My friend Maki found this page full of short lessons in reconstructed Joumon-period Japanese. For example:

aba akaki kOrOmObO kOnOmibumu.*
私は赤い着物が好きです。(I like red clothes.)

(* The capital O is their way of writing the notorious ancient Japanese o-with-umlaut.)

Quick summary:

aFirst-person singular pronoun. Usually written 吾, sometimes 我. Already mostly replaced by wa(re) by the time the earliest Japanese was written down.
baOld pronunciation of what would become today's wa (は), the topic marker.
akakiakai (red) with old-style adjective ending -ki. This one survived well into historical times.
kOrOmOkoromo is still a perfectly serviceable word for "clothes", but it's been replaced by "kimono" in the general vocabulary and has a musty, archaic feel. You see it in a lot of poems, though, even modern ones.
bOOld pronunciation of what would become today's (w)o (を), the direct object marker.
kOnOmibumu konomu is, like koromo, still an acceptable Japanese word meaning "to like", although in sentences that mean "I like X" it's been almost entirely replaced by the ... ga suki da structure. (The nominalized form konomi is still going strong, though, used to mean "type" as in "He's not really my...") As for the -bumu, presumably this is a reconstruction of proto-Japanese verb endings. I have to admit I'm not really hip to what's going on here, but it appears in a lot of the examples.

Bonus, English-speaker-friendly link about Joumon studies.

Popularity factor: 16


I don't read your blog just to pick holes in your HTML, honest, but your table markup is a bit out: * in the first row the /tr and /td tags are swapped * in rows three and four you've used /th where you meant /tr

Happily LJ doesn't totally barf on this one, it just sticks a couple of literal "/th" above the table...

(Please imagine angle brackets around all those tags; blogger doesn't want to let me put in lt/gt entities)


I was under the impression that the people of Jomon didn't speak Japanese. That the language was imported near the end of the period with hundreds of thousands of proto-Koreans.


That's 100% made up. Where does the data come from? And historical Japanese culture is supposed to come from Yayoi people from the continent.


Shibatani's _Languages of Japan_ seems to say that one reasonably popular theory of the origin of Japanese is that the Joumon people spoke some kind of Austronesian language, but that the Yayoi people brought with them not just culture but a sort of proto-Korean language. There's then a big section with various ideas about how exactly the two might have mixed to give Old Japanese. Which isn't quite what azuma said, but it's not too far out.

(disclaimer: I know basically nothing about this field except what I've read in Shibatani...)


I'm confused and frightened. Matt, could you provide a brief summary of this controversy for someone who's used to languages on whose history people actually agree?


Place-name studies have been a major way people have been trying to discover hints towards the Jomon language. Of course, I think that these books tend to underestimate the changes names can undergo....

Common is looking for Ainu names. I have seen "Edo" interpreted to mean "big lake," and some proposed etymologies for names in Shikoku, which would definitely create a Ainu = Jomon association. Another scholar found "Indonesian"-ish names in Kyushu and a few parts further north.

I wish I could give you the citations, but I'm near onto five years since I last looked at this issue. Mark Hudson's Ruins of Identity, if I'm remembering right, also covers the language-origin and Jomon population identity debates.


pm215: thanks!

Everyone else: yeah, OK, I shouldn't have glossed over that. To summarize, I've seen other reconstructions of ancient Japanese (including its phonology) that match this stuff near enough for me to judge the language examples non-kooky. The issue is who would have spoken it. The Joumon and Yayoi cultures had different ways of life, made different artifacts, and were different physically, and most people think that the Yayoi culture was at the very least strongly influenced by immigrants from somewhere on the mainland (probably Korea). So it is a bit dubious to imply, as this site seems to, that there was no linguistic discontinuity between the two. At best, I suppose, you might argue that this represents what Joumon people might have spoken after centuries of mingling with the Yayoi during the overlap period.

How's that?

(Really, I just thought it was cool to hear this stuff spoken instead of just read it on a page.)


It's cool listening to people speak Tlingan as well. If you take my meaning.

Forgive my asking this without properly searching their site myself, but what part of the Jomon Period is this supposedly a reconstruction for?


You mean tlhIngan ;) And it isn't that bad! The actual sentences are plausible enough.

From memory, the site isn't specific about exactly when or where.


Show-off petaQ! :)

If the Wikipedia dates for the main Jomon Period are correct (4000-400 BCE), the period WHEN the reconstruction is supposed to be for is relevant. What is the date of the oldest inscription we know of...sixth century? 800+ years is a LONG time for an unwritten language. I'm especially bothered by the assumption(?) of a basic SOV order and use of "case particles".

But maybe that's just me...


