Reading his features are largely typological and many

Reading Assignments

#1. Summary of Genetic affiliation

Wonwoo Oh

             The genealogical origin of Japanese language has not been conclusively proven, differentiating from other major languages since Japanese is the only language which genetic affiliation to other languages or language families is not decisive. A genetic relationship comes from a language’s geographic closeness to other languages, therefore observing the language families surrounding Japanese is crucial to detect the initial genealogy of Japanese. There are a number of hypotheses concerning the genetic affiliations for Japanese, but the most commonly accepted assumption is that assign Japanese to the Altaic family and those that subgroup Japanese and Korean together within this family (Shibatani, 95). Furthermore, there is some hypothesis that Japanese are not only related to Altaic family but also related to Austronesian or the mixture of several languages.

             Proposed already in the nineteenth century, a hypothesis that Japanese considered being related to Altaic is still actively supported. The first investigation to examine the relationship between Japanese and Ural-Altaic languages was made in 1857 by Anton Boller. The linguist Fujioka Katsuji(1872-1935) pointed identified fourteen characteristics of Ural-Altaic features. Japanese largely shares Fujioka’s characteristics, yet his features are largely typological and many of them are negative features. Despite the deficiency to connect the Japanese and Altaic languages, they influenced the subsequent researchers, especially who are interested in the connection between Japanese and Altaic. Murayama Shichiro(1973) and Roy Andrew Miller(1971) strongly supported this Japanese and Altaic hypothesis and had accumulated a significant comparative data. For instance, a large number of Japanese words match up with words in the Altaic languages by regular sound correspondences, supporting that Japanese and Altaic languages are genetically related. Nonetheless, the supporting evidence is not sufficient and stayed controversial.

             Meanwhile, Martin(1966) related Japanese to a single other language, offering the most systematic comparative method which demonstrates a close affinity between Japanese and Korean. But, his comparison of Japanese and Korean has been criticized because he focuses on the modern forms of Japanese and Korean, as opposed to Old Japanese and Middle Korean materials. I agree that both Japanese and Korean are genetically related to Altaic linguistic unity since both languages share suffixes from past to present (Itabashi, 233), but still, the phonological discrepancy between Japanese and Korean is questionable.

            Another hypothesis is that Japanese is an amalgamation of two or more languages, including Austronesian and Altaic elements. Shinmura(1908) suggests that Japanese phonology is due to early mixing with the people of the South Pacific, and Polivanov(1924) identified the ‘external similarities’ that suggests the affinity of Japanese to Austronesian. Also, Izui(1953) characterizes sound correspondences between certain Austronesian and Japanese, fostering more researchers to investigate the natural formation of Japanese, rather than simply attempting to identify genealogy. The migration from the Asiatic continent introduced the new culture and language of southern Korea with the Altaic grammatical structure while changing the grammatical structure of existing Japanese. Therefore, though Japanese contains Austronesian lexical residues, Japanese is genetically Altaic.

             Some scholars supported Austronesian-Dravidian-Altaic connection, pointing out that Dravidian languages and Altaic languages share a large number of similarities in the first place, whereas some scholars claimed that Japanese is a hybrid or mixed-language of several languages. Among them, Murayama maintains that Japanese verb roots share both Altaic and Austronesian feature, believing that the Austronesian contribution to the formation of Japanese is not only a simple borrowing from that but rather Austronesian elements had a far more active participation in the formation of early Japanese. To summarize, Murayama asserts that Japanese is an Austronesian-Altaic mixed language by origin.

             However, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus regarding the origins of Japanese among the scholars in the field. The problem of discord is methodological. Relying heavily on cognate sets, the comparative method is hard to establish when cognate sets between the languages compared increases, which makes scholars difficult to establish the genetic relationship of Japanese. Also, since several successive migrations of different cultural groups to the Japanese archipelago, Japanese may have been formed by a mixture of several languages, making hard to identify several cognates.

             Lack of phonetic correspondences, semantic problems, unreliable reconstruction, and alternative Altaic etymologies shows the shortage of evidence that Japanese are from Austronesian (Vovin, 385). While most people believed that Japanese and Korean are connected and these two languages came from the Altaic languages, still, there is no conclusive evidence that proves the connection between two languages. In this regard, we need to have a better understanding of how different languages come into contact and form a new formation of language.




1. Shibatani, M. (1991). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


2. Itabashi, Y. (1987). Altaic evidence for the Japanese and Korean case suffix systems. University of Washington.


3. Vovin, A. (1994). Is Japanese related to Austronesian? University of Hawai’i Press.