Japan - Languages

Japanese is the official language. Most linguists agree that Japanese is in a language class by itself, although there is some inconclusive evidence that traces it to the Malayo-Polynesian language family. In vocabulary, Japanese is rich in words denoting abstract ideas, natural phenomena, human emotions, ethics, and aesthetics, but poor in words for technical and scientific expression. For these latter purposes, foreign words are directly imported and written in a phonetic system ( katakana ). A distinct characteristic is the use of honorifics to show proper respect to the listener and his social status.

Written Japanese owes its origin almost entirely to Chinese forms. Having no indigenous script, the Japanese since the fifth century have used Chinese characters, giving them both an approximate Chinese pronunciation and a Japanese pronunciation. In addition, the Japanese invented phonetic symbols ( kana ) in the ninth century to represent grammatical devices unknown to the Chinese.

Attempts have been made to reduce the complexity of the written language by limiting the number of Chinese characters used. The government has published a list of 1,850 characters for use in official communications. Newspapers adhere to this list.

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