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Ainu language

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Title: Ainu language  
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Subject: Ainu people, Hokkaido, Kana, Languages of Japan, Polysynthetic language
Collection: Ainu Language, Endangered Language Isolates, Languages of Japan, Subject–object–verb Languages
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Ainu language

アィヌ・イタㇰ Aynu itak
Native to Japan
Region Hokkaido
Native speakers
10  (2007)[1]
  • Ainu
Katakana, Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-2 ain
ISO 639-3 ain
Glottolog hokk1243[2]

Ainu [3] (Ainu: アィヌ・イタㇰ Aynu itak; Japanese: アイヌ語 Ainu-go) is the sole survivor of the Ainu languages, spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Until the twentieth century, Ainu languages were also spoken throughout the southern half of the island of Sakhalin and by small numbers of people in the Kuril Islands. Only the Hokkaido variant survives, with the last speaker of Sakhalin Ainu having died in 1994; and Hokkaido Ainu is moribund, though there are ongoing attempts to revive it.

Ainu has no generally accepted genealogical relationship to any other language family. For the most frequent proposals, see Ainu languages.


  • Speakers 1
  • Revitalization 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Vowels 3.1
    • Consonants 3.2
  • Typology and grammar 4
  • Writing 5
    • Special katakana for the Ainu language 5.1
    • Basic syllables 5.2
    • Diphthongs 5.3
    • Long vowels 5.4
  • Oral literature 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


Pirka Kotan museum, Ainu language and cultural center in Sapporo (Jozankei area)

Depending on the classification system used, Ainu could be considered a moribund language or a critically endangered language. It has been endangered since before the 1960s. Most of the approximately 15,000 ethnic Ainu in Japan speak only Japanese. During the 1980s, in the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Hokkaido), where many of the remaining native speakers live, there were 100 speakers, of which only 15 used the language every day. Today, there are only around 10 native speakers left, all of whom are at least 80 years old. There are also some semi-speakers who are at least 60 years old.


There is currently an active movement to revitalize the language—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 the late Ainu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, himself a native speaker. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido is the main supporter of all things Ainu in Hokkaido.

There have been Ainu language classes taught throughout certain areas in Japan. Small numbers of young people are learning Ainu in classes, with revival efforts underway.[4]

The revitalization of the Ainu language has been hindered by the Japanese government's lack of considering the Ainu an indigenous people. This means that the Ainu are not supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes two articles that directly have to do with language: "Article 13: Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons"[5] and "Article 14: Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."[5]


Ainu syllables are CV(C) (that is, they have an obligatory syllable onset and an optional syllable coda) and there are few consonant clusters.


There are five vowel sounds in Ainu:
  Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


  Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p   t   k
Affricate     ts      
Nasal m   n      
Fricative     s     h
Approximant   w   j    
Tap/flap     ɾ      

Plosives /p t ts k/ may be voiced [b d dz ɡ] between vowels and after nasals. Both /ti/ and /tsi/ are realized as [t͡ʃi], and /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/ lenited and merged into /x/. After an /i/, this /x/ is pronounced [ç]. A glottal stop [ʔ] is often inserted at the beginning of words, before an accented vowel, but is non-phonemic.

There is a pitch accent system. The accentuation of specific words varies somewhat from dialect to dialect. Generally, words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong, while other words have the high pitch on the second syllable, although there are exceptions to this generalization.

Typology and grammar

Typologically, Ainu is similar in word order (and some aspects of phonology) to Japanese.

Ainu has a canonical word order of SOV,[6] and it uses postpositions rather than prepositions. 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. Ainu does not have grammatical gender. Plurals are indicated by a suffix.[6]

Classical Ainu, the language of the yukar, is polysynthetic, with incorporation of nouns and adverbs; this is greatly reduced in the modern colloquial language.

Applicatives may be used in Ainu to place nouns in the dative, instrumental, comitative, locative, allative, or ablative roles. Besides freestanding nouns, these roles may be assigned to incorporated nouns, and such use of applicatives is in fact mandatory for incorporating oblique nouns. Like incorporation, applicatives have grown less common in the modern language.

Ainu has a closed class of plural verbs, and some of these are suppletive.


The Ainu language is written in a modified version of the Japanese katakana syllabary. There is also a Latin-based alphabet in use. The Ainu Times publishes in both. In the Latin orthography, /ts/ is spelled c and /j/ is spelled y; the glottal stop, [ʔ], which only occurs initially before accented vowels, is not written. Other phonemes use the same character as the IPA transcription given above. An equals sign (=) is used to mark morpheme boundaries, such as after a prefix. Its pitch accent is denoted by acute accent in Latin script (e.g., á). This is usually not denoted in katakana.

