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Okinawan language

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Okinawan language

沖縄口/ウチナーグチ Uchinaaguchi
Native to Japan
Region Okinawa Islands
Native speakers
980,000  (2000)[1]
Okinawan, Japanese, Rōmaji
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ryu
Glottolog cent2126[2]
Linguasphere 45-CAC-ai
  (South–Central) Okinawan, AKA Shuri–Naha

Central Okinawan, or simply the Okinawan language (沖縄口/ウチナーグチ Uchinaaguchi ), is a Northern Ryukyuan language spoken primarily in the southern half of the island of Okinawa, as well as in the surrounding islands of Kerama, Kumejima, Tonaki, Aguni, and a number of smaller peripheral islands.[4] Central Okinawan distinguishes itself from the speech of Northern Okinawa, which is classified independently as the Kunigami language. Both languages have been designated as endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger since its launch in February 2009.[5]

Though Okinawan encompasses a number of local dialects,[6] the Shuri-Naha variant is generally recognized as the de facto standard,[7] as it had been used as the official language of the Ryūkyū Kingdom[8] since the reign of King Shō Shin (1477–1526). Moreover, as the former capital of Shuri was built around the royal palace, the language used by the royal court became the regional and literary standard,[8][7] which thus flourished in songs and poems written during that era.

Within Japan, Okinawan is not seen as a language unto itself but is referred to as the Okinawan dialect (沖縄方言 Okinawa hōgen) or more specifically the Central and Southern Okinawan dialects (沖縄中南部諸方言 Okinawa Chūnanbu Sho hōgen).

Okinawan is undergoing language shift as it changes to Japanese. Language use in Okinawa today is far from stable. Okinawan is assimilating to standard Japanese because of the standardized education system, the expanding media, and expanding contact with mainlanders. The process is similar to de-creolization, which is when a creole and the colonizers language are constantly in contact and the creole slowly shifts to be more like the colonizers language.[9] Okinawan is kept alive in theaters featuring a local drama called uchinaa shibai. These plays depict local customs and manners. [10]



Front Central Back
Close i (ɨ) u
Close-Mid e o
Open a

The Okinawan language has five vowels, all of which may be long or short, though the short vowels /e/ and /o/ are considerably rare[11] as they only occur in a few native Okinawan words, such as /meɴsoːɾeː/ mensooree "welcome" or /toɴɸaː/ tonfaa, and typically only in heavy syllables with the pattern /CeN/ or /CoN/. The close back vowels /u/ and /uː/ are truly rounded, rather than the compressed vowels of standard Japanese. A sixth vowel /ɨ/ is sometimes posited in order to explain why sequences containing a historically raised /e/ fail to trigger palatalization as with /i/: */te//tɨː/ tii "hand", */ti//t͡ɕiː/ chii "blood". Acoustically, however, /ɨ/ is pronounced no differently from /i/, and this distinction can simply be attributed to the fact that palatalization took place prior to this vowel shift.

Vowel Lengthening

Vowels in the second and fourth syllables have the tendency to lengthen. /a/ is the most common vowel to undergo vowel lengthening. [12]


The Okinawan language counts approximately 20 distinctive segments shown in the chart below, with major allophones presented in parentheses.
IPA chart of Okinawan consonants
Labial Alveolar Alveolo-
Palatal Labio-
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɴ (ŋ̍)
Plosive p   b t   d t͡ɕ   d͡ʑ   ɡʷ k   ɡ ʔ
Fricative ɸ s  (z) (ɕ) (ç) h
Flap ɾ
Approximant j w

The consonant system of the Okinawan language is fairly similar to that of standard Japanese, but it does present a few differences on the phonemic and allophonic level. Namely, Okinawan retains the labialized consonants /kʷ/ and /ɡʷ/ which were lost in Late Middle Japanese, possesses a glottal stop /ʔ/, features a voiceless bilabial fricative /ɸ/ distinct from the aspirate /h/, and has two distinctive affricates which arose from a number of different sound processes. Additionally, Okinawan lacks the major allophones [t͡s] and [d͡z] found in Japanese, having historically fronted the vowel /u/ to /i/ after the alveolars /t d s z/, consequently merging [t͡su] tsu into [t͡ɕi] chi, [su] su into [ɕi] shi, and both [d͡zu] and [zu] into [d͡ʑi]. It also lacks /z/ as a distinctive phoneme, having merged it into /d͡ʑ/.

