Japanese is the language of a millenary culture rich in traditions, history
and all kind of artistic expressions. It's the daily way of expression for millions of
people who live in a world of an impressive past and a vertiginous present. Japanese is a
nicely flexible language, attentive to new influences and attached to its traditions at
the same time.
With the exception of smaller groups of Japanese immigrants in other
countries, the Japanese language is only to be found in its country of origin. However,
there are 125 million native speakers living in this country, giving it a special status:
it is one of the most spoken languages in the world with a relatively small territorial
expansion.Japanese includes many regional dialects and different kinds of speech
styles conditioned by specific social situations. Regioanl dialects are all over
Japan's four main islands as well as the smaller islands. Some of them are
incomprehensible for the speakers of other regions. This diversity generated the need to
find one dialect to be the standard or common language. This function is efficiently
performed by the dialect from Tokyo. This dialect has expanded even more in recent years
thanks to television, press and books. Nowadays more and more Japanese people speak their
local dialect and the one from Tokyo. Another important dialect family, in some ways different from the
standard, is the group from Southwestern Japan, where major cities such as Osaka, Kobe and
Kyoto are located.
In relation with social speech styles, Japanese has an ample system ways
to express politeness and honor. This reflects a culture where the speaker always takes
into account the kind of relationship he or she has with the interlocutor. This cultural
specification is very important in Japanese society, and foreign students must take it
into account when they study the language. For example, some verbs (like to go)
have two basic forms (iku, irassharu) one is to be used in a familiar context and
the other with an interlocutor in a higher social position. At the same time there are
markers (normally suffixes, like -masu) which are added to indicate when one is
talking to a stranger or to an elder. Another example is found in the use of pronouns,
always in accordance with the social context and the gender of the speaker.
Japanese is spoken all over the territory of Japan, and nowadays it has
approximately 125 million native speakers. Although there are Japanese immigrants in other
areas of the globe, none of these groups represents a true expansion of the language. From
this point of view, the importance of Japanese does not stem from the number of countries
where it is official language nor from its geographic expansion. Japanese is so important
because it is the language of one of the richest nations in the world, key in a business
world. And the lengthy literary tradition and artistic legacy of the millenary
culture behind the language should not be forgotten!
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