Regional Linguistic Differences ね。

In America there are often different ways to say the same thing, depending on where you are and where you’re from.  At a recent sobetsukai, the fact Americans call cola various things in different areas was of high interest to many of my co-workers.  I had to explain about the fact that ‘pop,’ ‘soda,’ and ‘soda pop’ were all valid, but generally used in different areas.  The thing I had to explain was, that while there are regional dialects in America, they are all mutually intelligible.  That is to say, most Americans can understand the meaning of other dialects.

The same is often not the case in Japan.  Living languages, ones still in use, evolve due to changes in technology, the environment, and influences from outside sources.  That evolution, however, is limited by the distribution of the language.  Before the advent of radio, television, and the internet, messages took long enough that they could not equalize linguistic evolution.   The USA was settled, yet people were spread out with limited communication.  Different environmental factors and various other circumstances led to differences in the evolution of language, and thus dialects.  Yet the USA is young, and before long moderating  influences in the form of new communication technologies began to tie the dialects back together.

Image a place with not just a few hundred years of history before television, but many hundreds.  Imagine a place where tall mountains and the physical separation of islands made even basic communication difficult.  Imagine Japan, with its difficult writing system that for much of its history was open only to the elite.

The reason the soda pop question was so interesting to my co-workers, is that in Japan, regional dialects are often mutually unintelligible.  For many hundreds of years, a person from the Kansai region likely had trouble speaking with people from Tokyo.  The introduction of broadcast TV has limited this problem, where all Japanese students now learn standard Japanese (historians like to call this NHK Japanese after the national broadcast company), yet the dialects still abound.

The dialect differences range from different pronunciations, to completely different words.  Another form of dialect difference is in the amount of usage of common words.  In Tokyo it is uncommon to add ‘ne’ to the end of a sentence unless you’re talking to a child.  ‘Ne’ has the general meaning of ‘right?’ but to a Tokyo-ite can be condescending.  In Okinawa, however, it’s used by adults quite commonly.  I once counted while a teacher was giving a speech.  I gave up after 100.

Such differences hark back to the culture and history of a community.  Many dialects are fading with the growth of internet and mobile technologies, but if you travel to Okinawa you’ll hear about Hogen.  Hogen is the Okinawa dialect and is probably the most different from standard Japanese of all the dialects.  This is quite simply because Okinawa is more separated geographically and had more outside influences.  There’s a tonal aspect adopted from close ties to China for much of the former Ryukyu Kingdom’s history.  Okinawa is made up of many islands and so there are even dialect differences from various parts of Okinawa.  Understanding these differences is an important part of life for many Okinawans, even for those who no longer speak any form of Hogen fluently.

Japan is a place of multitudes of ideas, culture, and history, yet it often shows one homogeneous face.  Peeking into the history and culture of local places can provide a unique view of the real Japanね。