Ainu language

For the language spoken in Central Asia, see Aini language.
Ainu (アイヌ イタㇰ)
Spoken in: Japan, Russia
Region: Hokkaido, formerly Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and Tohoku in Honshu
Total speakers: > 1000
Ranking: not in top 100
Genetic classification: Unclassified
Official status
Official language of: ---
Regulated by: ---
Language codes
ISO 639-1
ISO 639-2mis
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Ainu language (Ainu: アイヌ イタㇰ, aynu itak; Japanese: アイヌ語, ainu-go) is spoken by the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It was once spoken in the Kurile Islands, the northern part of Honshu, and the southern half of Sakhalin. Ainu is thought to be a language isolate with no known relation to other languages. It is sometimes grouped with the Paleosiberian languages, but this is merely a cover term for several isolates and small language families believed to have been present in Siberia prior to the arrival of Turkic and Tungusic speakers; it is not a proper language family. Most linguists believe the shared vocabulary between Ainu and Nivkh is due to borrowing; there are also loanwords both from Ainu to Japanese and Japanese to Ainu. A proposed relationship with Japanese and the Altaic languages (Patrie 1982) has won little support among specialists. In recent years, the Japanese linguist Shichiro Murayama and others have tried to link it by both vocabulary and cultural comparisons to the Austronesian languages. Alexander Vovin (1993) presented evidence suggesting a distant connection with Austroasiatic; he regards this hypothesis as preliminary.



Ainu is a moribund language, and has been endangered for at least the past few decades. Most of the 150,000 self-proclaimed ethnic Ainu in Japan (many additional Ainu are not aware of their origins or are secretive for fear of discrimination) speak only Japanese. In the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Hokkaido) where many of the remaining native speakers live, there are 100 speakers, out of which only 15 used the language every day in the late 1980s. The number of speakers today (by whatever definition one may use) is not known with any certainty. In all of Hokkaido, it is estimated that there are perhaps 1000 native speakers, almost all older than 30. Among Ainu speakers (broadly defined), second-language learners presently outnumber native ones.

However, use of the language is on the rise. There is currently an active revitalization movement -- mainly in Hokkaido but also elsewhere -- to reverse the centuries-long decline in the number of speakers. This has led to an increasing number of second-language learners, especially in Hokkaido, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of Ainu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, himself a native speaker.


Ainu syllables are CV(C) and there are few consonant clusters.

There are five vowels:

i     u
e     o


p   t   k   ʔ (glottal stop is not written in transcription)
    s       h
    c (varies between [ʧ], [ʦ], [ʤ], [ʣ])
w   y ([j])
m   n

The sequence /ti/ is realized as [ʧi], /s/ becomes [ʃ] before /i/ and at the end of syllables. There is some variation among dialects; in the Sakhalin dialect, syllable-final /p, t, k, r/ are merged into /h/.

There is a pitch accent system; words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong. Other words have the high pitch on the second syllable.

Typology and grammar

Ainu is SOV, with postpositions. Subject and object are usually marked with postpositions. Nouns can cluster to modify one another; the head comes at the end. Verbs, which are inherently either transitive or intransitive, accept various derivational affixes.

Typologically, Ainu is similar in word order (and some aspects of phonology) to Japanese and Korean, while its high degree of synthesis is more reminiscent of languages to its north and east.


Officially, the Ainu language is written in a modified version of the Japanese syllabary katakana. There is also a Latin-based alphabet in use. The Ainu Times publishes in both.

The Unicode character range Katakana Phonetic Extensions (31F0-31FF) [1] (, [2] ( includes katakana characters mainly for the Ainu language. Katakana for final consonants, which do not appear in Japanese, are used often in Ainu.

Oral literature

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called Yukar, which retain a number of grammatical and lexical archaisms.

See also: Kannari Matsu Chiri Mashiho Chiri Takao Kindaichi Kyosuke Bronislaw Pilsudski


External Links

be:Мова айну cs:Ainu (jazyk) de:Ainu (Sprache) es:Idioma ainu eo:Ajnua lingvo fr:Langue anu ko:아이누어 he:שפת האינו la:lingua Ainuana nl:Ainu (taal) ja:アイヌ語 lt:Ainu kalba pl:Język ajnuski ru:Айнский язык scn:Lingua ainu zh:愛努語 minnan:Ainu-gú


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