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February 20, 2004

Japanese origins II

I got an informative email today from someone who had some comments on my post Japanese origins. The email is cut & pasted below.

Email text below this point:

I read your recent comments on the Japanese Korean language relationship with interest. I agree with you that the difference in vocabulary of both languages is too great for a separation of races in the last two thousand years. Yet Korean and Japanese are closer than most people realize. They share a past tense form (-tta), a question marker (ka, kka), a word for “to” (-e) and a “topic marker” (ga), which is a particle unique to Japanese and Korean that functions somewhat like the indefinite article in English. Phonetically they are also alike, both lacking consonant clusters, V and F, turning si into shi, weakening the W and tending to "tense" certain consonants ("lenition"), and the similarity is more evident when Chinese words are stripped out, as these have greatly modified the sound of Korean (less so that of Japanese).

Etymology is difficult to research in both languages because of the use of chinese historically, but there are many candidate cognates (I have not attempted to follow the latest romanization system for Korean, it is a pig of a language to romanize and there are inconsistencies below). Some examples are: mul and mizu (water), mom and mi (body), seom and shima (island), hae and hi (sun), iri and inu (wolf and dog), gom and kuma (bear), geot’ and koto (thing, and also a grammatical particle used in the same way in both languages). Many locational words are also similar—twi-e and ato (behind), ap and mae (in front of), yopp-e and yoko (beside)—and two are almost identical, e and e (to) and wi-e and ue (upon). Evidence exists for at least one sound shift, Korean initial b vs. Japanese h, in pairs such as bul and hi (fire), baem and hebi (snake) byeol and hoshi (star), and bari and hae (the fly). Finally, there are intriguing correspondences such as sul, sol, dal, gul versus Japanese sake, sugi, tsuki, kaki (alcohol, pine, moon and oyster); nal, dol, seoli versus nama, tama, shimo (raw, stone/ball and frost), dari, dari, darri- versus hashi, ashi, hashi- (bridge, foot and run—a strange one, this, perhaps just a remarkable coincidence); ttae, dae versus toki, take (time, bamboo), gureum, ssireum versus kumo, sumo (cloud, wrestling), chupda, jopda, versus samui, semai (narrow, cold)—as well as pairings that need more lateral thinking, such as nop- (high) versus nob- (climb, rise), and gyeoul (winter) versus koori (ice). In fact, at least one book has been written drawing all these cognate candidates together, with systematic correspondences outlined. The problem, as said, is the difficulty of proving genetic links, as there are no other comparable languages and the early history of J and K is totally obscured by the use of chinese characters. The absence of obvious correspondence in numbers, kin and personal pronouns and other Indoeuropean "indicators" has also misled people (personal pronouns in both languages are multiple and show great change over time). It is also a fact that neither the Japanese nor many Koreans are happy with the idea of a genetic relationship, and this has dampened research efforts. Still, it is strange how little attention this question, which ultimately concerns the origins of two of the world’s most important peoples, has received outside academia, or even within it. Very broadly, I would say the Japanese-Korean relationship is stronger than say English-Russian, but not comparable with English-German. I am a Japanese-to-English translator who has studied Korean. Hope you find this interesting.

I deleted the the name of the emailer and added the bold

Posted by razib at 10:33 PM