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Ainu language

The Ainu language (アイヌ イタㇰ (Aynu Itak)) is spoken by the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It was once spoken in the Kurile Islands, the northern part of Honshu, and the southern half of Sakhalin. Although typologically similar in some respects to Japanese, Ainu is thought to be a language isolate with no relation to other languages.

(There is also an unrelated Turkic language spoken in western China known as Ainu, variously spelled Aynu or Aini.)

Table of contents
1 Speakers
2 Phonology
3 Typology and grammar
4 Writing
5 Oral literature
6 Research on Ainu language and culture


Ainu is a moribund language, with a small and rapidly dwindling number of speakers; in the town of Nibutani where most of the remaining native speakers live, there are 100 speakers, out of which only 15 use the language everyday. In all of Hokkaido, there are approximately 200 native speakers generally not younger than 30 (with a couple of exceptions). Usage among native speakers is increasing so it is no longer accurate to say only 15 people use it regularly as there is a movement to turn the decline in number of speakers around before it is too late. Most of the 150,000 self-proclaimed ethnic Ainu in Japan (many do not know or are secretive for fear of discrimination) speak only Japanese, although there is an increasing number of second language learners, especially in Hokkaido, thanks to the efforts of Ainu activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, a native speaker himself.


The phonology of Ainu is relatively simple; syllables are CV(C), there are few consonant clusters.

There are five vowels:

i     u
e     o

p   t   k   ? (glottal stop is not written in transcription)
    s       h
    c (varies between [tS], [ts], [dZ], [dz])
w   y ([j])
m   n

The sequence /ti/ is realized as [tSi]; /s/ usually becomes [S] before /i/ and at the end of syllables. There is some variation among dialects; in the Sakhalin dialect, syllable-final /p, t, k, r/ are merged into /h/.

There is a pitch accent system; words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong. Other words have the high pitch on the second syllable.

Typology and grammar

Ainu is SOV, with postpositions. Subject and object are usually marked with postpositions. Nouns can cluster to modify one another; the head comes at the end. Verbs, which are inherently either transitive or intransitive, accept various derivational affixes.


Officially, the Ainu language is written in a modified version of the Japanese syllabary katakana. There is also a Latin-based alphabet in use.

Oral literature

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called Yukar, which retain a number of grammatical archaisms.

Research on Ainu language and culture

Extensive research on Ainu language and the culture of Ainu was performed by the anthropologist Bronislaw Pilsudski.