The Ainu Language


Every year many tourists visit my homeland Hokkaido, located on the northern island of Japan, for skiing, sight seeing and bathing in hot springs. When tourists participate in bus tours in Hokkaido, a tour guide often tells of the folk story of the Ainu people. I have participated in this type of tour myself, and I have seen the Ainu people dancing in their traditional costumes for tourists. In spite of growing up in Hokkaido, I have never had a chance to talk to the Ainu people, nor do I have any knowledge about them. All I know about the Ainu is that they lived in Hokkaido indigenously, and most of the names of the places in Hokkaido came from Ainu language. I learned in elementary school that Sapporo, where I am from and capital of Hokkaido, means "dry area" in Ainu. I have always been curious about where the Ainu came from.

The question of the origin of the Ainu language is controversial. Many experts have attempted to clear up this question. Due to no existence of a written record of Ainu language, the expertsí work has been extremely difficult. In this paper, I would like to review the various studies on the origin of the Ainu language.

Modern Ainu

Maher and Yashiro state that since the government of Japan does not distinguish the Ainu from the Japanese on the census report, the accurate number of the Ainu population is not available. Therefore, the only way to figure out the Ainu population is by the number of people who claim themselves to be Ainu. By the self-identification method, the number of Ainu is estimated to be about 24,000. Nevertheless, it is common for the Ainu to deny being Ainu as they keep their identity to themselves because of a long history of segregation by Japanese people (wajin). Therefore, the actual population of Ainu should be doubled or even tripled (Maher and Yashiro 1995, 106). Due to the intermarriage between Japanese and Ainu people, the number of pure blood type Ainu people is very small.

There are three main dialects of the Ainu language; Hokkaido-dialect, Sakhalin-dialect, and Kurile-dialect. There are big differences between the Hokkaido-dialect and the other two dialects. None of these Ainu tribes have letters or characters; therefore, a written record by the Ainu is unavailable today (Shibatani 1990, 4-5).

Although there are indications that a large number of Ainu lived in the southern tip of the Russian peninsula called Sakhalin, the northern part of Honshu on the main island of Japan called Tohoku, and the Kurile Islands, the Ainuís main place of habitation is Hokkaido. The Russian government forced the Ainu who lived in Russia to move into Hokkaido. Many others who lived in Kurile Islands died because of poverty and disease at the time.

The language of the Ainu is almost extinct. No one uses Ainu as a medium of spoken communication today. Within the last 200 years, the number of native Ainu speakers has declined steeply.

1st stage:Predominant monolingualism in Ainu (from ?? to app. 1800)

2nd stage:Language shift begins. Bilingualism: Ainu and Japanese with dominant competence in Ainu (from app.1800 to app. 1900)

3rd stage:Language shift progresses. Bilingualism: Japanese and Ainu with dominant competence in Japanese (from app. 1900 to app. 1940)

4th stage:Language shift completed. Predominant monolingualism in Japanese Death of the Ainu language (since 1940)
(Refsting 1986, 63)

As shown above, very few native speakers of Ainu have survived. Japanese scholars have ignored studying the Ainu until recently. In the last couple of decades, the study of Ainu has become popular, so many books and magazines about the Ainu have been published, and there have been broadcasts on television and radio (Maher 1995, 106).

Is the Ainu a splinter group of Caucasians? The Indo-European hypothesis

European missionaries, merchants, and explores wrote the first simple Ainu glossaries in the early 17th century for the purpose of communication. Soon, studying the Ainu became popular among European scholars. The question of the Ainu genetic affiliation had risen in Europe, and Ainu physiological traits were introduced as "well proportioned people who were more similar to Europeans than were Japanese"(Maher 1995, 116). These traits were overly exaggerated by many scholars, and thus helped set the hypothesis that the Ainu were a Caucasian race.

The work of linguists named Ivar Lindquist and Pierre Naert had established the hypothesis of Indo-European as the origin of the Ainu language. However, their work has been criticized by other linguists. James Patrie, who is an expert of the Ainu-Altaic hypothesis, criticized Naert, saying "Naert regards the most conclusive evidence in support of this theory to be a list of fourteen Ainu words having a common semantic basis in that they are all related to phenomena of ëlightí or ëdarknessí. Evidence is cited attempting to show that these items are of Indo-European origin. Needless to say a conclusion based on fourteen lexical items hardly seems warranted"(Patrie 1982, 4).

