Language of the Month: Ainu

Language of the Month: Ainu

This month we take a look at the Ainu language which mostly resides in the Kuril Islands of Japan. The islands, with less than 15 000 speakers, spread NE from Hokkaido, which is itself at the NE end of Japan. Essentially the islands bridge Japan and Russia in a long archipelago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ownership of some of the islands is disputed between the two countries. Look, it’s complicated, OK? There was a Treaty in 1951 that made Japan give up any sovereignty. Only problem is it didn’t define who did have sovereignty. How much do we pay diplomats….?

Ainu traditional dress

Anyway, the language is an interesting one. It’s an isolate like Basque. What this means is that it’s the only living example of a whole language group. It has some very limited links with some of the Altaic group of languages, but generally it’s like some strange exotic species of plant which has no connections with any other.

Unusual makeup (actually tattoos)  on an Ainu woman

There are quite a few dialects and, generally speaking, linguists group them into two closely related groups called Hokkaido- Kuril and Sakhalin. As usual linguists differ over whether the northern variety, Sakhalin-Ainu is a different langue from Hokkaido-Ainu or whether they’re just dialect groups. As Jewish language experts are prone to observe about Yiddish relative to German, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.

Ainu has some weirdness linguistically, you’ll be pleased to know. It’s a rare example of a tripartite language. Let me explain. Stay in there, it could get rough for a few minutes.

Ergative languages ‘see’ the object of a transitive verb in the same class as the subject of an intransitive verb. The clue is in the ERG part; it’s do with who or what is doing the work. So, let’s take

The dog bit the bone


The sun shone

As examples.

In English, German, French – other non-ergative or, to be more precise, nominative accusative languages, – we’re used to thinking of ‘dog’ and ‘sun’ as being the same class, nominative, subjects of the sentences. But in an ergative language (Basque, Mayan, Georgian, for example), it’s ‘bone and ‘sun’ that are classed as agents. So the take the same case., called absolutive.

But Ainu just has to be different… It’s a tripartite language so it treats dog, bone and sun all differently in terms of case. Personally, I find that much easier than the ergative structures.

Ainu culture has some interesting oddities, as do all cultures.

I love the fact that lite children up to the age of about three didn’t have their own names, but were called ayay, shipo, poyshi, or shion (old excrement) or to translate crying baby , fresh poo or old poo. Any of us who have had children can sympathise, but “Fresh Poo, leave the nice doggy alone, please”. Really…

The engagement ceremony is quite nice. The maiden is installed in a tunpu, an annexe attached to her parents’ house and suitors would come to visit here. Of course, it was the parents who got to choose the ’best’ suitor BUT when the chosen suitor visited to ask for her hand in marriage, the maiden would offer him a bowl of rice, of which he would eat half and give her back the bowl. If she ate the remaining portion he was accepted, but if she just put the bowl down he was rejected, and another had to be found.

Surprisingly liberated for an ancient society.

You can sign up to our  short 4 week Ainu course here and our longer 10 week course here


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