Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

10. The rise and fall of dialects

0. Introductory notes by the editors

This paper is a thorough description of the sociolinguistic situation surrounding Japanese dialects. Various tendencies in Japanese society are taken into consideration, as well as social and psychological factors. The author details the sort of treatment which Japanese dialects received during the years when Japan was molding itself into a modernized nation. Since the dialect eradication discussed herein is similar to that which dialects and minority languages have experienced in Europe and other parts of the world, the development of a sociolinguistic typology of the status of dialects and minority languages seems to be a worthwhile pursuit.

In this paper, Dr. Sibata introduces some basic technical terminology which he coined. The term kyôtsû-go (literally “Common Language”) had been used in Japan before the Second World War, but his use of the term seems to have been influential for its dissemination within the scholarly world. The term is now widely used in Japanese education.

The idea discussed here that geographical differences will never die away has since been reiterated in studies of “new dialect” forms (newly propagating dialectal forms used among younger speakers which are also a reflection of perpetual linguistic change in progress).


1. Standard Language and the creation of the “National Language” in
the Meiji era

Following the Meiji Restoration (1868), the first task the government initiated was the unification of the nation. This meant freeing farmers from the old lifestyle in which they had not been allowed to live outside the feudal territories divided up by the samurai class, and administering a single nation made up of “citizens” based on me principles of the “equality of the four classes” of people who had been divided up according to tine “military, agricultural, industrial, mercantile” classification. This unification would be a very difficult job to accomplish if separated from the creation of a new “National Language”. This is because language is the basis for human consciousness. The unification of the language was at the same time the unification of the nation.

Although the Japanese are ethnologically a homogenous group, communication had been divided up artificially. Linguistic barriers developed between one feudal state and another, though speech moved towards unification within a feudal state. These barriers became dialect boundaries. There are limits to the extent to which we can know the history of Japanese dialects, so it is difficult to make any definitive statements, but it seems that dialect division became most intense under the feudal system of the Edo period (1603–1868). At any rate, from the middle of the Edo period it became impossible for people from some regions to

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