Recently, researchers at the University of Tokyo completed an analysis of the different dialects of the Japanese language and how they evolved. According to the New York Times, the results appear to shed light on the origins of the Japonic language family, which includes both Japanese and Ryukyuan, a related language spoken by islanders to the south.
The researchers were trying to answer a question that has long vexed linguists: where did the Japanese language originate, and who brought it to Japan? There are two possible contenders: the Jomon people, a group of hunter-gatherers who arrived on the island during the last ice age, or the Yayoi, a group of rice farmers who came later.
To answer this question, the researchers used a computer to analyze the different Japanese dialects and to generate a “language tree” showing how they were most likely to have evolved. Since we already know some of the important dates in the history of the Japanese language, the computer was then able to date the rest of the tree.
The computer analysis showed that the Japanese language tree is approximately 2,182 years old. Obviously, that’s well after the Jomon arrived on the island. However, it coincides rather nicely with the arrival of the Yayoi, which occurred about 3,000 years ago. This suggests that after the Yayoi came to Japan, their more advanced technology allowed them to dominate the island culturally, though they intermarried with the Jomon.
Although there’s an 800-year gap between the arrival of the Yayoi and the root of the Japanese language tree, that’s not necessarily long enough to call the conclusion into question. In fact, Japanese linguistics expert John B. Whitman told the New York Times that the results seemed “solid and reasonable.”
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