the language of Okinawa


the history of uchina guchi
(Excerpt taken from Etsuko Higa's Master of Arts thesis,
Okinawan Classical Music: Analysis of Vocal Performance,
University of Hawaii, 1976.)
The language of Okinawa belongs to the Japanese-Ryukyuan language family which extends from Hokkaido in northern Japan to Yonaguni (73 km. off the coat 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 diffferent dialects and sub-dialects from village to village.  The Shuri dialect was standardized under the Ryukyuan kingdom central administration estiablished by King Sho Shin (1477-1526).  It was the official language used in conversation by the aristocratic 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 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 e to i and o to u.  For exmaple, 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 Japanese and Shuri dialect also exist in consonants.  Some of the common differences are as follows:


Japan Shuri Japan Shuri
k chu yuki (snow) yuchi
chi tsi michi (road) mitsi
mi n minato (port) nnatu
ri i odori (dance) udui
wa a kawa (river) kaa

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(Excerpted from the Okinawan Language Text by Dr. Mitsugu Sakihara.)
Chaabira sai. Pardon me.  May I come in? (Used when entering a home.) 
Mensooree. Welcome.
Ii misooree. Please come in.
Chuu uganabira. How do you do?
Hajimiti uganabira. I'm glad to meet you.
wakai miseemi.
Do you understand Okinawan?
Uu, ufee wakai biin. Yes, I understand a little.
Nifee deebiru. Thank you.
Guburii sabira. I would like to be excused.
Chaa ganjuu 
yaibiimi tai.
Have you been well?

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words & phrases
(Excerpted from UCHINANCHU: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii)
abiyaa person who talks loudly, yelling
achisan yaa tai It's hot, isn't it?
andagii Okinawan doughnut
anmaa or ayaa mother
ashitibichi pig's feet soup
chu (short sound) people
churakaagii good looking
gachimayaa gluttonous
jin-gwaa money
kumankai kuuwa Come here.
maa kai ga Where are you going?
magii large, big
maasan tasty, delicious
niibu yaa sleepy head
njichabira goodbye
Uchinanchu people from Okinawa
uumaku rascal
ningurugwaa sweetheart (besides's one's wife); girlfriend
unju you (polite)
warabi child
yanakaagii not good looking
yukuimisooree Rest awhile.
Yamatunchu Japanese from the main islands of Japan; naichi
yuntaku talkative

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