+ Dialect Research Sheds Light on Origins of Japanese People

other topics: use search box

New findings suggest that Japanese dialects are descended from a founding language that arrived in the Japanese islands about 2,200 years ago, as reported in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade.

The results shed new light on the origin of the Japanese people as well: it appears that their language is descended from rice-growing farmers who arrived in Japan from the Korean Peninsula, and not from hunter-gatherers who first inhabited the islands some 30,000 years ago.

The dialect research supports a controversial theory that the distribution of many language families today reflects the spread of agriculture in the distant past.  Farming populations, in this view, carried their languages with them, growing in numbers and expanding at the expense of hunter gatherers. 

According to this theory, the Indo-European family of languages, which includes English, was spread by the first farmers who expanded into Europe from the Middle East 8,000 years ago and replaced the existing population of hunter-gatherers.

Archaeologists in Japan have found evidence of two waves of migrants: a hunter-gatherer people who created the Jomon culture, and then the wet rice farmers who left remains known as the Yayoi culture.

The Jomon arrived in Japan before the end of the last ice age.  They were able to defend against invaders until about 2,400 years ago when China’s wet rice agriculture was adapted to Korea’s colder climate.

It appears that several Korean languages were spoken at that time, and the Yayoi language is in fact unknown.

But the work of Sean Lee and Toshikazu Hasegawa at the University of Tokyo now suggests that the origin of Japonic, which is the language family that includes Japanese and Ryukyuan, coincides with the arrival of the Yayoi.

If confirmed, this finding indicates that the Yayoi people took Japonic to Japan.  It does, however, leave unresolved the question of where in Asia the Yayoi culture or Japonic language originated before arriving in the Korean peninsula.

Lee, who is a graduate student studying language and the mind (he is not a historical linguist), has used a statistical tree-drawing method which other biologists have applied successfully to language origins.  There is skepticism from some linguists, it must be noted.

The method is called Bayesian phylogeny.  It depends on having a computer draw a large number of possible trees and then sampling them to find the most probable.

Each language is represented by a 200-word vocabulary composed of words known to change very slowly.

If any fork in the tree can then be linked to a historical event, all the other branch points can be dated. 

Lee knew (in this case) the dates for Old Japanese, Middle Japanese, and the split between the Kyoto and Tokyo dialects that began in 1603 AD, the point at which the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (the early name for Tokyo)..

He reasoned that Japanese would have originated with the Jomon only if the root of the tree turned out to be very ancient, and with the Yayoi if recent. 

The computer’s date of 2,182 for the origin of the tree fits reasonably well with archaeological dates for the Yayoi culture.  Mr. Lee reported this on May 3 in The Procedings of the Royal Society.

One expert on Japanese linguistics, John B. Whitman, calls the new findings “solid and reasonable;” another,Quentin Atkinson, feels that Lee’s time scale is plausible.

Genetic studies have suggested interbreeding between the Yayoi and Jomon people.  The Jomon contribution to modern Japanese may be as much as 40 percent.   The Yayoi prevailed, along with the agricultural technology.

sole source is Nicholas Wade’s article in the NY Times on May 4, 2011.  http://www.nytimes.com .

tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com.

Comments are closed.