Author: Richy Hayes
Nominator: Hannah Haynie
Course: LING 4420 Morphology and Syntax, Fall 2021
Let’s suppose that one day we all wake up in the same alternate reality – a rather boring one where everything is the same, aside from an island not so far east of Washington. It’s been there the whole time in this reality, and to President Biden’s great surprise, it’s the 51st state. Regardless, we still have our 50-star flag, and the Dakotas firmly refuse to be merged as one large Dakota, so without consulting any vexillologists, President Biden, himself, puts the 51st star on the bottom left corner of the blue part in Microsoft Paint, and with his team, he heads over to this state. When they arrive in South Alaska (the name of the state he discovers from a “Welcome to South Alaska” sign at the airport) he is greeted by the Governor, the two shake hands and the Governor says “To’s neece yo noot sou Anster Biden.”
If, after President Biden’s visit to South Alaska, some linguists headed over to try to understand South Alaskan, and following a bit of ostentation they discover that South Alaskan is nearly grammatically identical to English but the words vary greatly (President Biden’s greeting being translated as “It’s nice to meet you Mister Biden”), would South Alaskan and English be the same language?
Let’s return from that miserable modal reality and consider the case of the well known language, Japanese, and the lesser known, Ryukyuan. While Japanese is spoken by 120 million people (Kaiser 2013), Ryukyuan is spoken primarily by elderly individuals, and the actual number of speakers is unknown (Shimoji 2010). Additionally, the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger recognizes six languages of the Ryukyu Islands (Yaeyama, Yonaguni, Amami, Kunigami, Uchinaa, and Miyako) all of which are endangered.
Similar to how species can be endangered or go extinct, when a language’s speakers begin to dip in numbers, the language can become endangered or even go extinct. To further this analogy, similar to how different organisms can be related on a phylogenetic tree, languages can as well. Japanese and Ryukyuan are part of the Japonic family of languages, and they are “sister languages,” meaning that they both originated from the same “mother language,” or origin. Although, some linguists posit that Ryukyuan might actually be a dialect, or a daughter language of Japanese. This is a tough distinction to make. Just how similar are they? Let’s look at an example:
tɨgan=ba jud-ɨ k-on
letter=ACC read-MED come-NEG.NPST
‘(He) will not go to read the letter and come back’
tegami=o jonde konai
Letter=ACC read-MED come-NEG.NPST
‘(He) will not read the letter and come back’
You might've noticed the verb (read) comes after the object (letter). Japanese and Ryukyuan are Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) languages, while English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language. In this example we have a verbal predicate. If you recall back to your last grammar class, sentences typically consist of a subject and a predicate. Take the English example, “Richy studies linguistics.” “Richy” is the subject (this sentence is about him), “linguistics” is the object (the entity which is acted upon, or objectified), and “studies” is the predicate, which is often a verb; the “predicate” predicates (i.e., states, affirms, or asserts) something about the subject. Let’s look at another example:
arəə ɨn ja-ta
that.TOP dog COP.PST
‘That was a dog’
aɾe (ɰa) inɯ daʔta
That.TOP dog COP.PST
‘That was a dog’
In this example, we have a copular predicate (ja-ta/daʔta). I spoke above about sentences having a subject and predicate, but the predicate in these examples is essentially “was.” That doesn’t really predicate anything about “that,” does it? Instead, “was” (or “is”) is a copula, which is a verb that serves to link the subject to the predicate complement – the part of the sentence that provides information about the subject (Kroger, p. 174). In the above examples, “dog” is the predicate complement and ja-ta/daʔta are the copulas, respectively. Now let’s look at a grammatical feature that doesn’t appear in English:
‘There is a dog’
‘There is a dog’
In our final example, we have a unique feature in Japanese and Ryukyuan which doesn’t appear in English – the existential phrase (and no, not a phrase you shout in your early-fifties when you’re discontent with your perceived unfulfilled potential). In English, if I wanted to point out the presence of a dog near me, I would say “there is a dog,” not just “is a dog.” English requires a dummy subject (i.e., there & it). Japanese and Ryukyuan are pronoun-dropping (pro-drop) languages (Kroger, p. 80), so saying “is a dog” is not only acceptable, but grammatically preferred.
Additionally, Ryukyuan and Japanese have an animacy hierarchy; that is, different existential verbs for animate and inanimate objects. Contrast the previous existential sentences above to these existential sentences with inanimate subjects:
‘There is a tree.’
‘There is a tree.’
From all the above examples, you might’ve caught on to the stunning similarities between Japanese and Ryukyuan. Let’s quickly revisit my made-up language, South Alaskan. Is it the same language as English? According to Carol Genetti in “How Languages Work,” the benchmark for making this distinction is: mutual intelligibility (p. 12). President Biden was at a loss by the greeting, regardless of the identical grammar structure, so no, they are not the same language. Now are Japanese and Ryukyuan mutually intelligible? In most instances that go beyond very basic expressions, no; their sound systems differ too greatly. Furthermore, there are specific grammatical trends and diachronic innovations observed amongst the various Ryukyuan dialects that cannot be found in Japanese and its dialects (Heinrich 2015). It follows that Japanese and Ryukyuan are not the same language, but more likely sister languages, dominated by (originating from) a similar mother language, where they inherited their morphosyntactic similarities, rather than Ryukyuan having come from Japanese.
Genetti, Carol (ed.). 2019. How Languages Work: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Cambridge University Press.
Heinrich, Patrick, Shinsho Miyara, & Michinori Shimoji. 2015. Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages: History, Structure, and Use. The Asia-Pacific Journal 7(9). 1-20.
Kaiser, Stefan, Yasuko Ichikawa, Noriko Kobayashi & Hirofumi Yamamoto. 2013. Japanese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London: Routledge.
Kroeger, Paul. 2005. Analyzing Grammar: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Shimoji, Michinori & Thomas Pellard (eds.). 2010. An Introduction to Ryukyuan Languages. Tokyo University: ILCAA.