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The Ainu Language
In this short course you will learn how to communicate on a basic level with speakers of Ainu, by properly using the language in a number of everyday situations. But before we get to business, what are the main characteristics of this language we call Ainu?
In this first map you can see the original distribution of the language, before the Ainu lands were annexed to either Japan or Russia. We can say that the Ainu language and culture were part of the larger Okhotsk linguistico-cultural area. In fact, there is historical evidence that Ainus had stable and continuous relations with other populations that inhabited the shores of the Okhotsk sea, among which Nivkhs, Oroks or Itelmens. The Ainu language, however, stands alone in this respect as it has no acknowledged relation with any of the other languages of the area, nor with Japanese – this is why, today, we call Ainu an “isolate” language.
At present, we possess linguistic data for three of the main varieties of Ainu: Hokkaidō Ainu (the one variety you are going to study in this course), Sakhalin Ainu and Kuril Ainu. There are possibly two other varieties of the language for which, unfortunately, we have no historical record: Honshū Ainu and Kamchatka Ainu.
Today only Hokkaidō Ainu survives. Kuril Ainu reportedly went extinct around the beginning of the XX century, while Sakhalin Ainu was proclaimed extinct in 1994, after the death of its last native speaker. Hokkaidō Ainu, on the other hand, still strives against extinction thanks to a resilient community of speakers that, although counting a small number of people, does not want to see the Ainu language disappear.
In this second map you see the names of some Ainu settlements where most of the language data we possess today have been collected in the past. Throughout this course you will learn the dialect of Ainu spoken along the banks of the Saru river in Southern Hokkaidō (very closely related to the Nibutani dialect). If you wish, you can ask questions also about the Sakhalin variety during our skype sessions. Be inquisitive, be curious! You’ll be surprised to know how many differences there are between the two varieties, even though they are in fact the same language!