Yaeyama language

八重山物言/ヤイマムニ Yaimamuni
Native to Japan
Region Yaeyama Islands
Ethnicity 47,600 (2000)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 rys
Glottolog yaey1239[2]

The Yaeyama language (八重山物言/ヤイマムニ, Yaimamuni) is a Southern Ryukyuan language spoken in the Yaeyama Islands, the southernmost inhabited island group in Japan, with a combined population of about 50,000 (as of 2011). The Yaeyama Islands are situated to the southwest of the Miyako Islands of the Ryukyus and to the east of Taiwan. Yaeyama (Yaimamunii) is most closely related to Miyako. The number of competent native speakers is not known - as a consequence of Japanese language policy which refers to the language as the Yaeyama dialect (八重山方言 Yaeyama hōgen), reflected in the education system, people below the age of 60 tend to not use the language except in songs and rituals, and the younger generation exclusively uses Japanese as their first language.

Yaeyama has three main dialects, named after the islands they are found on:

The speech of the island of Yonaguni, while related, is usually considered a separate language.


The Ryukyuan language split from Proto-Japonic when its speakers migrated to the Ryukyu Islands.[3]

Some of the pronunciations that disappeared from Japanese around the 8th century, Japan's Nara period, can still be found in the Yaeyama languages. One example is the initial "p" sound, which in Japanese became an "h," while remaining a "p" in Yaeyama.

Proto-Japanese Modern Japanese Yaeyama
"Field" para hara paru
"Boat" pune fune puni
"Dove" pato hato patu

While the Yaeyama language was more "conservative" in some aspects, in the sense of preserving certain pronunciations, in other aspects it was more innovative. One example is the vowel system. Old Japanese had eight vowels (some perhaps diphthongs); this has been reduced to five in modern Japanese, but in Yaeyaman, vowel reduction has progressed further, to three vowels. Generally, when modern Japanese has an "e," the Yaeyama cognate will have an "i" (this is seen in "puni," above); and where modern Japanese has an "o," the Yaeyama cognate will have a "u" (as seen in "patu," above).

Modern Japanese Yaeyama
"Thing" mono munu
"Seed" tane tani
"First time" hajimete hajimiti

Many of these preserved pronunciations have been lost in the language of the main island of Okinawa. One explanation for this is that it is possible to travel by sea from mainland Japan until the main island of Okinawa, while keeping one island or another in sight nearly at all times; but there is then a gap between Okinawa island and the Yaeyamas, that would have required several nights on the open sea. For this reason, there was less traffic between mainland Japan and the Yaeyama islands, allowing further linguistic divergence.


In Yaeyama, Wh-phrases are marked with du:[4]

Subject wh-question and answer taa-du suba-ba fai who-DU soba-PRT ate Who ate soba?
Object wh-question and answer: kurisu-ja noo-ba-du fai Chris-TOP what-PRT-DU ate What did Chris eat?

Leaving du off of a wh-phrase leads to ungrammatically. Yet, du marking is optional for adverbial or adjunct wh-phrases. In questions with multiple wh-words, only one can be marked with du.[5] Further research is needed to learn more about Wh-questions in Yaeyama.


  1. Yaeyama language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Yaeyama". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Kerr, George. Okinawa: History of an Island People. 1957.
  4. Davis 2013, p. 1.
  5. Davis 2013, p. 2.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Yaeyama phrasebook.

Further reading

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