Ainu Language: Learn About The Endangered Indigenous Language of Japan [With 60+ Ainu Words]
Have you heard of the Ainu language? It’s the endangered language of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan.
But it was only recently, in 2019, that the Japanese government enacted a law that recognized the Ainu as indigenous people. This law aimed to revive the Ainu language and culture which has become endangered.
Japan’s colonization policies forced the Ainu to assimilate into Japanese society. They weren’t allowed to speak their language, so it slowly started to die out.
In fact, even today, many people with Ainu heritage don’t claim it or don’t know that they’re Ainu.
A language dies every two weeks. So the United Nations has promoted learning endangered languages to help keep their rich culture and history alive.
That’s how I learned about Ainu. I knew of the Ainu people from my Japanese history studies. But more recently, I began to learn some of the words through Drops, a language learning app.
Drops worked with the Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University to develop their Ainu course in the app to support the language.
It’s important to keep endangered languages alive to preserve their songs, traditions, and cultural arts. So I wanted to share more about the Ainu people and their language with fellow Japanese learners like myself who want to branch out.
et’s learn about the Ainu culture, history, and language.
Table of contents
- Who Are the Ainu People of Japan?
- Where Did the Ainu Come From?
- How Many Ainu are There in Japan?
- Discrimination in Japan
- About the Ainu Language
- How Many People Speak Ainu Fluently?
- About Ainu Culture and Religion
- Learn Ainu: Ainu Words and Phrases to Get Started
- Where to Learn More About Ainu
- Over to You!
The Ainu people are the indigenous people of the northern islands of Japan and east coast of Russia.
Today, most of those identifying as Ainu live in Hokkaido and speak Ainu-itak, アイヌ・イタㇰ, or Hokkaido Ainu.
But they also lived on Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands, as well as northern Honshu (the main island of Japan) and Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia.
Many northern regions of Honshu, such as Touhoku, have words and linguistic influences from the hunters and fishermen who migrated to the area from Hokkaido even still. Today, their descendants are called the Matagi.
The Ainu people mainly hunted, fished, and foraged for their food and supplies. They later traded these goods with the Japanese, the Nivkh, and other peoples in the Kamchatka Peninsula.
But because Japan has been fiercely insistent on maintaining one Japanese identity and ethnicity, the Ainu people have struggled to fight against discrimination, stereotypes, and cultural erasure.
It’s unclear where the Ainu came from originally. But it’s thought that they’re descendants from another indigenous group who spread throughout northern Asia.
It’s believed that the Ainu people settled in Hokkaido between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Scattered around Hokkaido are a few remaining isolated villages where the Ainu live. It’s estimated that there are about 20,000 Ainu in Japan.
But this number is probably much larger since so many don’t claim or know about their heritage.
Most people of Ainu ethnicity have spread throughout Japan and speak Japanese. Although there’s been growing interest in reconnecting with their culture and language.
There are now several Ainu museums to illustrate their history. At the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Ainu Kotan (meaning “village”), you can see what life was like for the Ainu people. They also often feature Ainu handcrafted goods and traditional dance and art performances.
In the 18th century, it’s estimated there were about 80,000 Ainu people living in Hokkaido. But due to forced family separation and assimilation policies, the Ainu population decreased rapidly.
During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese began calling the Ainu “former aborigines.” Instead of giving them status as an indigenous group, they were forced to assimilate into Japanese society.
This meant they had to take Japanese names and give up their Ainu language, religion, and traditions. Their land was taken over by the Japanese government.
The Ainu were forced to take up small jobs and hard manual labor, as the Japanese government had denied them the right to their traditional hunting.
This led to lower levels of education and income which are still felt today.
Because of intense discrimination, the Ainu often married Japanese men and women in the hopes that their children would fare better.
That’s why many of Ainu descent don’t know of their heritage.
Ainu means “human”. The Ainu called their homeland ainu moshir.
Ainu is an isolated language family. That means it can’t be classified with other language families with shared origin. (Think like Spanish, French, and Italian being Romance languages.)
Even though Ainu does have some similarities to Japanese and other Japonic languages, it’s not because the origins were similar. Rather, the Ainu people have borrowed a lot of characteristics and words from early Japanese. (And vice versa.)
Ainu was originally only an oral language, and the Ainu were master storytellers.
The yukar were Ainu epics performed by talented men and women in the 19th and 20th centuries. The yukar were their traditional oral literature.
Since there’s no original written language, Ainu is written in a modified version of Japanese Katakana or Latin-based alphabet. It’s also been written with Russian Cyrillic, since most Ainu today speak Japanese or Russian.
It’s hard to say for certain how many people speak Ainu fluently. But it’s thought that there are only between 2 and 15 living native speakers.
