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Learn the lost art of the Ainu language

By Luke Mahoney, grape Japan

Like other indigenous groups, the Ainu people of Hokkaido and the north-eastern Honshu island of Japan have experienced marginalization. After the Japanese government annexed their territory in 1890, the ethnic minority struggled to maintain their identity as their language and customs were effectively outlawed. Content producers like The Foundation for Ainu Culture and MINE are attempting to re-assert Ainu culture by cataloging traditional songs and documenting members’ experiences of self-discovery.

Nevertheless, there remain significant hurdles. For example, UNESCO reports as few as 15 living native speakers of the Ainu language remain as preservation initiatives were non-existent throughout most of the 20th century. Adding to the urgency, a majority of Ainu report experiencing discrimination despite living a typical Japanese lifestyle. Unfortunately, a recent bid to include a ceremonial dance performance by the minority group in the 2020/2021 Olympics was recently canned.

The Ainu Language

According to the YouTube channel Brief Histories, the Ainu people are descendants of the Jomon people, early settlers of the Japanese archipelago who likely migrated from Tibet. Later on, they were displaced by the Yayoi people, modern Japanese, who immigrated from China and Korea. As the Yayoi migrated, other ethnicities were forced towards Hokkaido and other northern territories .

In modern times, the Ainu language faces extinction. A language isolate with no known relatives, the language was largely an oral tradition. It is similar in word order to Japanese, following a subject, object, verb sentence structure. Owing to the lack of a written system, it is transcribed in Japanese katakana syllabary. Nevertheless, yukar songs, hero-sagas, have helped preserved the language.

To my ears, it is very distinct from Japanese, especially when compared to Korean which, I feel, sounds similar. Here is a primer course with some essential phrases and vocabulary:

Lesson 1

Like others, YouTuber しとちゃんねる, Shito Channel, is determined to help preserve the Ainu culture. She has published a series of videos documenting her culture and music. Not least of which is an extensive course on the Ainu language, aimed at beginners. With over 30 videos, interested viewers can begin conversing in no time with the right amount of motivation. We'll cover the basics here.

After opening with traditional Ainu insignia, host Maya and her friend Youpin get straight to it. They have started this channel to teach everyday conversation as well as spread their culture. Naturally, introductions are first.

“Irankarapte” = こんにちは = Hello.

"E=rehe makanak an?" = 名前は? = What’s your name?

“○ ○ sekor ku=rehe an. Eani he” = ○ ○ だよ。あなたは?= I’m ○ ○. And you?

“Kani ○ ○ ku=ne.” = 私は ○ ○= I’m ○ ○.

“○ ○ sekor en=hotuyekar yak pirka na!” = ○ ○って呼んでね = You can call me ○ ○.

“uamkir=an na!" = こちらこそ= Nice to meet you.

After the lesson, Maya takes a moment to explain the importance of ancestors in Ainu culture as well as Ainu names. Her teacher gave her the name “ノト”, but you can call her Maya if you like. An interesting point of their culture is that Ainu people sometimes called young children by names like “small poo” or “stinky poo” in order to protect them. I guess no animal or spirit is interested in eating stinking poo.

Finally, teacher Maya challenges her students to use “irankarapte” before the next lesson.

Lesson 2

While lesson 1 was fun, we have only scratched the surface of the Ainu language. Posthaste, lets dive into the follow up instructions:

Youpin and Maya are back, and they have some more intro level phrases to teach. This time, they’re talking about age:

“○ ○ hempak pa e=na?” = ○ ○何歳 = ○ ○, how old are you?

“Wansinepses pa ku=ne! Eani he?” = 19際。あなたは?=I’m 19. And you?

“Eani akkari ku=paha poro.” = 私の方は年上だ = I’m a bit older than you.

“Tuwansine pa ku=ne!” = 21際だよ = I’m 21.

“Yakun e=iku easkay hawa ne” = お酒飲めるんじゃん= You can drink alcohol!

