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The Study of the Endangered Okinawan Language


Madeline Alexandria T. Julao

Amenah Jannah L. Calaca

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Introduction ………………………………………………………………


Chapter 2


Background of the Study …………………………………………………



Description of Uchinaaguchi ………………………………………………. 6


History of Okinawa and its Language……………………………………. 10

Chapter 3


Process and Causes of Language Death ………………………….…… 13


Theoretical Explanations of the Endangerment of Uchinaaguchi


Chapter 4


Possible Solutions ………………………………………………………


Definition of Terms……………………………………………………………………… 22


Chapter 1 Introduction

The Cambridge A-level English Course for senior (12th grade) high school

students require educatees to study language on a deeper level in written form and in

applicable forms of speech (whether it be formal or conversational). English as a global

language is a topic of much discussion in the curriculum since the variations of the

English Language encompass diverse traits. Additionally, the dominant lingua francais

used to introduce new concepts such as language death and their causes. This

research specifically discusses language shift as opposed to other reasons for language

death due to the definite evidence of the linguistic circumstance of language death in

Okinawa (おきなね).

This lingual study investigates the reasons behind the endangerment of

Uchinaaguchi(うちなーぐち) - the vernacular language of OkinawaIsland located

amongst the Ryukyu(りゅきゅ)Islands (approximately 1,100 kilometres from the

Kyushu(きゅしゅ)region in the southwestward direction).

​ Uchinaaguchi is ​ Figure 1:Map of the Ryukyu Islands (Anderson, 2009) one of the

Uchinaaguchi is

Figure 1:Map of the Ryukyu Islands (Anderson, 2009)

one of the six endangered Ryukyuan languages

(Amami-Oshima, Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawan, Yaeyama, Yonaguni) with

approximately 400 000 speakers as of 2014 according to UNESCO (The United Nations

Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Atlas of the World’s Languages in


A diachronic approach is taken to analyse the characteristics of the language in

question. The examination of the structure of the language allows this study to

potentially determine a specific cause of the apparent language shift in Okinawafrom

Uchinaaguchito Nihongo(にひんご)Japanese.

Accordingly, a historical analytical approach is conducted to study the

emergence and development of Uchinaaguchiand the cultural factors that influenced

the language through the relations with and/or imperialisation of Okinawaby China,

Japan, and the United States of America. Nonetheless, it is important to consider that

only major and notable events are discussed for the purpose of brevity.

Furthermore, this study aims to provide a thorough discussion of the linguistic

situation and the possible causes of extinction of Uchinaaguchi by

applying appropriate

theories. Thus, this investigation would permit the researchers to formulatesolutions to

“save” the language, whether it be through application or theories.

Chapter 2

2.1 Background of the Study

The Archipelago of Ryukyu forms a long chain of islands that extends to Taiwan

located approximately southwest of mainland Japan. The main archipelagic

associations are the Amami-Okinawa cluster

(Inner Ryukyus) in the northeast

comprised of the two islands Amami Island and Okinawa Island, and the Sakishima

group in the southwest, which consist of Miyako Island, Yaeyama Island, and Yonaguni

Island. The Ryukyus once encompassed a discrete republic, but are today part of

modern day Japan. (Anderson, 2009)

Okinawais one of the two biggest islands of the 180 Ryukyuislands in Japan, of

which only 47 are inhabited. Local Okinawansspeak the common lingua franca of

Japan, Nihongoand/or their native language Okinawan, also known as Uchinaaguchior

Hogen in

the language itself. However, post-war in 1945, the use of the heritage

language gradually began to decrease while Nihongo increased in influence as the main

medium of communication, and the Okinawans dispersed as a result of the poor living

conditions in the Ryukyu Islands. This encouraged Okinawan communities to form in

other parts of the country (Osaka and Tokyo) and indifferent countries such as The

Philippines, Brazil (Sao Paulo), and The United States of America (Washington D.C.

and Hawaii) (Heinrich and Ishihara, 2017). The dispersed Okinawan communities

formed non-profit organizations in different parts of the world to preserve and promote

Okinawan culture.