Bilabial and glottal fricatives

The bilabial fricative /ɸ/ has sometimes been transcribed as the cluster /hw/, since, like Japanese, /h/ allophonically labializes into [ɸ] before the high vowel /u/, and /ɸ/ does not occur before the rounded vowel /o/. This suggests that an overlap between /ɸ/ and /h/ exists, and so the contrast in front of other vowels can be denoted through labialization. However, this analysis fails to take account of the fact that Okinawan has not fully undergone the diachronic change */p//ɸ/*/h/ as in Japanese, and that the suggested clusterization and labialization into */hw/ is unmotivated.[13] Consequently, the existence of /ɸ/ must be regarded as independent of /h/, even though the two overlap. Barring a few words that resulted from the former change, the aspirate /h/ also arose from the odd lenition of /k/ and /s/, as well as words loaned from other dialects. Before the glide /j/ and the high vowel /i/, it is pronounced closer to [ç], as in Japanese.


The plosive consonants /t/ and /k/ historically palatalized and affricated into /t͡ɕ/ before and occasionally following the glide /j/ and the high vowel /i/: */kiri//t͡ɕiɾi/ chiri "fog", and */k(i)jora//t͡ɕuɾa/ chura- "beautiful". This change preceded vowel raising, so that instances where /i/ arose from */e/ did not trigger palatalization: */ke//kiː/ kii "hair". Their voiced counterparts /d/ and /ɡ/ underwent the same effect, becoming /d͡ʑ/ under such conditions: */unaɡi//ʔɴnad͡ʑi/ qnnaji "eel", and */nokoɡiri//nukud͡ʑiɾi/ nukujiri "saw"; but */kaɡeɴ//kaɡiɴ/ kagin "seasoning".

Both /t/ and /d/ may or may not also allophonically affricate before the mid vowel /e/, though this pronunciation is increasingly rare. Similarly, the fricative consonant /s/ palatalizes into [ɕ] before the glide /j/ and the vowel /i/, including when /i/ historically derives from /e/: */sekai/[ɕikeː] shikee "world". It may also palatalize before the vowel /e/, especially so in the context of topicalization: [duɕi] dushi[duɕeː] dusee or dushee "(topic) friend".

In general, sequences containing the palatal consonant /j/ are relatively rare and tend to exhibit depalatalization. For example, /mj/ tends to merge with /n/ ([mjaːku] myaaku[naːku] naaku "Miyako"); */rj/ has merged into /ɾ/ and /d/ (*/rjuː//ɾuː/ ruu ~ /duː/ duu "dragon"); and /sj/ has mostly become /s/ (/sjui/ shui/sui/ sui "Shuri").

Flapping and fortition

The voiced plosive /d/ and the flap /ɾ/ tend to merge, with the first becoming a flap in word-medial position, and the second sometimes becoming a plosive in word-initial position. For example, /ɾuː/ ruu "dragon" may be strengthened into /duː/ duu, and /hasidu/ hashidu "door" conversely flaps into /hasiɾu/ hashiru. The two sounds do, however, still remain distinct in a number of words and verbal constructions.

Glottal stop

Okinawan also features a distinctive glottal stop /ʔ/ that historically arose from a process of glottalization of word-initial vowels.[14] Hence, all vowels in Okinawan are predictably glottalized at the beginning of words (*/ame//ʔami/ ami "rain"), save for a few exceptions. High vowel loss or assimilation following this process created a contrast with glottalized approximants and nasal consonants.[14] Compare */uwa//ʔwa/ qwa "pig" to /wa/ wa "I", or */ine//ʔɴni/ qnni "rice plant" to */mune//ɴni/ nni "chest".[15]

Moraic nasal

The moraic nasal /N/ has been posited in most descriptions of Okinawan phonology. Like Japanese, /N/ (transcribed using the small capital /ɴ/) occupies a full mora and its precise place of articulation will vary depending on the following consonant. Before other labial consonants, it will be pronounced closer to a syllabic bilabial nasal [m̩], as in /ʔɴma/ [ʔm̩ma] qmma "horse". Before velar and labiovelar consonants, it will be pronounced as a syllabic velar nasal [ŋ̍], as in /biɴɡata/ [biŋ̍ɡata] bingata, a method of dying clothes. And before alveolar and alveolo-palatal consonants, it becomes a syllabic alveolar nasal /n̩/, as in /kaɴda/ [kan̩da] kanda "vine". Elsewhere, its exact realization remains unspecified, and it may vary depending on the first sound of the next word or morpheme. In isolation and at the end of utterances, it is realized as a velar nasal [ŋ̍].

Correspondences with Japanese

Japanese Okinawan Notes
/e/ /iː/[16]
/a/ /a/[16]
/o/ /u/[16]
/ai/ /eː/
/au/ /oː/
/k/ /k/ /ɡ/ also occurs
/ka/ /ka/ /ha/ also occurs
/ki/ /t͡ɕi/ [t͡ɕi]
/ku/ /ku/ /hu/, [ɸu] also occurs
/si/ /si/ /hi/, [çi] also occurs
/su/ /si/ [ɕi]; formerly distinguished as [si]
/hi/ [çi] also occurs
/tu/ /t͡ɕi/ [t͡ɕi]; formerly distinguished as [tsi]
/da/ /ra/ [d] and [ɾ] have merged
/de/ /ri/
/do/ /ru/
/ni/ /ni/ Moraic /ɴ/ also occurs
/nu/ /nu/
/ha/ /ɸa/ /pa/ also occurs, but rarely
/hi/ /pi/ ~ /hi/
/mi/ /mi/ Moraic /ɴ/ also occurs
/mu/ /mu/
/ri/ /i/ /iri/ unaffected
/wa/ /wa/ Tends to become /a/ medially


The Tamaoton no Hinomon (玉陵の碑文), referred to as the Tamaudun no Hinomon in modern Japanese, is the oldest known inscription of Okinawan using both hiragana and kanji.

The Okinawan language was historically written using an admixture of kanji and hiragana. The hiragana syllabary is believed to have first been introduced from mainland Japan to the Ryukyu Kingdom some time during the reign of king Shunten in the early thirteenth century.[17][18] It is likely that Okinawans were already in contact with Chinese characters due to extensive trade between the Ryukyu Kingdom and China, Japan and Korea. However, hiragana gained more widespread acceptance throughout the Ryukyu Islands, and most documents and letters were uniquely transcribed using this script. The Omoro Saushi (おもろさうし), a sixteenth-century compilation of songs and poetry,[19] and a few preserved writs of appointments dating from the same century were written solely in Hiragana.[20] Kanji were gradually adopted due to the growing influence of mainland Japan and to the linguistic affinity between the Okinawan and Japanese languages.[21] However, it was mainly limited to affairs of high importance and to documents sent towards the mainland. The oldest inscription of Okinawan exemplifying its use along with Hiragana can be found on a stone stele at the Tamaudun mausoleum, dating back to 1501.[22][23]

After the invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma clan in 1609, Okinawan ceased to be used in official affairs.[17] It was replaced by standard Japanese writing and a form of Classical Chinese writing known as kanbun.[17] Despite this change, Okinawan still continued to prosper in local literature up until the nineteenth century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government abolished the domain system and formally annexed the Ryukyu Islands to Japan as the Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.[24] To promote national unity, the government then introduced standard education and opened Japanese-language schools based on the Tokyo dialect.[24] Students were discouraged and chastised for speaking or even writing in the local "dialect", notably through the use of "dialect cards" (方言札). As a result, Okinawan gradually ceased to be written entirely until the American takeover in 1945.

Since then, Japanese and American scholars have variously transcribed the regional language using a number of ad hoc romanization schemes or the katakana syllabary to demarcate its foreign nature with standard Japanese. Proponents of Okinawan tend to be more traditionalist and continue to write the language using hiragana with kanji. In any case, no standard or consensus concerning spelling issues has ever been formalized, so discrepancies between modern literary works are common.


