Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview
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19. Urbanization and language differences in social
classes

0. Introductory notes by the editors

The perennial sociolinguistic topic --- social class --- is the main concern here. The dialects of the Okinawan Islands (or more precisely the Southwestern Islands, consisting basically of the former kingdom of Ryûkyû) are said to reflect class differences both in vocabulary (competence) and language use (performance). Dr. Sibata and his co-workers investigated this phenomenon in two localities in the southern-most region of Japan, and found that evidence of these differences is now sparse. Dr. Sibata made use of the differences in the degree of urbanization between city of Hirara and the small village of Karimata, and found that modernization had influenced the disappearance of class differences in language.

When people are conscious of differences among people, differences in language are often mentioned, sometimes with only the slightest evidence to back up the claims. Thus language is often utilized in discriminating against people, something of which everyone should be aware. This paper shows the process of linguistic “markers” and “indicators” becoming “stereotypes” to differentiate between social classes.

Phenomena similar to those discussed here have been found on mainland Honshu Island, and so-called dialect consciousness or dialect image is often manifested in dialect discrimination. The concept of “dialect (inferiority) complex”, a term coined by Dr– Sibata, is also related to these phenomena.

In the transcription system for the Miyako dialect used here, ‘z’ represents a syllabic sound which resembles both the [z] and the vowel [V] pronounced with a degree of friction. ‘V’ also can be syllabic.


1. Gentry and commoners in Miyako

In modern Japan, although differences still exist between different social strata, differences in social classes seem to have already disappeared. The one exception is the Okinawa region of the Southwestern Islands. In Shuri (the former Ryûkyû capital) on the main island of Okinawa, the differences between shizoku (gentry) and heimin (commoners) are very large and one finds differences even in the phonological systems of the dialect. On Miyako Island (the main island of the Miyako chain) in the southwestern end of the islands, the differences are not so large, but even now, the older people at least of Miyako Island often refer to discrimination between commoners and the gentry. These references are apparently based on their experiences at the beginning of the 20th century, that is, from the end of Meiji era (1868–1912) to the beginning of Taishô era (1912–1926). Thus, it can be said that a consciousness of discrimination between the gentry and commoners on Miyako Island is alive even today.

-321-

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