Naertís work was based on the work of John Batchelor, who was a British missionary and wrote an English-Ainu-Japanese dictionary. Many scholars say that the Batchelorís dictionary has many mistakes, and it is not very precise. Another expert named Refsing criticized Naert, saying, "The work of Naert and Lindquist therefore stands on shaky ground. Their arguments are compromised by imprecise date, inconsistent transcription and a lack of familiarity with the grammar and morphology of the Ainu language" (Refsing 1986, 56). The influence of Naertís work was great, so the genetic relation of the Ainu language and Indo-European was common knowledge among linguists at Naertís time.

I felt this hypothesis was odd because, in my eyes, the physical appearance of Ainu people can only be Asian. Of course I am not an expert on physical traits. Surprisingly, there are many books that talk about this theory. This theory must have been very popular in Naertís time.

The Ainu and North Pacific Rim hypothesis

Because of geographical reasons and indications of the Ainuís habitation in the past, the Ainu languageís genetic relation to the languages of the northern neighboring country of Hokkaido has been the general idea. The North Pacific Rim hypothesis was expressed in the "Kitano Gengo (Northern Languages)" edited by Osahito Miyaoka who is a professor of linguistics at Hokkaido University. The North Pacific Rim hypothesis is that the American Indian migrated across the Bering Strait. This 500-page work is compiled to attest the genetic relation of the entire North Pacific Rim and American Indian languages (Miyaoka 1992, 55).

Kyosuke Kindaichi, who is the most recognized and honored scholar on Ainu studies, is also interested in the possibility of the relation between the Ainu and Native Americans. Kindaichi suggested the Ainu migrated from North America. The path of the Ainu started from Alaska, to the Bering Sea (supposedly this area used to be continent) and Siberia, and finally down southward to Sakhalin. According to Kindaichi, the Ainu characteristic of incorporating conjugation language( ) is common to the languages of Basque, Native American, and many languages of Hyperborean (Kindaichi 1992, 18). Incorporating conjugation means that the morpheme is bound together and makes a whole sentence look like one word (Miyaoka 1993, 39).

(Murayama 1992, 39)

In the book of Miyaoka, this unique Ainu characteristic was also indicated as one piece of evidence of the Ainu being related to North Pacific Rim languages because many of the northern languages have characteristics of incorporating conjugations.

One interesting piece of evidence is the double-foreshaft toggle harpoon that has been found all around the North Pacific Rim. Those toggle harpoons possess very similar details, shapes, and ornament as those of the Ainuís. The toggle harpoons are called apriniap and are still used by Japanese fishermen today (Miyaoka 1992, 95). This evidence backs up the idea of the path of American Indian may have taken when they migrated from North America to Hokkaido.

Is Ainu from the Altaic family?

Another theory of Ainuís affiliation is the Altaic hypothesis. The geographical area of Altaic language covers Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan through the Central Asian republics of Kazakstan, Mongolia, the inner Mongolia region of China, northernmost Asia, and so forth.

Hattori Shiro, who completed an Ainu dialect dictionary, illustrates the possible genetic relation between Ainu and the Altaic family. Hattori has done a lexical comparative study on those suspicious lexical items that may have common roots. For example, the word of the Ainu root kur:

Ainu:kur:kurëshadowí etc.

Japanesekur:kurasiëdarkí etc.

Korean:kurumëcloudíkurim ësootíetc.




(Shibatani 1990, 6)

Hattori does not think this resemblance is a coincidence, and there must be historical factors involved. Ainu have had contact with these neighboring countries for over thousands of years, it is surely necessary to consider the resemblance could be borrowed words from neighboring countries. However, if these words share a common root and have different derivative style, there is a good chance these words may be genetically related (Shibatani 1990, 7).

Another supporter of the Ainu-Altaic hypothesis, James Patrie, who was a student at the University of Hawaii, stated a strong hypothesis on the genetic relationship of Ainu to the Altaic family for his thesis.
There are no a priori grounds against the possibility of an Ainu-Altaic relationship. The Ainu on the islands of Hokkaido and Karafuto (Sakhalin) are separated by only a narrow body of water from the Altaic people on the Asiatic mainland. Furthermore, the Goldi, a Tungusic tribe, are the immediate neighbors of the Karafuto Ainu. Thus when one considers the genetic affiliation of the Ainu language, the Altaic family should be a likely target of investigation (Patrie 1982, 9).