(Technically, these are morae, not syllables.)
Okinawan katakana syllabary
ʔi ʔe ʔa ʔo ʔu ʔja ʔjo ʔju ʔwa ʔɴ
[ʔi] [ʔe] [ʔa] [ʔo] [ʔu] [ʔja] [ʔjo] [ʔju] [ʔɰa] [ʔn]
イ/ユィ エ/イェ オ/ヲ ウ/ヲゥ
i e a o u ja jo ju we wa ɴ
[a] [o]
[ja] [jo] [ju] [ɰe] [ɰa] [n]
ヒャ ヒョ ヒュ - フヮ
hi he ha ho hu hja hjo hju hwa
[çi] [çe] [ha] [ho] [ɸu] [ça] [ço] [çu] [ɸa]
ギャ - - グヱ グヮ
gi ge ga go gu gja gwe gwa
[ɡi] [ɡe] [ɡa] [ɡo] [ɡu] [ɡja] [ɡʷe] [ɡʷa]
キャ - - クヱ クヮ
ki ke ka ko ku kja kwe kwa
[ki] [ke] [ka] [ko] [ku] [kja] [kʷe] [kʷa]
チェ チャ チョ チュ - - - - -
ci ce ca co cu
[ʨi] [ʨe] [ʨa] [ʨo] [ʨu]
ジェ ジャ ジョ ジュ - - - - -
zi ze za zo zu
[ʥi] [ʥe] [ʥa] [ʥo] [ʥu]
シェ シャ - シュ - -
si se sa so su sja sju
[ɕi] [ɕe] [sa] [so] [su] [ɕa] [ɕu]
ディ ドゥ
di de da do du
[di] [de] [da] [do] [du]
ri re ra ro ru
[ɾi] [ɾe] [ɾa] [ɾo] [ɾu]
ティ トゥ - - - - -
ti te ta to tu
[ti] [te] [ta] [to] [tu]
ミャ ミョ - - -
mi me ma mo mu mja mjo
[mi] [me] [ma] [mo] [mu] [mja] [mjo]
ビャ ビョ ビュ - -
bi be ba bo bu bja bjo bju
[bi] [be] [ba] [bo] [bu] [bja] [bjo] [bju]
ピャ - ピュ - -
pi pe pa po pu pja pju
[pi] [pe] [pa] [po] [pu] [pja] [pju]


Okinawan dialects retain a number of grammatical features of classical Japanese, such as a distinction between the terminal form (終止形) and the attributive form (連体形), the genitive function of ga (lost in the Shuri dialect), the nominative function of nu (Japanese: no), as well as honorific/plain distribution of ga and nu in nominative use.

書く kaku
to write
Classical Shuri
Irrealis 未然形 書か kaka- kaka-
Continuative 連用形 書き kaki- kachi-
Terminal 終止形 書く kaku kachun
Attributive 連体形 書く kaku kachuru
Realis 已然形 書け kake- kaki-
Imperative 命令形 書け kake kaki

One etymology given for the -un and -uru endings is the continuative form suffixed with uri (Classical Japanese: 居り wori, to be; to exist): -un developed from the terminal form uri; -uru developed from the attributive form uru, i.e.:

  • kachuru derives from kachi-uru;
  • kachun derives from kachi-uri; and
  • yumun (Japanese: 読む yomu, to read) derives from yumi + uri.

A similar etymology is given for the terminal -san and attributive -saru endings for adjectives: the stem suffixed with sa (nominalises adjectives, i.e. high → height, hot → heat), suffixed with ari (Classical Japanese: 有り ari, to exist; to have), i.e.:

  • takasan (Japanese: 高い takai, high; tall) derives from taka-sa-ari;
  • achisan (Japanese: 暑い atsui, hot; warm) derives from atsu-sa-ari; and
  • yutasaru (good; pleasant) derives from yuta-sa-aru.


The Okinawan topic particle is ya (や), which corresponds with Japanese wa (は). However, apart from classical literature, ya assimilates into the preceding word in different ways; it remains separate only after long vowels. Likewise, the particle n (ん; "also", "even", "too"), corresponding to Japanese mo (も), will result in the addition of a vowel between it and a preceding moraic nasal n; if the word previously ended in a vowel in an earlier form of the language, it is likely to use that vowel.

The Okinawan subject particle distinguishes between ga (が) nu (ぬ, equivalent to Japanese の no), in honorific/plain distribution. This contrasts with Japanese, where the use of no as a subject particle is restricted to attributive clauses in the form "noun + の + attributive verb + noun".

