Minority groups and their minor languages in Canada and Japan

You may assume that the Inuit and Ainu languages of Canada and Japan share the same or similar features because those peoples have long lived in cold regions and lived on marine animals or salmon.

You are partly right. However, when it comes to details, there are important differences, which you can confirm with an article in The Economist newspaper (November 7, 2015 issue) and Japanese encyclopedias.

The most important feature of the Ainu language will be that it is a spoken language. Prominent scholars, including the British missionary John Batchelor (1854-1944), Kyosuke Kindaichi (1882-1971) and Mashiho Chiri (an Ainu, 1909-1961), extracted and wrote down, in the process of their research, the people’s orally inherited folk stories.

“Today Canada’s 59,500 Inuit have nine different writing systems, which makes it hard for them to communicate with each other and to keep their language alive,” said The Economist.

It added, “Sounds denoted by one combination of letters in one region are expressed by a different assortment in another. ‘You’ can now be rendered as ‘ibbit,’ ‘ivvit’ and ‘illit.’”

“With no agreed-upon way of writing the language, documents composed by Canadian Inuit officials have to repeat the same text multiple times,” according to The Economist.

That sounds like a unique issue even in a country where both English and French are the official languages.

Inuit teenagers tend to “text each other in English,” The Economist reported, adding: “This is slowly killing the language. The percentage of Inuit able to carry on a conversation in Inukitut [the Inuit language] dropped to 63% in 2011…”

The nine writing systems or nine dialects appear to reflect the fact that the Inuit live in isolated communities in the vast Arctic region. By comparison, the Ainu, whose population decreased to 18,805 by 1854, lived mostly in Hokkaido, a relatively small island.

The word order of the spoken Ainu language is similar to that of Japanese. Both are so-called SOV (subject-object-verb) word order: “I you like” instead of “I like you.” The Ainu has a simple phoneme inventory: five vowels like Japanese, and only 12 consonants.

Assimilation, or what the Japanese call “mixed marriages” between Ainu and Japanese, may lead to the eventual disappearance of the minor language. Those marriages increased to 43% and the mixed population to 88% by the 1960s.

You are right to think loss of a language is loss of cultural diversity.

By Shota Ushio, freelance writer based in Tokyo

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