It’s common knowledge among those who have at least a limited understanding of East Asian languages, that Nihongo (Japanese) uses three different writing systems: two syllabaries (alphabets that assign a symbol to a syllable) hiragana and katakana, as well as borrows a great deal directly from the writing system of Chinese (Omniglot). Although Japanese possesses up to ten thousand or more kanji (Chinese characters borrowed into Japanese starting in the 5th Century AD), there is a greater linguistic similarity between English and Hindi than between spoken Japanese and Chinese (Omniglot). In lieu of this information, many linguists, anthropologists, and historians have come up with varied and unique theories as to how Nihongo has come into existence as we currently know it.
There are countless theories that individuals of various fields of study have tried to come up with regarding what the origin of modern Japanese might be, and in turn which language family Japanese might come from. Upon general analysis of the language, the unique separation of Japanese from the rest of the world’s languages is salient to such an extent that the possibilities of its origin are tacked on a very broad spectrum.
The “Nihonjiron” theory proposes that Nihongo is different because of environmental factors: Japan is a nation composed of islands, so when humans and their speech evolved in Japan, they did so completely independently from the rest of the global species (Hashi). Although intriguing, “Nihonjiron” seems like a possibility if only humans had made it to Japan before verbal communication became a ‘thing’ in our every day lives. The “Extinct Korean Peninsular-Language Hypothesis” muses that there was once a language spoken by a civilization long since gone, and would seem like an easy explanation since not much research can be conducted on an extinct tongue with limited texts (GoJapanGo). Likewise, according to the “Concise Compendium of World Languages”, despite some linguists proposing a link between Japanese and Korean due to morphological and syntactical similarities, it seems as though these two languages have developed parallel to one another rather than from a single origin. Another idea offered according to Hashi is that Japanese “is from advanced beings from beyond”, a.k.a. aliens.
Conversely, more educated guesses on the origin of Nihongo include the “Altaic Theory”, and a concept of the possibility of a relation between Japanese and the Uralic language family. The “Altaic Theory” suggests that Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and even Turkish all originated through a common ancestor from the Altai Mountains of central Asia, thus Japanese would be related to these four languages (wikipedia, Altaic). Although this theory seems to be more credible linguistically, cultural and possibly linguistic links also exist between Japanese people and the Ainu, as well as tribal groups of northern Siberia.
The Uralic Language Family refers to languages that possibly sprung from a common ancestor of the Ural Mountains region in Russia, and includes the languages of many Siberian tribes in addition to Finnish and Hungarian (wikipedia, Uralic).
Interestingly enough, the Nganasan people featured in a Russian ethnographic film from 1963 reveals a spoken language about eight minutes through the film, which sounds much closer to Japanese than does Chinese to Japanese. Nganasan is part of this Uralic family; therefore it’s related to Hungarian. If Japanese were related to this tribal language, it would also mean that there is a linguistic connection through the north between Far East Asian, and Eastern/Central Europe.
Some of these theories may make sense more than others, but regardless of the correct history behind the phenomenon of Japanese, if nothing else, these multi-faceted ideas attest to what we all know to be true: Nihongo is interesting and unique. In thisrespect, many people, (especially those who speak a European tongue as their first language),find Japanese hard to learn as a second language which could be due to its distinction from the rest of the world’s systems of speech and written conveyance of information.
LIST OF SOURCES
Wikipedia Altaic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altaic_languages
Wikipedia Uralic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uralic_language_family
Russian ethnographic film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYj2VcQsHYQ