But there are a growing number of Ainu learners, especially in Hokkaido.
The Ainu hunted, fished, and gathered for their food. So their traditional diet was often bear, ox, fish, veggies, and roots. In Japan, there are a small handful of Ainu restaurants that serve traditional dishes in Hokkaido.
Their homes were huts made from reeds and bamboo. And the community participated together with the village head to lead for the greater good of everyone. Their villages, called a kotan, are by rivers and the seashore for easier fishing.
Most men and women cut their hair to shoulder-length. Women had wide mouth tattoos, and men rarely shaved so most had long beards.
Their traditional robes, called attusi, were made from tree bark, and often wore beaded necklaces called tamasay.
The Ainu believe that everything in nature has a spirit, which they call kamuy. These kamuy, spirit-deities, are always watching over the Ainu and give the gift of life through nature.
When an animal is killed (for food or sacrifice), they would perform a ceremony called iyomante. This ceremony thanked the gods and sent back the kamuy to where they came from.
For the Ainu, bears are especially sacred.
Ainu sentence structure is like Japanese in many ways.
Sentence order is SOV, subject-object-verb, like Japanese. And instead of prepositions before nouns (like “in the room”), they come after the noun as in Japanese (“room in”).
And Ainu doesn’t have gendered words, and subjects don’t change for number or case either.
Some common phrases have deeper meanings than their translation in English.
For instance, “Hello” in Ainu, irankarapte, translates as “let me touch your heart softly.” And goodbye, suy unukar=an ro, means “let’s meet again!”
Don’t be frightened by the unusual spelling! Later in the article, I’ll give you some recommended sources where the spelling is paired with its pronunciation.
Here are some words and phrases to get you started:
- “Hello” – irankarapte
- “What’s your name?” – e=rehe makanak an?
- “I’m…” – Kani ___ ku=ne
- “Nice to meet you” – tanepo unukar=an na
- “How are you?” – e=iwanke a
- “I’m fine, thanks” – ku=iwanke wa
- “Yes” – e
- “No” – somo
- “Bye” – suy unukar=an ro
- “Please” – ~wa en=kore
- “Thank you” – iyayiraykere
- “Excuse me” – a=nu a=nu
- “Okay” – pirka wa
- “What do you do (for a living)?” – nekon an monrayke e=ki
- “Can you help me?” – e=en=kasuy e=askay ya
- “Repeat” – kanna
- “Speak slowly” – ratcino ye yan
- “This” – tan pe
- “What?” – nep
- “When?” – henpara
- “Mom” – hapo
- “Dad” – mici
- “Parents” – onautari
- “Children” – po
- “Grandfather” – ekasi
- “Grandmother” – hutci
- “Friend” (also another term for the Ainu people) – utari
- “House” or “home” – chise
- “Cat” – cape
- “Dog” – seta
- “Water” – wakka
- “Rain” – apto
- “Storm” – ruyanpe
- “Snow” – upas
- “Ice” – konru
- “River” – pet
- “Sea” – atuy
- “Earth” – toy
- “Mountain” – nupuri
- “Weather” – sir
- “Spring” – paykar
- “Summer” – sak
- “Autumn” – cuk
- “Winter” – mata
- “To buy” – hok
- “To eat” – ipe
- “To go” – oman
- “To drink” – ku
- “To make” – kar
- “To do” – ki
- “To have” – kore
- “To sleep” – mokor
- “To laugh” – mina
- “To love” – omap
- Traditional Ainu stringed instrument: tonkori
- Beaded necklace: tamasay
- Earrings: ninkari
- Sword: emus
- Ceremonial crown for men: sapanpe
- Traditional kimono-robe: attusi
- Headband, embroidered with traditional designs: matanpusi
- God or spirit: kamuy
- Heaven: rikunmosir
If you’re interested in learning more about the Ainu culture and people, here are some places to start.
- Check out music by OKI, a Japanese-Ainu artist who plays the tonkori and mixes traditional Ainu music with other styles.
- Learn about Ainu politician Shigeru Kayano. He was the first Ainu politician, and one of the last fluent Ainu speakers. He wrote over 100 books about the Ainu language and culture and was an activist for Ainu rights.
- Check out the Ainu subreddit, where Ainu learners from around the world discuss the language and culture.
- Listen to speakers of the language on YouTube, such as this video from Wikitongues and Maya who teaches short Ainu lessons.
- Watch this documentary by Dr. Kinko Ito about the Ainu people.
- Learn Ainu words with Drops.
- Learn basic Ainu grammar or check out this Ainu course on Memrise.
Now it’s your turn to take what you’ve learned about the indigenous language of Japan and put it to good use.
Become one of the growing group of learners speaking Ainu as a second language, or share their history with others.
Here are some other language learning articles to keep your studies going: