it is not.

The second criterion is vocabulary.    

Between two languages that are distantly related, when you compare lists of the most simple everyday words in both languages, parallels will begin to emerge.  For example, are the French and Spanish words for "school," "ecole" and "escuela," related?  We find out by comparing other pairs of words -- for example, "ecouter" and "escuchar," both meaning "to listen" -- to see if similar patterns emerge.  

Languages always borrow words from other languages as different people come into contact with each other.  Sometimes there are conquests and some languages are subjugated and then the influence of the conquering language is heavy.  The majority of words in the English dictionary may be borrowed from Latin or Greek -- like "aquarium" and "hydrology," both with roots meaning "water" -- but the everyday word "water" reveals the original roots of English.  Japanese vocabulary contains many Chinese borrowings, but, like the Latin words in English, these words tend to be the academic, literary vocabulary, not everyday words.

So let's look at some everyday words in Japanese and see what similarities are there or not.

where = doku
what = nani
how = ikaga
when = itsu
big = ookii
small = chiisai
bird = tori
dog = inu
egg = tamago
head = atama
foot = ashi
to eat = taberu
to drink = nomu
to sleep = neru
to live = ikiru
to laugh = warau

No parallels with Chinese vocabulary appear at all.

The third aspect is morphosyntax, also known as grammar.  

To begin with (and this will relate to the difference between Chinese and Japanese writing that I will deal with in Part 2) Japanese conjugates its verbs.  It does not do it in the same way as Indo-European languages, though.

 Japanese verbs have separate positive and negative conjugations -- there are separate conjugations for the positive "to eat" and the negative "to not-eat."  Japanese verbs also have polite and casual forms.  So every verb is in a form either polite and positive, casual and positive, polite and negative, or casual and negative, before the  suffix signifying tense: present tense, simple past, past progressive, probable, and probable progressive, and the rarely used direct command. Another suffix can be added to signify the passive voice ("to be eaten") or causative ("to cause to eat").

Japanese also conjugates adjectives like verbs.  To say "The apple is red" you would use a verb "to be red" which takes verb endings.

Japanese also uses particles that signify the function of nouns in the sentence.   The grammatical subject is followed by "ga" and the direct object of the sentence is followed by "o," but most important is the topic marker, which is followed by "wa."  The topic marker tells what the real topic or focus of the sentence is, which may not be the grammatical subject.  

So now we get to the fun part -- Japanese syntax (word order).

Here are some sentences taken from a textbook, with literal word for word translations. I will use "subj," "obj," and "top" for the subject, object, and topic markers respectively.

My name is Matsushima.
Boku no namae wa Matsushima desu.
I of name top Matsushima is.

Because he is American, he does not speak Japanese.
Kare wa amerika-jin desu kara nihongo o hanashimasen.
He top America-man is because Japanese obj does-not-speak.

As I went along the road, I met him.
Sono michi o yuku to kare ni atta.
That road obj go when him in-order-to met.

He usually returns around five o'clock.
Kare no kaeru no wa futsuu go-ji goro desu.
He subj return fact top usually five-o'clock around is.

When he left, he said goodbye.
Kaeru toki kare wa sayoonara so iimashita.
Leave when he top goodbye thus said.

He worked in order to go to school.
Kare wa gakkoo ni iku tame ni hatakimashita.
He top school to go purpose to worked.

I returned because I had something to do.
Watakishi wa shigoto ga atta no de kaerimashita.
I top job subj was because of returned.

We went to see a movie.
Eiga o mi ni ikimashita.
Movie obj see to went.

Which are cheaper, apples or plums?
Ringo to ume to wa, dochita no hoo ga yasui desu ka?
Apple with plum with top which of direction subj cheap qu?

Ha-ha, Japanese can sound so very funny when translated word for word into English.

So Japanese is obviously totally different from Chinese.  

But then why does Japanese writing contain Chinese characters, if the two languages are not related?  And what are the unintelligible squiggles that surround the Chinese characters in Japanese writing?

I will discuss these question in Part 2, The Japanese Writing System.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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