Through the initiative of the Okinawan youth studying in Manila Universities and

business persons residing in the Philippines with the reason of connecting and

interacting with their fellow people, the Philippine-Okinawan Society (POS) was

established in January 1982 (Worldwide Uchina Network, 2016). The Okinawa Kenjin

Association of Brazil was found in August of 1926 and now has over 2500 members.

The Hawaii United Okinawa Association was established in 1951, post-war. This

association aided the local Okinawan during the devastation after World War II. The

Okinawa Kai of Washington D.C. was formed in 1983 and currently includes 135

families in the organization. All of these associations are currently active and organize

events regularly.

This regular schedule of events increases awareness about the endangerment of

Uchinaaguchidue to the language shift to Nihongo.

2.2 Description of Uchinaaguchi

The Japanese language system consists of three sister languages; Ryukyuan,

Japanese,and Hachijō. These sister languages branch into their several variations.

Figure 2: The Japonic Language Family Tree. (Pellard, 2016) The ​ Ryukyuan ​ Languages are

Figure 2: The Japonic Language Family Tree. (Pellard, 2016)

The RyukyuanLanguages are further classified into two groups; Northern and

Southern Ryukyuan. Northern Ryukyuan Languages include languages based in

Okinawa Island (Uchinaaguchi, Kunigami etc.)

and Amami Ōshima Island


Kunigami, etc.). The Southern Ryukyuan Languages mainly encompass languages

utilized in Yaeyama Island

(Yaeyaman,etc.) and Miyako Island

(Miyakoan, etc.).

Additionally, these main languages per island are parent languages to over 700 dialects

altogether (Heinrich & Ishihara, 2017).

Uchinaaguchi, as well as Nihongo Japanese

(the lingua franca of Japan), is

characterized by phonetic alphabets consisting of over 85, 000 characters in

Hiragana/Kana(ひらがな/かな) and Kanji(漢字), where the different strokes of a letter

represent specific and varied pronunciations.

Hiragana Alphabet:












kya きゃ

kyu きゅ

kyo きょ


shi しゅ




sha しゃ

shu しゅ

sho しょ






cha ちゃ

chu ちゅ

cho ちょ






nya にゃ

nyu にゅ

nyo にょ






hya ひゃ

hyu ひゅ

hyo ひょ























rya りゃ

ryu りゅ

ryo りょ












gya ぎゃ

gyu ぎゅ

gyo ぎょ






ja じゃ

ju じゅ

jo じょ












bya びゃ

byu びゅ

byo びょ






pya ぴゃ

pyu ぴゅ

pyo ぴょ

However, Okinawa initially utilized Kanbun, the Classical Chinese form of writing

used in Japan from the Heianperiod (794-1185) to the mid-1900s. This accounts for

the Chinese characteristics of the language such as the different vowel and consonant

sounds (short and long).

The most apparent characteristic of Uchinaaguchi is the use of prolonged vowel

sounds, whereas, Nihongo uses only short vowel sounds. The tables below summarises

the differences in the pronunciation of vowels and consonants in the Uchinaaguchi.







Yama (forest)



Yaama (trap)



Ibi (shrimp)



Iibi (finger)



Ushi (cattle)



Uushi (mortar)






Eesachi (greeting)






Uushi (mortar)


Examples (Uchinaaguchi)





Bukakkoo (shapelessness)

nm (mm)

Chakushi-’nmaga (eldest grandson)


Inna (all)


Chatchi (first son)




Haitte (enter)

Vowel sounds “o” and “u” are rarely ever used in Uchinaaguchi, and


therefore, been omitted. (Sakihara, Karimata, Shimabukuro, Gibo, & Ing, 2017)

2.3 History of Okinawa and its Language

Inadequate information is known about the origin of Okinawans. Nevertheless,

due to ancient genetic research, it is commonly accepted that the inhabitants of

Continental Asia migrated towards islands in the Eastward and Southeastward direction

(Hiscock, 2013).

Figure 3: Genealogical Map of Human Migration (Hiscock, 2013). Although there is no significant evidence

Figure 3: Genealogical Map of Human Migration (Hiscock, 2013).