Patrie put forth evidences on his hypothesis from phonological, morphological and syntactical similarities between Ainu and the Altaic family in his 160 page long thesis. Patrie exhibited 140 possible cognate sound correspondences between Ainu and Altaic languages, and says, "these characteristics are necessary and sufficient for positing genetic relationships" (Patrie 1982, 6). Patrie points out that Ainu features of vowel harmony and agglutination are common to Altaic languages. Finally, Patrie states three points that he has established in his thesis as below:

  1. The Ainu language contains many features in common with Altaic. These features are primarily shared lexical items exhibiting recurring phonological correspondences,
  2. Most of these features must have been present at the Proto-Ainu stage,
  3. For borrowing to occur contact between the Proto-Ainu and an Altaic people must be assumed.
(Patrie 1982, 118)

Even though some scholar say, "Patrieís work is the only serious, substantial, comparative, and

historical work on Ainu"(Shibatani 1990, 7), his work has received unfavorable appraisals by many other experts (Refsing 1986, 57) (Murayama 1992, 1).

Did the Ainu migrate from the south? Southeast Asia hypothesis.

Just as everybody else, I thought the Ainu came from the north without a doubt before I started reading. I never had any idea the Ainu might have possibly migrated from the south. However, the recent study talks about affiliation of Ainu in Southeast Asia.

Alexander Vovin, who reconstructed the phonology and the vocabulary of Proto-Ainu, has the view that Ainu language came from Southeast Asia. After completing his comparative studies on Proto-Ainu and Southeast Asian languages, Vovin states that the most distinctive characteristics of Ainu from neighbor languages, such as Korean or Gilyak, are those of the initial consonant cluster and the rich vowel systems. Through the reconstruction of Proto-Ainu, Vovin found that Proto-Ainu had a richer vowel system than modern Ainu, and that several initial consonant clusters (pr-, tr-, hr-,ty- and hd) had been lost in modern Ainu (Vovin 1993, 176). These characteristics of a rich vowel system and consonant clusters are not common to North-Asia.

Vovinsí reconstruction of Proto-Ainu vowel systems (Vovin 1993, 42)

Another important evidence Vovin indicates are the Proto-Ainuís distinctive features of front /a/ and back /A/; these can not be found anywhere in North-Asia. Another point is both Proto-Ainu and modern Ainu have initial /r/ features that do not exist in north-Asia languages (Vivon 1993, 156). However, all these characteristics we have seen above are common in Southeast Asia.

Vovin also used cultural similarities to support his hypothesis of the relation between Ainu and Southeast Asia and saying;
Besides the cult of the bear, which is definitely of Siberian origin, the Ainu also had the cult of the snake, which definitely preceded the former. The cult of the snake is not seen in Siberia, but it is widespread in Southeast Asia. The same is the case with the cult of the sword, which also has a definite Southern origin. Neighboring Manchu-Tungus people and the Nivkh use the compound bow, while the Ainu used the simple bow that again is typical for Southeast Asia. None of the Ainu neighbors used the loin-cloth as the only garment during the summer, and none of them used poison arrow. All these features exist only in the far more southern regions (Vovin 1993, 162).

Based on all these evidences, Vovin concluded the origin of Ainu is somewhere in Southeast Asia. Vovin listed three possibilities;

  1. Is Proto-Ainu related to Proto-Austronesian (PAN)?
  2. Is Proto-Ainu related to Proto-Austroasiatic (PAA)?
  3. Is Proto-Ainu related to Proto-Miao-Yao (PMY)?
(Vovin 1993,163)

Out of three possibilities 1) and 3) were dropped because Vovin could not find similar parallels that can attest the genetic relationship of between those two Proto-languages and Proto-Ainu. The question of 1) and 3) should be delayed to the future till both PAN and PMY will be clearer. However, regarding to 2) Vovin illustrated phonetical correspondences between the Proto-Ainu and Proto-Austroasiatic.
Phonetic correspondences between Proto-Ainu and Proto-Austroasiatic

