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Hogen: The Okinawan Language

Excerpt taken from Etsuko Higa's Master of Arts thesis, Okinawan Classical Music: Analysis of Vocal Performance, UH, 1976

The language of Okinawa belongs to the Japanese-Ryukyuan language family which extends from Hokkaido in northern Japan to Yonaguni (73 m. off the coast of Taiwan) in the southern Ryukyus. Although Hattori Shiro, one of the leading linguists of Japan, estimates that the time of separation of the Shuri (Okinawa) and Kyoto (Japan) dialects was sometime between the beginning of the sixth century and the middle of the twelfth century, the Ryukyuan language is identified as an independent language due to its remote relationships in morphological, phonological, and lexical aspects.

Within the Ryukyuan language (extending from Amami Oshima to Yonaguni), the Okinawan language itself is comprised of many different dialects and sub-dialects from village to village. The Shuri dialect was standardized under the Ryukyuan kingdom central administration established by King Sho Shin (1477-1526). It was the official lanugage used in conversation by the aristocratci class of Shuri castle. Most Okinawan songs and poems were composed in the Shuri dialect.

The Shuri dialect is characterized by complexity of honorific markers which differentiate class, sex, and age. A diversity of respect forms was strictly adhered to among the three social classes of aristocracy, gentry, and commoners; between male and female; and also between different age groups. The appropriate respect forms had to be used not only when two speakers were from the same class, same sex, and even to the same age when the hierarchical distinction only related to the month of birth. When two speakers were of completely different status, conversational usage was extremely complex.

The phonological characteristics of the Shuri dialect as compared to standard Japanese are mainly the vowel changes of the e to i and o to u. For example, the word for rain is pronounced ame in Japanese while it is pronounced ami in Shuri. In the same manner, the word for cloud is pronounced kumo in Japanese while it is pronounced kumu in Shuri. Some differences between Japnese and Shuri dialect also exist in consonants.

Greetings and Phrases

Excerpted from the Okinawan Language Text by Dr. Mitsugu Sakihara


A: Chaabira sai. - Pardon me. (Used when entering a home). May I come in?
B: Mensooree. - Welcome. Oh, Professor Sakihara. Please come in.

A: Nifee deebiru. - Thank you.
B: U-cha usagai misooree. Andagii usagaimi-sooree. - Please have a cup of tea and some Okinawan donuts.

B: Mata mensooree tai. - Please come back again.
A: Mata yassi. - See you again.


Some Okinawan Words and Phrases Used in Hawaii

Excerpted from UCHINANCHU: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii