Ainu (language)

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Ainu ( ア イ ヌ イ タ , Aynu itak )

Spoken in

Japan , earlier also Russia
speaker 10 (2007)

Isolated language

  • Ainu
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


Ainu is the language of the Ainu , who live mainly in Japan on Hokkaidō today . They are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from the actual Japanese and long before the Japanese settled the northern Japanese islands. Today there are around 15,000 ethnic Ainu in Hokkaidō, very few of whom speak their native language. After A. Vovin 1993, there were only 15 competent older Ainu speakers left at the end of the 1980s, so that the language must be considered almost extinct today. However, there are tendencies towards revitalization.

The name Ainu is a self-designation and means person .

The Ainu is an isolated language , so it is not demonstrably related to any other language. However, some researchers have combined it with other Siberian languages ​​to form the group of paleo-Siberian languages. The Paleo-Siberian languages ​​do not form a genetic unit , but are a group of Old Siberian and East Asian residual languages ​​that were spoken there before the Urals, Turkic, Tungusian, Korean and Japanese ethnic groups.

Spread of the Ainu

Historically proven (dark red) and suspected (light red) distribution of the Ainu

The Ainu is an isolated language that only has a handful of older speakers. However, there are a number of measures to revitalize Ainu in Japan (see the next section). The ethnic group of the Ainu, which anthropologically clearly differs from the Mongolian type of its neighbors -  Japanese , Niwchen (Gilyaks), Tungus  - still comprises 1,500 people on Russian territory on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands , in Japan around 15,000 on Hokkaidō, where they live Represent the rest of the pre-Japanese indigenous population.

In the past, Ainu was much more widespread, so it was spoken on Kamchatka , Sakhalin and the Kuriles , as can be seen from many place and river names that can be derived from the Ainu language , but the focus of the Ainu culture was the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō . The name for Mount Fuji , which is revered as a national symbol, may also come from the Ainu language , along with many other geographical names in Honshū .

Language policy situation in Japan

In the 1990s the discussion about the position of the Ainu language minority in Japan began to move. From 1994 to 1998, Kayano Shigeru was the first member of the Ainu people to be represented in the Japanese parliament. He put a question on Ainu in a parliamentary committee to draw attention to the Ainu in Japan. In 1997 the Ainu Law ( Ainu Shinpō ) was passed, but this hardly changed the actual situation of the Ainu.

The Ainu Times has been published since 1997 , and in 1998 a radio program went on air on Ainu in Hokkaidō. Meanwhile, the number of Japanese learning Ainu is increasing. Ainu courses are offered in some cities and various dictionaries have been published.

At the end of 2005, young Ainu and Japanese people of Ainu origin living in Tokyo founded the hip-hop group Ainu Rebels , who want to draw attention to the situation of the Ainu through their music. They sing traditional Ainu poems as well as rap in standard Japanese , often accompanied by traditional instruments such as the mukkuri (an instrument, mostly made of bamboo, similar to the European jaw harp ).

Dialects, high and colloquial language

The approximately 20 dialects of the Ainu are divided into the three groups Kuril, Sakhalin and Hokkaidō dialects according to their distribution areas. The Taraika dialect in Sakhalin differs from the others and forms perhaps a fourth group; the Hokkaidō dialects have a north-south subgroup. The Hokkaidō dialects are best documented, the Sakhalin dialects less well, and there are hardly any recent studies on the Kuril dialects. The difference between the classical Ainu, in which the numerous epics ( Yukar ) of the people are passed down orally, and the colloquial dialects is also grammatically significant, e.g. B. different verbal affixes are used, the classic Ainu is a strongly incorporating language , while the colloquial language has changed to a more analytical single word type.

But genetic relationships?

The genetic relationships of the Ainu have not yet been clarified; the majority of researchers assume an isolated language . Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts to establish the Ainu's relationship with other languages ​​and language groups. Attempts to compare the Ainu with Southeast Asian and Pacific languages ​​(Bengtson: Austronesisch , Vovin (1993): Austroasiatisch ) did not attract much attention.