True, I admit that I was a bad linguist to uncritically repeat the "Joumon" stuff, and I would be surprised (to say the least) if the language spoken by the people who lived Japan in 4000 B.C.E was this close to modern Japanese.

But, it does mesh pretty closely with ancient Japanese phonetics as I (possibly incompletely or wrongly0 understand them (e.g. "p" where modern words have "h", etc.), and that's what interested me about it. I think that if you thought of the site as a fairly orthodox rendering of what most linguists think Japanese sounded like in the era beyond which specific hypotheses about phonetics are difficult to make, due to lack of evidence, you wouldn't go too far wrong, even if it is incorrect to say that that era or language had anything to do with the Joumon people.

In other words, like I said, I was just excited about hearing the sounds spoken.

The sentence structure and particle thing is a good point, but again, I think that if you consider it "just pre-MYS" rather than "Joumon", it's not so implausible.


Sorry if I came across as a pratt (petaQ?) earlier; bit of a lot on me mind these days.

I guess I'd be much more comfortable with what they're selling if it were being marketed as some Yayoi-ware from 400 CE or so, for the reasons you mention about more orthodox reconstructions of earlier forms of the language. That would indeed be not so implausible at all.


Thanks, pm215. I've basically read the same thing as you have, though not in the same book. And I should have been clearer.

Especially on the fact(?) that what we know as Japanese is not so much a variety of proto-Korean, as it is what happened to said variety after centuries of coexistence with the substrate language of the Jomon people. Linguistically, it always seemed to me the best way to account both for the throttling similarity of J-K grammar, and yet the strange lack of obvious cognates.

As for the debate, I think I can be of help. The traditional view was that the Japanese people, with minor foreign inputs, were descended linguistically and genetically from the Jomon of ancient times, a lineage of hundreds of thousands of years. Lacking other information, I think it's a natural interpretation for people to make, and probably a majority of Japanese people still believe it even if they haven't ever given it much thought. But the racial affinity with continental neighbors, and the linguistic similarity to Korean bely this theory, and it is no longer taught in schools as such. The sharp difference of Yayoi farming culture from a largely unagricultural Jomon culture that had contined for about 10,000 years relatively unchanged, and its sudden appearance in the parts of Japan closest to Korea, leave little doubt among modern Japanese scholars that it is of continental "inspiration" to say the least. And even the most conservative textbooks (yes, THAT one) attribute this to the 渡来人, "the people who crossed over".

The question is the degree of influence, and the debate is still hot. In other words, how many people came over from Korea in the late Jomon and throughout the transformative Yayoi period?

The miminal case is that the number was small, perhaps a few ten thousand or less over five or six centuries, and that the continental influence is as due to culture acquired from Korea in Japanese military expeditions or trade there as to peaceful immigration.

The maximal case is that perhaps as many as a million came over in that half-millenium, which would be a very substantial amount in those times. And that furthermore, the higher population growth of the agricultural Yayoi "people" only maginified the trend.

Textbooks are of course, silent on the matter. Unfortunately leading most students to the same erroneous conclusion that used to be explicitly taught generations ago, that the Jomon are the direct main predecessors of modern Japanese people.

I think the maximal case is probably closer to the mark, though I'm sure that trade and war played a part, especially increasing the number of refugees to Japan. I base my conviction of mitochondrial DNA studies I read about ( with most of this information ) in an essay on the origins of Japanese people in "日本通史", "A Comprehensive History of Japan", vol. 1, by Hanihara Kazuro. The gist is, that the closest relatives to the Old Jomon skeletons we have are the Okinawans and the Ainu, and that by far the greatest genetic affinity among a large sample of Honshuu Japanese is to their next-door neighbors, the Koreans. Some estimates put the Korean portion of the modern gene pool at over 70 percent. Of course, that still leaves 30 percent, of which most is probably ancient Jomon DNA.

It's difficult to argue with such DNA evidence, especially when it dovetails nicely with the cultural, anthropological, and linguistic record. But I give it a good while yet until it's accepted as common knowledge and explicitly taught as such in schools.


Still, I agree with Matt, and though I think it would be more accurate of them to have said Yayoi, or even better, Late-Yayoi Japanese, the reconstructions are plausible to me too.

And wicked cool, of course.


Wow, thanks, Azuma, that was fantastic. (The long comment, not just the agreeing with me.)

IDR: Don't worry, I brought it on myself entirely! But on the plus side, it's been a great discussion.


There's a good pop-science article on this by Jared Diamond here, incidentally:http://www.discover.com/issues/jun-98/features/japaneseroots1455/(although it's a little elderly by now; maybe things have moved on?)

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