*p *p
*-p- *-W-
*P *b
*m *m
*-O *-m
*t *t
*-t *-s
*-t *-t
*tr- *sl-
*tr- *tr-
*d *d
*hd *?d
*n *n
*t *c
*s *q(?)
*s *s
*y- *j
*-y- *-y-
*r *r
*r *l
*k *k
*g *g
*VqV *Vh
*-vO *-Vh
*-n=C *-h
*hr- *hl-
*-O *-h

Vovin strongly felt there were genetic ties between PA and PAA. Borrowing was probably not common between PA and PAA because they were not immediate neighbors. Vovin feels that comparison of PA and PAA is the key to solve Ainu affiliation, and he states that reconstruction of Proto-language is essential to search the origin of Ainu language. I have gone through many books and articles and found that Vovin is the only person who has tried reconstruction of the Ainu language. Vovin states:
This search should not involve straight comparisons of the modern forms in different language families. The only way to clarify obscure prehistoric relations between language is to compare reconstructions. Using my reconstruction, I can definitely say that Proto-Ainu is unrelated to any of the neighboring languages. Even its ties with the Nivkh language, which are deeper than with any other language in the region, are probably due to the centuries of mutual contact, rather than common origin (Vovin 1993, 175).

Ainu relation to Southeast Asia hypothesis is supported by many archaeologists also. According to Peter Geiser, who is a professor of Sociology, Ainu may have migrated from the south and reached Honshu. Mongoloid traits also migrated to Honshu from Korea, and the Ainu and Mongols have mixed in blood, so the Ainu may have Mongoloid trait characteristics. However, Ainuís ancestors were still placed in Southeast Asia.
The Ainu and the Polynesians have a common origin and belong neither to the Caucasian nor to the Mongolian race, although they possess some characteristics of both..ÖÖthe Ainu and the Polynesians had a common, ancient ancestry. Although a relatively late Mongolian admixture occurred, the Ainu have a marked physical resemblance to the Australoid. Moreover, there appear to be common cultural elements that have persisted despite the variant influences that they received during their long trek to the north. It is asserted that the Ainuís material culture, including clothing, handcraft, household implements, weapons, ornament, religious ceremony and cult have a strong resemblance to those of people living in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melanesia (Peng ed.1977, 9[Levin 1958, 271-2]).

Out of all the reading, I enjoyed Vovinís evidence the most. I found many books and articles on the Ainu language, but most of them are not scientific. Most scholars picked out some words and tried to explain the relationship between Ainu and other languages. Vovin had tried reconstructing Proto-Ainu and gave interesting evidence. Since the modern Ainu do not live in southern parts of Japan, many scholars locate the origin of the Ainu on the northern neighboring countries of Hokkaido. However, I found many archeologist talked about the Ainu who lived in all parts of Japan long ago. As in the book of Koyabe Zenichiro, who wrote a book about the origin of the Japanese race, there are many interesting evidences that the Ainu may have inhabited all parts of the Japanese islands. One example is that almost all names of places in Japan, even the farthest South Island of Kyushu, are originated from the Ainu language. Koyabe listed about 60 names of places that came from the Ainu language (Koyabe 1982, 101-130). Koyabeís evidence backs up the Southeast Asia hypothesis. Ainu might have come from those south islands through Taiwan, Okinawa, and Kyushu, northward to Honshu, and finally arriving in Hokkaido.


As I reviewed these different views on the origin of the Ainu language, all the different opinions are convincing as to what could have happened. While I was going through the Ainu-American Indian hypothesis, I remember that when I was a high school student, a member of the Latter-day Saints told me that the Ainu were the descendents of the Nephites, who were Native Americans. I thought this was a fascinating story, but I never imagined I would be reading about that later in my life.

The more I read, the more the origin of Ainu becomes mysterious to me. I came to the conclusion that Ainu may have inhabited all over the earth long ago in the ancient period. Gradually people got together and became small groups. These small groups developed their own languages and cultures, and eventually these groups of people had contact with other cultures. Slowly, these groups of people mixed blood with other races, so physical appearances had changed as well as culture and language. However, one of these groups did not mix or contact with other neighbors for long time until the modern world. They remained own their own for a long time. These are the people, the Ainu, who are the last survivors of Ice age period! Well, I do not know what actually happened. At this point, the origin of Ainu still remains mysterious; no one can come up with convincing evidence of where Ainu may belong, but I found many interesting materials through reading. I would definitely like to continue to study about the Ainu.

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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999