More interest is certainly due to the experiments that compare the Ainu with the geographically neighboring languages Japanese , Korean and Altaic or even some Paleosiberian languages . Shiro Hattori (1964) assigned the Ainu to an Altaic in the broader sense , which in addition to Turkish , Mongolian and Tungusic also contains Japanese, Korean and precisely Ainu. The following diagram shows the structure of this hypothetical Macro-Altaic language family. First the Ainu split off, the rest split up into Korean-Japanese and the actual Altaic language groups (Turkish, Mongolian and Tungusian):

Macro-Altaic according to Hattori (1964)

  • Macro Altaic
    • Ainu
    • Altaic-Korean-Japanese
      • Korean-Japanese
        • Korean
        • Japanese Ryukyu
      • Altaic
        • Mongolian Tungus
          • Tungusian
          • Mongolian
        • Turkish

James Patrie (1982) provided a much- noticed work on this subject, mainly based on the lexical basis , according to which the Ainu, together with the Japanese and Korean alongside Turkish, Mongolian and Tungusic, form a fourth subgroup of Macro-Alta - albeit split a long time ago forms.

Macro-Altaic according to Patrie (1982)

  • Macro Altaic
    • Japanese-Korean-Ainu
      • Ainu
      • Japanese Ryukyu
      • Korean
    • Tungusian
    • Mongolian
    • Turkish

Joseph Greenberg (2000) adopts the genetic unit Ainu-Japanese-Korean for his Eurasian macro family - based on Patrie - but does not regard it as a subgroup of Altai, but as an independent branch of his Eurasian macro family. His justifications are a critical selection of Patrie's word equations ; common in all three languages set terminating interrogative / ka /, and / -ya /, the Kausativsuffix / -ke / or / ki /, the Lokativpostposition / ta /, pronominal object / i / and / e /; for the embedding in the Eurasian, Greenberg mainly draws on the vowel harmony of Ainu, which he deals with in detail in his presentation.

Despite all efforts in this area, there is still no really compelling “evidence” for a relationship between the Ainu and another language or language group, the Japanese-Korean-Altaic hypothesis ( Macro-Altaic ) and Greenberg's Eurasian approach - similar to Koppelmann's (1933) - are now generally regarded as refuted.

Some linguists suspect a relationship between the Ainu and the languages ​​of the Native Americans . For example, a 2008 linguistic analysis showed some lexical and grammatical matches. In 2018, linguist Anna Bugaeva, an associate professor at Tokyo University and one of the few specialists in the Ainu language, showed great similarities in grammar, phonology, and syntax between the Ainu and indigenous languages ​​on the northwest coast of America . She claims that the Ainu is closely related to the Athapaskan languages .

Another hypothesis that has received less attention today is the relationship between the Ainu and Indo-European languages . This thesis is supported by matches in the vocabulary and grammatical similarities. Greenberg took up these agreements in a similar way, but in the context of the Eurasian hypothesis.

Linguistic characteristics

A current overview of the Aini language is provided by Shibatani (1990), on which this brief presentation is based.


The Ainu has an average phoneme inventory. The vowels are / a, i, u, e, o /. There is no phonemic contrast between long and short vowels. Diphthongs like / ai /, / ui / etc. are transcribed to / aj /, / uj / and here as [ ay ] or [ uy ]. Syllable introductory vowels are pronounced just like in German with a preceding voiceless glottal plosive sound [ ʔ ], e.g. B. aynu as ʔajnu "person".

The consonants can be found in the following scheme:

bilabial labiovelar alveolar palatal velar glottal
Plosives p   t   k ʔ
Affricates     c      
Nasals m   n      
Fricatives     s     H
Approximants   w   j    
Flap     r      

Here are a few remarks: There is no contrast “voiceless - voiced” with the plosives, i.e. no difference e.g. B. between [ t ] and [ d ], is written in the Latin transcription / t /. The combination / ti / does not occur, a final consonant before a suffix starting with / i / changes to / /. The semi-vowels / w / and / y / cannot be connected with / u / and / i /, so / wu / and / yi / are not possible. In the Latin transcription, the glottal occlusive sound / ʔ / - similar to German - is not written.

The pronunciation of the affricata / c / varies between [ ], [ ts ], [ ] and [ dz ]. The fricative / s / is realized as [s] or [ ʃ ], where [ ʃ ] is always spoken before / i / and at the end of the syllable. The nasal / n / before / k / becomes [ ŋ ]. After / k / and / p / / r / and / t / are voiceless, / t / are often slightly fricatized (i.e. [ts]).

All consonants can precede the syllable; / c /, / h /, and / ʔ / are not possible at the end of the syllable . In Sakhalin Ainu, the final occlusive / p /, / t /, / k / to / h / and final / r / to / h / or syllabic to / r V / (V stands for any vowel).

Assimilation and dissimilation play an important role. Here are a few examples:

  • akor nispa > akon nispa "our chief"
  • akor tures > akot tures "our sister"
  • kukor rusuy > kukon rusuy "I want (something)"

sentence position

The sentence order is SOV (subject-object-verb) and is kept quite strictly, as there are no cases in the actual sense:

  • kamuy aynu rayke "the bear kills the man"
  • aynu kamuy rayke "the man kills the bear"

Noun phrases

The rules of noun phrase formation are also strictly observed, e.g. B .:

  • Attribute + noun; z. B. pirka kewtun <good heart> "good heart"
  • Genitive attribute + noun; z. B. aynu cise <man's house> "the man's house"

In addition to the positioning in the sentence, some postpositions also help to make the (mostly local) function of certain parts of the sentence clear, e.g. B. / ta / for the locative, / orun / for the dative-adessive, / orwa / for the ablative u. a.

  • huci matkaci-orun upaskuma
Grandmother girls-to-tell-stories
"Grandmother tells stories to the girl"
  • poro cise-ta horari
"He lives in a big house"

Verbal formation

The conjugation of the verb has no tenses. Pronominal subjects and objects are marked by affixes. The affixes of the classical Ainu differ significantly from the colloquial forms, especially in the 1st person. The following affixes (prefixes and suffixes) come from the classic Ainu:

Subject and object markers of the verb in classical Ainu

person Singular Plural position function
1. -on -on suffix intransit. subject
1. a- a- prefix transit. subject
1. i- i- prefix object
2. e- eci- prefix Subj./Obj.
3. O- O- prefix Subj./Obj.

This results in the following forms with subject markers:

  • itak-an "I speak / we speak"
  • a-kore "I give / we give"
  • e-itak "you speak"
  • eci-itak "you speak"
  • itak "he-she speaks / they speak"

The subject and object markers in the transitive verb are prefixes, the subject prefix comes before the object prefix. Because of the null morpheme in the 3rd person and the identical subject-object markers in the 2nd person, there are many ambiguous forms:

  • ae-kore "I give / we give you"
  • a-Ø-kore "I give him / her / she" (pl)
  • ei-kore "you give me / us"
  • e-Ø-kore "you give him / her / she" (pl)
  • Ø-e-kore "he / she gives (they give) you"
  • Ø-i-kore "he / she gives (they give) me / us"
  • Ø-Ø-kore "he / she gives (they give) him / her"


As already mentioned, the incorporation (integration of nouns in verb forms) plays a major role, especially in classical Ainu, in colloquial language, non-incorporating constructions are often used in parallel:

  • asir cise ci-kar
new house we-make (not incorporating) +
"We are building a new house"
  • ney ta cise-kar-as
this-at-home-we-do (incorporating)
"We will build a house there"
  • mukcaraha a-tuye
his chest i-cut (not incorporating)
  • a-mukcar-tuye
i-breast-cut (incorporating)
"I cut his chest"

In the incorporating versions, the direct objects cise and mukcar were integrated into the verbal form. Nouns with other functions can also be incorporated, e.g. B. intransitive subjects, attributive and adverbial determinations :

  • kane rakko o-tumi-osma
golden otter RELATED war-begins
"Because of the golden otter the war begins"
  • nea cep a-pone-ko-kuykuy
I-eat-this fish-bone-with-me
"I eat this fish with bones"


Ainu did not have a script until recently, but in recent years attempts have been made to write the language using the Japanese syllabary Katakana and the Latin alphabet . The only Ainu Times newspaper published in Japan uses both fonts.