“E=anuwapto an wa okake ta uturano iku=an ro!” = 誕生日来たら一緒に飲もう!= When your birthday comes, let’s go drinking!

After their lesson, Maya takes a moment to explain a few salutations for saying goodbye. Moreover, she explains customs surrounding “tonoto,” a ceremonial alcoholic beverage. “Tonoto,” a mainstay of Ainu celebrations such as welcoming newborns, is a sweet alcohol that’s not too strong. It also appears to be a right of passage for coming-of-age commemorations.

Finally, Maya and Youpin exeunt discussing indigenous customs surrounding alcohol. Students must be sure to memorize Ainu numbers and age phrases in case they are carded at the next community festival.

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© grape Japan

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The problem now is that these languages are now spoken with a very thick foreign accent. I've seen videos of people speaking Breton, which is less endangered than the Ainu language, but the speakers, including teachers, had a very strong French accent. But it's good to see that something is being done to stop it from disappearing completely.

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Why does everything with japan have to be an “art”?

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Vince BlackToday  05:54 pm JST

Why does everything with japan have to be an “art”?

It's not just with Japan.

"The paper proposes to view languages as a form of primordial oral human art form, with each member language, both present and past, representing variations on an art movement with changes throughout time."


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Korean may sound "similar to Japanese" if one is European-language speaker because neither has a stress-accent system. Phonologically, however, Korean and Japanese are otherwise quite distinct. Japanese distinguishes obstruent consonants according to voicing (k/g, t/d). Korean distinguishes them (except for s) according to aspiration. And then there are initial glottal consonants that do not occur in Japanese. Korean has a much more complex vocalic system than Japanese; it also tolerates final consonants and consonant clusters, e.g. hangul, which winds up Japanicized as hanguru. Japanese and Koreans tend to learn the other's language well--except in regard to pronunciation.

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Japanese and Koreans tend to learn the other's language well--except in regard to pronunciation.

But I imagine that the Japanese find learning Korean pronunciation harder than the other way round

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| think they should do as Yongdeok Cho has done with Kane Kumagai's Aino course: translate their course into English, giving alternative English transliterations for each word, so that those who don´t know or don't want to learn the kanas can also learn the language, allowing many more people, including cultural activists and ethnologists, or simple regular people interested in learning the language, to have access to it.

I am personally interested in the movement for the preservation of Japan's regional languages (among other causes, I'm a cultural activist) but I don´t have any interest nor time whatsoever to learn the kanas and would never even think of learning kanji.

As this site does not seem to give an option to reply to other comments, I'd like to tell user Pukey2 that the accent is not a problem at all, I personally find it quite charming that Breton has that 'French accent' which is actually due to a much older Germanic influence on that language itself, as Upper Sorbian speakers (at least on the online course) seem to have been speaking their variety of Sorbian with that same German guttural 'r', though for a Slavic language I find it a bit uncomfortable for me, being quite used to the Slavic 'r' when I learned Russian for some years in my youth.

Also, the Ashkenazi, mainstream pronunciation of Hebrew in Israel is also characterized by this guttural 'r', which is not found in other Semitic language and certainly was never used by Israelites but that does not make any problem to the language, in fact, you can pronounce it with the rolled 'r' as in romance languages and anyone will understand you.

When I try to learn Sorbian, however, due to being already used to Slavic languages 'r', I find it really hard to use the Germanic 'r' and pronounce it as I would in any other Slavic language, as the Lower Sorbian speakers also use it in the same site for their lessons of that variety of Sorbian.

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Vince Black, Because it should be. Ideally each of us aspires to be the very best we possibly can be in all we do. So wether you are cooking a meal, painting a picture or sweeping the floor there is an art to it. Sweeping the floor is a good analogy. Watch a Janitor or Housekeeper that loves what they do. That takes great pride in what they do. You will see there is a absence of unnecessary movement, a graceful fluidity a dance and that floor will be well cleaned not a speck on it. Hope that helps.

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