Although there is no significant evidence of the cultural influence of China on

Okinawa, there are several theories which substantiate this claim.The genealogical

traces and several references to the people living in the islands southeastward from

Korea in Ancient Chinese records, specifically those during the Qin Dynasty (230 B.C.),

logically lead to the conclusion that China had the earliest relations with the Ryukyuan

Island People. The Ryukyu Kingdom was in relations with China for over 500 years,

during the which the culture of the kingdom was greatly influenced, and so was the


Before 8th century CE, the Proto-Japonic (Ancient Japanese) Language split into

two branches; the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese language. These led to different

linguistic alterations of the languages. One prominent characteristic of Uchinaaguchi is

its similarity to Old Japanese (Pellard, 2011). The language, itself, conserved certain

phonetics of Proto-Japonic.

In 1609, the Satsuma clan invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom due to their prosperity in

overseas trade. The group of islands remained under Japan until 1945, but was not

declared a Prefecture until around the year 1860 due to the 7 year quarrel between the

island people and Japanese government about military bases in the Ryukyus for the

purpose of keeping control of the islands and elimination of external factors for the

resistance of this control.

In March of 1945, the U.S.A. began invasion of the Ryukyus by advancing the

U.S.S. Mississippi towards the islands. This marked the birth of the Battle of Okinawa,

known to be one of the most violent and bloodiest battles of World War II. This left the

Ryukyu Islands devastated post-war. The conditions of the islands rendered little

providence for an overpopulated kingdom.

After World War II, Japan left the Ryukyu islands under American control for an

indefinite duration of time. China tried to claim the Ryukyus as their own. Penultimately,

the Islands were declared as enemy territory from June of 1945 to April of 1952. They

were then declared friendly territory by the U.S. Army. A local government was

established on the islands with the guidance of the U.S.

On September 8, 1951, The San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed which

stated that the U.S. would remain in control of Ryukyu. This piece of information is

indicative of the unconcern the Japanese government had for the Ryukyuan

communities, for the islands were a dispensable and advantageous tool. On December

25,1953, the United States reverted all civil control of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan.

During the period in between, the islands were neglected. Defense and military training

were prioritized rather than the rehabilitation of the communities, specifically because of

threats raised during the Korean War.

The historical circumstances discussed above and the poor conditions of the

islands encouraged the locals to emigrate. 331,927 Okinawans opted to live abroad in

approximately 1944 (Kerr, 2000).

Chapter 3

3.1 Causes and process of language death

The lingual transition in Naha progressed in three main phases: the displacement

stage, the tip stage and the moribund stage. (Anderson, 2009)

The displacement phase lasted until around 1950. During this phase, Nihongo

Japanese gradually replaced Uchinaaguchiin its higher domains of use such as school,

government and media. The public educational system in Okinawa, under the control of

the Japanese government, focuses on the use of the Japanese language (Nihongo)

solely in the curriculum (Yonamine, 2017). This was mainly for the reason of

aggressive eradication of the language through efforts made by the Japanese


The reason for the occurrence of this phase is the sociolinguistic circumstances

of Japan which encourage a modernist language (term used to refer to efforts to

establish monolingualism) regime . This level of belligerence towards theRyukyuan

languages is indicative of Japan’s monolingual partiality in favor of NihongoJapanese

(Heinrich & Ishihara, 2017).

The superiority of NihongoJapanese as the prestige language had multiple

negative impacts on Uchinaaguchiitself and the attitudes of its speakers. Polite

registers of Uchinaaguchiwere gradually disused in schools after the Pacific War, while

conversational Uchinaaguchicontinued to be spoken in workplaces for a number of

generations, especially by tradespeople. These considerations coupled to introduce

about the initiation of the tip stages of lingual shift. (Anderson, 2014)

The tip phase involves the period in time at which intergenerational language

transmission of Uchinaaguchiwas replaced with Nihongo. The influence of the use of

Nihongo in educational systems, initiated the decreased fluency of Uchinaaguchi until it

ceased from being utilized in households. Okinawan parents began transmitting

Nihongo Japanese as a first language to their children. Hence, younger generations of

Okinawans have either learned only basic Uchinaaguchi or none at all. By around 1954,

nearly all families spoke Nihongoat home, including those in which one or both parents

spoke Uchinaaguchi fluently.