When writing with the Latin alphabet, accents are marked with an acute accent , but this is sometimes left out.

In contrast to Japanese, Ainu also has closed syllables, which is why such syllables are written with small katakana for clarification when using katakana. In Unicode , since version 3.2 (March 2002) with the Unicode block Katakana, Phonetic Extensions, a character set with these little Katakana is available.

a ア
i イ
u ウ
e エ
o オ
[k] 1
ka カ
ki キ
ku ク
ke ケ
ko コ
- k ㇰ
[ - k̚]
[s] ~ [ʃ]
sa シ ャ / サ2
[sa] ~ [ʃa]
si シ
su シ ュ / ス2
[su̜] ~ [ʃu̜]
se シ ェ / セ2
[se] ~ [ʃe]
so シ ョ / ソ2
[so] ~ [ʃo]
- s ㇱ / ㇲ2
[ - ɕ]
[t] 1
ta タ
ci チ
tu ト ゜ / ツ ゜2
te テ
to ト
- t ㇳ / ッ3
[ - t̚]
[ts] ~ [tʃ] 1
ca チ ャ
[tsa] ~ [tʃa]
ci チ
cu チ ュ
[tsu̜] ~ [tʃu̜]
ce チ ェ
[tse] ~ [tʃe]
co チ ョ
[tso] ~ [tʃo]
na ナ
ni ニ
nu ヌ
ne ネ
no ノ
- n ㇴ / ン4
[ - n , - m - , - ŋ - ] 5
h 6
ha ハ
hi ヒ
hu フ
he ヘ
ho ホ
- h 6
[ - x]
-a h ㇵ
[ -a x]
-i h ㇶ
[ -i ç]
-u h ㇷ
[ -u̜ x]
-e h ㇸ
[ -e x]
-o h ㇹ
[ -o x]
[p] 1
pa パ
pi ピ
pu プ
pe ペ
po ポ
- p ㇷ ゚
[ - p̚]
ma マ
mi ミ
mu ム
me メ
mo モ
- m ㇺ
[ - m]
ya ヤ
yu ユ
ye イ ェ
yo ヨ
ra ラ
ri リ
ru ル
re レ
ro ロ
-a r ㇻ2
[ -a ɾ]
-i r ㇼ2
[ -i ɾ]
-u r ㇽ2
[ -u̜ ɾ]
-e r ㇾ2
[ -e ɾ]
-o r ㇿ2
[ -o ɾ]
- r ㇽ2
[ - ɾ]
wa ワ
wi ウ ィ / ヰ2
we ウ ェ / ヱ2
where ウ ォ / ヲ2
1 : k , t , c , p are sometimes realized as [ɡ], [d], [dz] ~ [dʒ], [b] . This doesn't change the meaning, but it sounds more masculine. These voiced consonants can also be written as g , d , j , dz , b or ガ, ダ, ヂ ャ, ヅ ァ, バ etc.
2 : Both according to the actual pronunciation or preference of the writer.
3 : ッ is the final t at the end of the word, e.g. B. pet = ペ ッ = ペ ㇳ. In the middle of the word there is a final consonant that precedes the initial sound of the next syllable with the same value, e.g. B. orta / otta / = オ ッ タ. オ ㇿ タ is not recommended.
4 : At the end of a word, n can be written either as ㇴ or ン; in the middle of the word as ン, e.g. B. tan-mosir = タ ン モ シ ㇼ = タ ㇴ + モ シ ㇼ, but not タ ㇴ モ シ ㇼ.
5 : [m] before [p] , [ŋ] before [k] , [n] otherwise. Contrary to Japanese, it does not become other sounds like nasal vowel .
6 : The beginning h [h] and the ending h [x] are different phonemes. The ending h only exists in the Sakhalin dialect.

