Japan may have adopted a lot of words from English, but “Japanese” (in reference to the language) wasn’t one of them. So what is the Japanese word for the Japanese language? And how do you say it?
Let’s go over this common word first (it’s number 828 of the top 5,000 most used Japanese words), and then we’ll talk a little about its unique characteristics.
Finally, I explain why the modern day Japanese language is actually comprised of (at least) three different languages.
The Japanese Word for the Japanese Language is:
Nihongo. It sounds like knee-hon-goh in the spoken language and is written in Japanese as 日本語.
What’s interesting is that the first two characters 日本 are pronounced as “nihon” which is the Japanese name for the country of Japan.
So that does that last symbol 語 mean? You guessed it! It means language!
So a literal translation of 日本語 would be “Japan-Language” which we would call “Japanese” in English.
Guess what? This pattern is applied to all languages when speaking Japanese!
First you put the name of the country, and then you attached the word for language:
- Spanish is スペイン語 which is the word for Spain スペイン and the word for language 語.
- Chinese is 中国語 which is China 中国 and 語 language.
- English is 英語 which is 英 for Britain and 語 for language.
But you can’t really use 語 by itself when talking about the word language since 語 is a suffix that gets attached to others like we’ve seen so far.
To do that, you need to…
Learn Some Related Words When It Comes to Japanese (Language)
言語 (gengo) is the word for just “language” that you would see when you are scrolling through the settings on your keitai and you have to select the 言語 that you want to use.
言 by itself means word and you already know that 語 means language. So this one is like saying “word-language” instead of specifying the language of a particular country.
Sticking with 言 and adding on a new character to it we get 言葉 (kotoba). This is the Japanese word for “word” and it is also a fairly common one that you will encounter quite often.
“You gave me kind words”
-Opening verse of Smile for You
But there are certain times when the word 言葉 can be used in such as way that it means language rather than just word. Usually the context gives it away when it’s one or the other.
国語 (kokugo) is the last one we will go over in this section. It consists of the character for country 国 and the one for language 語.
So here it isn’t referring to a specific country, but rather something along the lines of a “national language” which of course would change depending on where you are.
So if you were in Japan and someone asked you if you can speak the national language 国語, chances are pretty high they they are referring to Japanese 日本語.
But Japan Wasn’t Always Called 日本 (Nihon)
There’s a lot of history behind the name of the country of Japan, but we only need to go back to the 8th century to when they changed it to 大和 (yamato) which means “Great Harmony” in Japanese.
This is something all students who are learning Japanese should be aware of because it will explain why the character 和 gets attached to many things that are Japanese, as opposed to non-Japanese:
- 和服 (wa fuku) = Japanese-style clothes
- 洋服 (you fuku) = Western-style clothes
- 和食 (wa shoku) = Japanese-style meal
- 洋食 (you shoku) = Western-style meal
And finally we have 和語 (wago) which is the old word for Japan 和 and the word for language 語.
But wait, I thought 日本語 (nihongo) was the word for the Japanese language!?
Here’s where it gets really interesting. The current day (modern) Japanese language is actually a combination of at least three languages. They are:
- Original Japanese
- Borrowed words from all other languages
Let’s take a quick look into this aspect of Japanese.
The Three Kinds of Japanese Words: 和語、漢語、外来語
To understand this last part, you need to know a little of Japan’s history. I’ll keep it brief and to the point.
Japan is really old. No shocker there.
Back when Japan was young, it had little contact with people from other countries.
At this point in time, all Japanese words were known as 和語 (wago) since they were all from the original Japanese language.
But what most people aren’t familiar with is the fact that Japanese people didn’t have any written system for their language until some people from China came over and taught Japanese people how to read and write Chinese symbols.
When this happened, a lot of Chinese words were imported into the Japanese language.
These Chinese words are known as 漢語 (kango) and were originally from the Chinese language.
Although a Chinese person probably wouldn’t recognize them since they were altered in order to fit into the smaller phonetic system of Japanese.
So for example, have you ever wondered why the Japanese people would use the same word for death and the number four?
They treat it as an unlucky number (like 13 in America), but why? Why not just have two separate sounding words for each one?
It’s because that particular pronunciation for the number four し (shi) comes from the Chinese language, or 漢語.
So you see, the Japanese didn’t originally use the same sound for each word. It was only when they adopted all those Chinese words into Japanese that it because a thing.
Finally, 外来語 (gairaigo) is the classification of words that are imported from other languages into Japanese.
By far, English has the most 外来語 when it comes to borrowed words within the Japanese language. But there are some from pretty much any language that brought a new word to the country.
The Japanese people have a way of taking the best parts of other cultures and then making it their own. Obviously this happens a lot in the language, but it’s certainly not limited to just that.
Anyway, that’s your lesson on the 3+ languages that make up modern day Japanese!
The Language Is Constantly Evolving
One of the interesting things about language is that is can change over time so long as enough people start using it in new and different ways.
For example, the Japanese word 全然 (zen zen) means “not at all” with a negative connotation when you look it up in the dictionary.
However, a lot of younger Japanese people use it within positive contexts as well nowadays. It drives older Japanese people nuts because it’s “not correct Japanese,” but if enough people continue to use it this way, then that word will actually change to match the common usage.
The Japanese language is evolving. Better watch closely!
What do you think about the Japanese language? Do you know any interesting words in Japanese?
Let me know with a comment below!