The moribund phase represents the duration of time through which the process

of language death continually exists. The emergence of semi and rusty speakers

catalysed the endangerment of the language through the inability to transmit the

language at a basic understanding or, even, at all. During the moribund phase,

adolescents amended their sequences of lingual usage to accommodate the

semi-speakers or co-acquirers of Uchinaaguchiby codeswitching respectively between

Uchinaaguchiand Japanese in conversation. Fluency levels ranged depending on their

level of exposure to Uchinaaguchiin the community (E.g. Medium of communication for

casual conversation at work; Transmission of language from grandparents).

To conclude, the decreased utilization of Uchinaaguchigradually occured over

time. The main cause of language shift to Nihongo is the prestige associated with the

language and the continual pressure of the Japanese government to speak the

language in schools. It is important to consider that the Uchinaaguchiis considered

endangered because the number of speakers are decreasing and the number of fluent

speakers are not actively using the language.

3.2 Theoretical Explanations of the Endangerment of Uchinaaguchi

The Speech Learning Model (Flege, 1995) discusses a hypothesis concerning

the mutual influences between the acquired first language (L1) and the learned second

language (L2), specifically on the topic of phonetics and pronunciation. It suggests that

there is a “common phonological space” where these two languages would coexist and

influence each other through the organization, merging, or creation of phonetic

categories. It is important to consider that the phonological system and categories

developed in early childhood used to acquire L1 stays intact throughout the entire

lifespan of the speaker. This phonological system is used and adapted to an extent,

depending on the differences of the sound systems of each language, to learn L2.

The Speech Learning Model outlined the phonetic relationship between

Uchinaaguchi and Nihongo during the displacement phase, where Uchinaaguchi was L1

and Nihongo was L2. At that time, the two languages mutually influenced each other

depending on language dominance. Establishing the entire relationship between the two

languages, Nihongobecame a dominant language and discouraged the use of

Uchinaaguchi. In terms of the Speech Learning Model, Nihongo and Uchinaaguchi

utilize different sound systems (long and short vowels and consonants) in the same

phonological space. The dominance of the Nihongosound system influenced the

phonological system of Uchinaaguchi, catering it more towards the use of Nihongo.

The Dynamic System Theory applied in language learning dictates that language

and interaction systems are dynamic as opposed to the information processing

approach that proposes language systems involve a sender and receiver where both

encode or decode messages in between them. The Dynamic System Theory allows for

internal and external factors which can either minimize or maximize language growth or

maintenance. Such factors include memory capacity, internal knowledge, motivation,

and input from the environment. Without these resources, maintenance or learning

would cease to occur (de Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor, 2007).

Given the circumstances of Okinawa, it can be concluded that internal knowledge

and input from the environment are the two lacking factors in the language maintenance

of Uchinaaguchi. As previously stated, this is as a result of the suppression of the usage

of the language by the Japanese government, which decreased the language input a

speaker would acquire from the environment. The decreased input initiated lack of

internal knowledge about the structure of the language. Ultimately, this prevented the

maintenance of Uchinaaguchi.

The Weaker Links Hypothesis (Gollen et al, 2008) outlines the idea that the

frequency of the usage of a language by a bilingual or multilingual would determine the

strength of the link between the semantics and phonology of the language system and,

thus would cause language attrition or encourage language fluency (Higby & Obler,


In relation to the Speech Learning Model, the dominance of Nihongo Japanese

minimized the use of Uchinaaguchi according to the Weaker Links Hypothesis as well.

The reduced use of Uchinaaguchi in schools and in households led to weaker links in

the semantics and the phonology of the language.

The Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism, conceptualised by Michel Paradis in

2004, discusses the system in which multiple languages (with modules; phonology,

morphosyntax, and semantics) are used by a single speaker. These languages are

considered parametric variations of the same thing rather than independent systems.