The final [ɪ] is written in Latin transcription as y and in Katakana as a small ィ; the final [ʊ] as w or small ゥ and [ae] as ae or ア エ or ア ェ.

Example with initial k :

[kaɪ] [ku̜ɪ] [koɪ] [kaʊ] [kiʊ] [keʊ] [koʊ] [keɪ]
kay kuy koy kaw kiw kew kow key
カ ィ ク ィ コ ィ カ ゥ キ ゥ ケ ゥ コ ゥ ケ ィ

Since this rule is applied systematically, some katakana combinations stand for different sounds than in the Japanese language:

ウ ィ ク ィ ス ィ テ ィ ト ゥ フ ィ
Ainu [wi] , [u̜ɪ] [ku̜ɪ] [su̜ɪ] [teɪ] [toʊ] [ɸu̜ɪ]
Japanese [wi] [kɰi] ~ [kwi] [si] [ti] [tɯ] [ɸi]

The Sakhalin dialect has long vowels. These are marked with a circumflex or macron in Latin transcription and with a chōon in katakana .



  • Ernst Kausen: Ainu . In: The Language Families of the World. Part 1: Europe and Asia . Buske, Hamburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-87548-655-1 , p. 427-434 .


  • Hans Adalbert Dettmer: Ainu grammar. (2 volumes). Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1989/1997.
  • Kirsten Refsing: The Ainu Language: The Morphology and Syntax of the Shizunai Dialect. Aarhus University Press, 1986, ISBN 87-7288-020-1 .
  • Suzuko Tamura: The Ainu Language. Sanseido, Tokyo 2000, ISBN 4-385-35976-8 .
  • Masayoshi Shibatani: The Languages ​​of Japan. Cambridge University Press, 1990 (therein on the Ainu language pp. 1-86).
  • Alexander Vovin: A Reconstruction of Proto-Ainu. Brill, Leiden 1993, ISBN 90-04-09905-0 .


Genetic relationships

  • John D. Bengtson: Review of James Patrie 1982 . In: Mother Tongue , IV, 1998.
  • Joseph Greenberg: Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives. Volume 1. Grammar. Stanford University Press 2000.
  • Yoshizo Itabashi: Some Morphological Parallels between Ainu and Austronesian . In: Mother Tongue , IV, 1998.
  • Heinrich Koppelmann: The Eurasian language family. Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1933.
  • Peter Norquest: The Contact and Genetic Relationship of Ainu . In: Mother Tongue , IV, 1998.
  • James Patrie: The Genetic Relationship of the Ainu Language. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu 1982.
  • Paul Sidwell: The External Relations of Ainu: Problems and Prospects . In: Mother Tongue , IV, 1998.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander Vovin: A Reconstruction of Proto-Ainu. Brill, Leiden 1993, ISBN 90-04-09905-0 .
  2. Shiro Hattori: Ainu-go Hōgen Jiten ( ア イ ヌ 語 方言 辞典 ). Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo 1964.
  3. James Patrie: The Genetic Relationship of the Ainu Language. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu 1982.
  4. ^ Joseph Greenberg: Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume I: Grammar. Stanford University Press, 2000.
  5. ^ Heinrich Koppelmann: The Eurasian language family. Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1933.
  6. ^ The Phono-Typological Distances Between Ainu And The Other World Languages ​​As A Clue For Closeness Of Languages . Yuri Tambovtsev Department of English, Linguistics and Foreign Languages ​​of KF, Novosibirsk Pedagogical University
  7. Anna Bugaeva: Endangered Ainu language is treasure trove for linguists : The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved February 22, 2019 .
  8. ^ Richard Zgusta: The Peoples of Northeast Asia through Time: Precolonial Ethnic and Cultural Processes along the Coast between Hokkaido and the Bering Strait . BRILL, 2015, ISBN 978-90-04-30043-9 ( [accessed October 24, 2019]).
  9. edited in 5 volumes by Kirsten Refsing: Origins of the Ainu language: the Ainu Indo-European controversy. Retrieved October 24, 2019 .