Geography and Its Place in World Languages
Japanese is spoken by some 125 million people in Japan and in pockets outside of Japan, in such places as Hawaii and Brazil where Japanese immigrants settled around the turn of the twentieth century. Speakers of Japanese are also scattered around in Taiwan and Korea where Japanese was the official language during the Japanese colonial period (Taiwan 1895-1945; Korea 1910-1945), although this number is decreasing and the speakers aging. With this many speakers, Japanese is ranked as ninth in the world in terms of number of speakers. A 2006 MLA statistics showed that more than 66,000 study Japanese at the college level and more than 500,000 at the secondary level in the United States.
According to one kind of language classification, Japanese is considered to be an agglutinating language. This means that a word may consist of several meaningful elements chained together. For example, the word (or a 'sentence'?) tataseraretakunakatta single-handedly takes care of the meaning "he did not want to be made to stand." Although the definition of what constitutes a word is by no means indisputable, it is assumed, for the purpose of this essay, that one can distinguish several meaningful elements in this word, i.e., tat- is the verb 'stand', -as- is a causative marker, -erare- marks passive, -taku marks desire, naka- is a negative marker, -tta- indicates completed action. In contrast, languages like Spanish or French are called inflectional languages. For instance, the o ending in the Spanish verb ending -o in vivo, 'I live', contains a host of different types of information: that the verb is first person singular, present tense, indicative mood, etc. Chinese and, to a lesser degree, English belong to yet another language group, called the analytic languages, in which fusion of the inflective or agglutinative sort occurs to much less extent. Ainu, a language spoken in Japan, and now practically extinct, belongs to a fourth language group, called the polysynthetic languages.
There are other ways of classifying languages. If one uses as a criterion the method by which major constituents (such as subject nominal 'S', object nominal 'O', and verb complex 'V') are ordered in canonical sentences, then Japanese is a verb-final language (SOV language, or more generally, XV language) and English is a SVO language. Korean is also XV and Chinese SVO. Among world languages, Japanese and Korean belong to the most common SOV/(XV) type.
Genetic Affiliation of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese
Scholars have long been interested in the question of if and how Japanese is genetically related to other languages in areas that surround the Japanese islands. To solve this question, historical linguists have developed a scientific method of systematic cross-language comparison called the comparative method. Using this method, they have compared language pairs such as French and Spanish, English and Dutch, etc., and have observed systematic and consistent sound changes and little semantic shifts, which allowed them to conclude that these languages are genetically related. In the case of Japanese, scholars have not succeeded in finding a common ancestral language or a sister language, i.e. a language that shares the same ancestral language. Some have speculated that Japanese is related to Tamil, a Dravidian language spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka, to Korean, or to languages in Southeast Asia, but none of these theories has passed the scrutiny of historical linguists.