Therefore; although each language contains a module of phonology, each languages’

phonology modules are related due to the fact that the all attribute for a the same

specific language function. A neurological hypothesis affiliated with this theory is the

Activation Threshold Hypothesis which states that each language item (e.g. module)

has a minimum “activation threshold” that determine the amount of effort needed to

employ that specific language function. This is based of the biological workings of

neuron action potentials. In biological terms, the activation threshold has been reached

“when a sufficient amount of positive neural impulses have reached its neural substrate”

(Paradis, 2004: 28). With that, using a specific language function require different

activation threshold and must, therefore, require different levels of effort to utilize. It is

emphasized that the activation threshold may vary over time according to the frequency

at which the speaker uses the language (Mehotcheva, 2010).

Applying the Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism in relation with the Activation

Threshold Hypothesis, it can be deduced that the use of Nihongo in Okinawan

educational systems and in households would lower the activation threshold of a

speaker using language functions of Nihongo. In turn, the activation threshold of

Uchinaaguchi would increase, hence, making the language more difficult to use.

Chapter 4

4.1 Possible Solutions

Uchinaaguchi is on the brink of extinction but it is not too late to save this

endangered language. One of the possible solutions to preserve an endangered

language is multilingualism or bilingualism. Multilingualism and bilingualism exist around

the world which allow people to speak or learn more than one language. Being a

bilingual speaker can have tangible benefits because a bilingual person can improve in

processing information in the environment, which leads to a clearer signal for learning

(Marian & Shook, 2012). In addition, bilingual speakers can learn a third language easily

while reducing interference from another language that the speaker already knows. The

bilingual nature of the Okinawan speakers enable them to save the language from

extinction. This can be shown from the concept of transliteration, where in correlation

and translation can be exemplified by other languages including okinawan.

The endangerment of a language can be reversed by influencing children to

relearn the language with the help of the existing speakers of this endangered language

(Skuttnab-Kangas & Phillipson, 1995). Another solution is to increase the prestige of the

endangered language by using it more often in media and technology (e.g. televisions

and radios), gaining official governmental recognition for the language, and increasing

economic status of its speakers (Krauss, 1992). Using endangered languages on

televisions and radios that normally use dominant languages can influence speakers

and show that the endangered language is as feasible as the dominant language.

Another way of preserving languages is increasing the economic and social

status of the speakers. An increase of wealth of its population is a raise to the speakers’

community which could also elevate the status of the endangered language. Influx of

wealth can help in funding of revitalization programs to better the progress of preserving

the endangered language (Dorian, 1998). Revitalization can be endeavored through a

wide range of techniques including the integration of bilingual language classes in

schools, master-apprentice programs where professional speakers of the endangered

language is paired with the non-speaker, and home-based immersion. These programs

must have full support from the people in order for the revitalization to succeed.

Governmental recognition of the endangered language can be beneficial for it

acknowledges and gives significance to the language itself and to the people. This also

helps increase the status of the endangered language being in an equal proportion to

the dominant language (Nettle & Romaine, 2000).

In a survey distributed in 1996 to 230 university students, of which 96% were

Okinawan, alarming statistics were gained. After analysis of a question requesting the

respondents to rate their proficiency level of Uchinaaguchi,0 out of 230 marked the two

options specifying highest levels of proficiency. Approximately 50% answered that they

spoke a limited amount and most surveyors responded that they understood the

language to a certain extent (Noguchi & Fotos, 2001).

Although the lingual situation is not very promising for Uchinaaguchi, continual

efforts of language preservation and maintenance are being made, especially by

researchers and Okinawan associations. These associations and researchers are

raising awareness about the potential language death of Uchinaaguchi.Specific

associations such as the Hawaii United Okinawa Association provide regular culture

and language classes. Therefore, Uchinaaguchidisplays potential in recovering from

being an endangered language.

Definition of Terms

Modernist language regime: An organization supporting monolingualism and

language in uniform.

Transliteration:-the process of transferring a word from the alphabet of one language

to another.

Immersion: - a method of teaching of a foreign language by the exclusive use of that



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