Modern Okinawan does not use a direct-object marker, as in casual Japanese speech. However, classical literature uses the particle yu (ゆ, written as yo よ prior to the vowel shift), cognate to Japanese を wo, where appropriate.

Preceding syntactic element Example sentence Translation
Translates as "only"; limit.
For verbs "uppi" is used
Nouns rōmaji bikeen nu sumuchi
a rōmaji-only book
Verbs (volitional) Ninjibusharu uppi nindin sumabiin.
You can sleep as much as you want [to sleep].
Indicates the location where an action pertaining to an animate subject takes place. をぅとーてぃ wutooti is the progressive form of をぅてぃ wuti, and both derive from the participle form of the verb をぅん wun "to be, to exist".
Nouns: location Kuma wutooti yukwibusan.
I want to rest here.
Translates as "to, in"; direction
Nouns: direction Uchinaa nkai mensooree!
Welcome to Okinawa!
Translates as "as much as", upper limit
Nouns: For nouns yaka is used Ari yaka yamatuguchi nu jooji ya aran.
My Japanese isn't as good as his
Verbs Unu tatimunoo umuyuru atai takakooneeyabiran
That building is not as tall as you imagine it to be
Indicates the means by which something is achieved.
Nouns basusshi ichabira.
Let's go by bus
Nouns: language Uchinaaguchisaani tigami kachan.
I wrote the letter in Okinawan.
くる・ぐる (頃)
Translates as "around, about, approximately"
Kuru functions as an adverb and may be followed by nu.
Nouns San-ji guru nkai ichabira.
Let's meet around 3 o'clock.
くれー・ぐれー (位)
Translates as "around, about, approximately"
Kuree functions as an adverb and may be followed by .
Nouns Juppun kuree kakayun
It takes about 10 minutes.
Translates as "even, or, but, however, also in"
Nouns, particles: "even" Uchuu kara yatin manri-nu-Choojoo nu miiyun.
The Great Wall of China can be seen even from space.
Nouns: "also in" Yamatu yatin inchirii-n guchi binchoosun
In Japan also, we study English.
Beginning of phrase: "but, however, even so". In this case, "yashiga" is commonly used yashiga, wannee an umuran
But I don't think so.
までぃ (迄)
Translates to: "up to, until, as far as"
Indicates a time or place as a limit.
Nouns (specifically places or times) Kunu denshaa, Shui madi ichabiin.
This train goes as far as Shuri.
Verbs Keeru madi machooibiin.
I'll wait until you come home.


  1. ^ Okinawan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Central Okinawan". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ 2005, Comment #658 – 45-CAC-ai comprises most of Central Okinawa, including Shuri (Naha), Ginowan and Nishihara; 45-CAC-aj comprises the southern tip of Okinawa Island, including Itoman, Mabuni and Takamine; 45-CAC-ak encompasses the region west of Okinawa Island, including the Kerama Islands, Kumejima and Aguni.
  4. ^ Lewis 2009.
  5. ^ Moseley 2010.
  6. ^ Kerr 2000, p. xvii.
  7. ^ a b Brown & Ogilvie 2008, p. 908.
  8. ^ a b Kaplan 2008, p. 130.
  9. ^ Noguchi 2001, p. 87.
  10. ^ Noguchi 2001, p. 76.
  11. ^ Noguchi & Fotos 2001, p. 81.
  12. ^ Curry 2002, p. 34.
  13. ^ Miyara 2009, p. 179.
  14. ^ a b Curry 2004, §
  15. ^ Miyara 2009, p. 186.
  16. ^ a b c Noguchi 2001, p. 83.
  17. ^ a b c Kodansha 1983, p. 355.
  18. ^ OPG 2003.
  19. ^ Kerr 2000, p. 35.
  20. ^ Takara 1994-1995, p. 2.
  21. ^ WPL 1977, p. 30.
  22. ^ Ishikawa 2002, p. 10.
  23. ^ Okinawa Style 2005, p. 138.
  24. ^ a b Tanji 2006, p. 26.


External links

  • 首里・那覇方言概説(首里・那覇方言音声データベース)
  • うちなあぐち by Kiyoshi Fiza, an Okinawan language writer.
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