Rev. John Batchelor was an English missionary in Japan. He lived among the Ainu, studied them and published many works on the Ainu language.[7][8] Batchelor wrote extensively, both works about the Ainu language and works in Ainu itself. He was the first to write in Ainu and use a writing system for it.[9] Other things written in Ainu include dictionaries, a grammar, and books on both the culture and language.[10] The New Testament was translated by SIL International in 1897.[10]

Special katakana for the Ainu language

A Unicode standard exists for a set of extended katakana (Katakana Phonetic Extensions) for transliterating the Ainu language and other languages written with katakana.[11] These characters are used to write final consonants and sounds that cannot be expressed using conventional katakana. The extended katakana are based on regular katakana and either are smaller in size or have a handakuten. As few fonts yet support these extensions, workarounds exist for many of the characters, such as using a smaller font with the regular katakana ク ku to produce to represent the separate small katakana glyph ku used as in アイヌイタㇰ (Aynu itak).

This is a list of special katakana used in transcribing the Ainu language. Most of the characters are of the extended set of katakana, though a few have been used historically in Japanese, and thus are part of the main set of katakana. A number of previously proposed characters have not been added to Unicode as they can be represented as a sequence of two existing codepoints.

Character Unicode Name Ainu usage
31F0 Katakana Letter Small Ku Final k
31F1 Katakana Letter Small Shi Final s [ɕ]
31F2 Katakana Letter Small Su Final s, used to emphasize its pronunciation as [s] rather than [ɕ]. [s] and [ʃ] are allophones in Ainu.
31F3 Katakana Letter Small To Final t
31F4 Katakana Letter Small Nu Final n
31F5 Katakana Letter Small Ha Final h [x], succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. アㇵ ah) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F6 Katakana Letter Small Hi Final h [ç], succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. イㇶ ih) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F7 Katakana Letter Small Fu Final h [x], succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. ウㇷ uh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F8 Katakana Letter Small He Final h [x], succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. エㇸ eh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F9 Katakana Letter Small Ho Final h [x], succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. オㇹ oh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31FA Katakana Letter Small Mu Final m
31FB Katakana Letter Small Ra Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. アㇻ ar)
31FC Katakana Letter Small Ri Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. イㇼ ir)
31FD Katakana Letter Small Ru Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. ウㇽ ur)
31FE Katakana Letter Small Re Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. エㇾ er)
31FF Katakana Letter Small Ro Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. オㇿ or)
Characters represented using combining characters
ㇷ゚ 31F7 + 309A Katakana Letter Small Pu Final p
セ゚ 30BB + 309A Katakana Letter Se With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark ce [tse]
ツ゚ 30C4 + 309A Katakana Letter Tu With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark tu. ツ゚ and ト゚ are interchangeable.
ト゚ 30C8 + 309A Katakana Letter To With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark tu. ツ゚ and ト゚ are interchangeable.

Basic syllables

a ア
i イ
u ウ
e エ
o オ
[k] 1
ka カ
ki キ
ku ク
ke ケ
ko コ
-k ㇰ
[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
[t] 1
ta タ
ci チ
tu ト゚/ツ゚ 2
te テ
to ト
-t ㇳ/ッ 3
[ts] ~ [tʃ] 1
ca チャ
[tsa] ~ [tʃa]
ci チ
cu ツ/チュ2
[tsu̜] ~ [tʃu̜]
ce セ゚ /チェ 2
[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
-ah ㇵ
-ih ㇶ
-uh ㇷ
-eh ㇸ
-oh ㇹ
[p] 1
pa パ
pi ピ
pu プ
pe ペ
po ポ
-p ㇷ゚
ma マ
mi ミ
mu ム
me メ
mo モ
-m ㇺ
ya ヤ
yu ユ
ye イェ
yo ヨ
ra ラ
ri リ
ru ル
re レ
ro ロ
-ar ㇻ2
-ir ㇼ2
-ur ㇽ2
-er ㇾ2
-or ㇿ2
-r ㇽ2
wa ワ
wi ウィ/ヰ 2
we ウェ/ヱ 2
wo ウォ/ヲ 2
1: k, t, c, p are sometimes voiced [ɡ], [d], [dz] ~ [dʒ], [b], respectively. It does not change the meaning of a word, but it sounds more rough/masculine. When they are voiced, they may be written as g, d, j, dz, b, ガ, ダ, ヂャ, ヅァ, バ, etc.
2: Both used according to actual pronunciations, or to writer's preferred styles.
3: ッ is final t at the end of a word. (e.g. pet = ペッ = ペㇳ) In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is a final consonant preceding the initial with a same value. (e.g. orta /otta/ = オッタ. オㇿタ is not preferred.)
4: At the end of a word, n can be written either ㇴ or ン. In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is ン. (e.g. 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] elsewhere. Unlike Japanese, it does not become other sounds such as nasal vowels.
6: Initial h [h] and final h [x] are different phonemes. Final h exists in Sakhalin dialect only.


Final [ɪ] is spelt y in Latin, small ィ in katakana. Final [ʊ] is spelt w in Latin, small ゥ in katakana. [ae] is spelt ae, 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 the above rule is used systematically, some katakana combinations have different sounds from conventional Japanese.

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]

Long vowels

There are long vowels in the Sakhalin dialect. Either a circumflex or macron is used in the Latin alphabet, and the long vowel sign (ー) is used in katakana.

Example with initial k:
[kaː] [kiː] [kuː] [keː] [koː]
カー キー クー ケー コー

Oral literature

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called yukar, which retain a number of grammatical and lexical archaisms. Yukar was memorized and told at get togethers and ceremonies that often lasted hours or even days. The Ainu also have another form of narrative often used called "Uepeker", which was used in the same contexts.

See also


  1. ^ Bradley, D. Languages of Mainland South-East Asia (2007) In O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama, and M. E. Krauss (eds.), The vanishing languages of the Pacific Rim, pp. 301–336. Oxford Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Ainu". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ a b "Ainu". Retrieved 2012-07-29. 
  7. ^ Frédéric, Louis (2005). "Ainu". Japan encyclopedia. Käthe Roth, translator (illustrated, reprint ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 13.  
  8. ^ Ivar Lissner (1957). The living past (4 ed.). Putnam's. p. 204. Retrieved 23 April 2012. In 1877 a young and industrious theologian went to visit the Ainu. His name was John Batchelor, and he was a scientist and missionary. He got to know the Ainu well, studied their language and customs, won their affection, and remained their staunch friend until the end of his days. It is to Batchelor that we owe our deepest insight into the [Original from the University of California Digitized Jan 27, 2009 Length 444 pages]
  9. ^ John Patric (1943). ...Why Japan was strong (4 ed.). Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. p. 72. Retrieved 23 April 2012. John Batchelor set about to learn the Ainu language, which the Japanese had not troubled ever to learn. He laboriously compiled an Ainu dictionary. He singlehandedly turned this hitherto but spoken tongue into a written language, and himself wrote books in it. [Original from the University of California Digitized Oct 16, 2007 Length 313 pages]
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ See this page at and this section of the Unicode specification.


  • Refsing, Kirsten (1986). The Ainu Language: The Morphology and Syntax of the Shizunai Dialect. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.  
  • Refsing, Kirsten (1996). Early European Writings on the Ainu Language. London: Routledge.  
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi (1990). The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Tamura, Suzuko (2000). The Ainu Language. Tokyo: Sanseido.  

Further reading

  • John Batchelor (1905). An Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary: (including A grammar of the Ainu language.) (2, reprint ed.). Tokyo: Methodist Publishing House; London, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, Co. p. 525. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Digitized by the University of Michigan December 8, 2006)
  • Basil Hall Chamberlain; John Batchelor (1887). Ainu grammar (Issue 1 of Memoirs of the Literature College, Imperial University of Japan). Tokyo: Imperial University. p. 174. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Digitized by Harvard University November 30, 2007)
  • John Batchelor (1897). 聖書・新約: アイヌ. Yokohama Bunsha. p. 706. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Harvard University) (Digitized October 8, 2008)
  • John Batchelor (1896). 聖書・新約: アイヌ. Yokohama Bunsha. p. 313. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Harvard University) (Digitized October 8, 2008 )
  • British and Foreign Bible Society (1891). St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John in Ainu. London: British and Foreign Bible Society. p. 348. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Harvard University) (Digitized June 9, 2008)
  • Kyōsuke Kindaic (1936). アイヌ語法概說. 岩波書店. p. 230. Retrieved March 1, 2012.  (Compiled by Mashiho Chiri) (the University of Michigan) (Digitized August 15, 2006)
  • Kirsten Refsing (1986). The Ainu language: the morphology and syntax of the Shizunai dialect. Aarhus University Press. p. 301.   (the University of Michigan) (Digitized May 14, 2008)

External links

  • Literature and materials for learning Ainu
  • in AinuBook of Common PrayerThe
  • Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Ainu in Samani, Hokkaido
  • A Grammar of the Ainu Language by John Batchelor
  • A Grammar of the Ainu Language, including An Ainu-English-Japanese Dictionary by John Batchelor
  • "The 'Greater Austric' hypothesis" by John Bengtson (undated)
  • Ainu for Beginners by Kane Kumagai, translated by Yongdeok Cho
  • (Japanese) Radio lessons on Ainu language presented by Sapporo TV
  • (Japanese) Ainu word list (Archived 2009-10-24)
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