Feb 182017

Today is Dialect Day in the Amami region of Japan, part of a concerted effort to preserve the endangered Ryukyuan languages which, with Japanese, make up the Japonic language family.  I will talk a little about Ryukyuan, but my more overarching purpose on this date is to celebrate dialects in general – most of which are being swallowed up by standard national languages.  In the English-speaking world the existence of dialects is less noticeable than in other parts of the world, although dialects of English certainly exist and are quite robust in some communities. There are 4 main dialects of English in Scotland, for example, (divided into sub-dialects).  Some are clearly endangered; others are going strong. My paternal relatives speak Glesga (dialect of Glasgow) and I have not seen any signs of it dying out recently.

This point, though, raises the question of when a dialect is so distinct from its parent language that it can be classified as a distinct language.  Here we run into both linguistic and political issues.

The seemingly obvious test of whether two tongues are simply dialects or distinct languages — mutual intelligibility — is, unfortunately, flawed. On a regular basis I see Spanish speakers talking with Italian speakers in their own languages and they seem to get on just fine even though no one would dispute that Italian and Spanish are different languages.  Ditto Portuguese and Spanish.  Historical linguists can trace the divergence of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese at different times from common roots – and ultimately from Latin. But when did they cease to be dialects and become different languages?  Good question.  Ask five linguists and you’ll get five different answers. You should also distinguish between a dialect and an argot.  An argot is a distinctive vocabulary used in certain regions of a language but does not have a distinctive grammar to go along with it.  Thus in Buenos Aires some Rioplatense speakers mix their words with Lunfardo, a street slang originating in the prisons. Lunfardo is simply an alternate vocabulary, not a distinct dialect.

There are many pressures in the modern world that endanger local dialects. The most obvious is nationalism.  Nations need a standard language for official business which, in turn, gets promoted and enforced via the state education system. Many modern states have official academies that are the arbiters of correctness of the standard language, some of which have long histories.  Accademia della Crusca, for example, was founded in Florence in 1583 with a view to preserving the purity of the Italian language, that is, the Florentine dialect !!!  Here politics collides with linguistics.  Who decided that Florentine dialect was the best Italian? Could it possibly have been the rich and powerful?  You see the same thing happening throughout Europe: Castilian became standard Spanish, Parisian French became standard French, and so on. The dialects of the poor and otherwise marginalized became classified as sub-standard.

With Spanish, at least, there has been some blow back to these nationalist pressures.  Within Spain, regions such as Andalusia, Galicia, Catalonia etc. have become fiercely protective of their regional dialects and each region not only has its own native speakers but also a substantial literature. Even ATMs in Spain give you a choice of several major dialects of Spanish.  When you move into the Spanish Diaspora things get even more complex. There are hundreds of separate Spanish dialects in South America, for example. When I was a small boy in Buenos Aires in the 1950s, the local dialect, Rioplatense, was not tolerated in schools.  All children had to learn and use standard Castilian in class. Argentine writers typically wrote in Castilian and not Rioplatense.  In the case of Jorge Borges things are a bit complex.  He was a native Rioplatense speaker but  he chose to write mainly in Castilian (not always) to reach a wider audience and to give more universality to his work.  There is the dilemma concerning dialects in a nutshell. Speaking (and writing) in dialect is both comforting and isolating.

Nowadays children are allowed to speak Rioplatense in classrooms in Buenos Aires but they are nonetheless expected to be able to read and write Castilian fluently. The same holds for other European languages such as French and Italian in their respective countries. In Argentina Rioplatense is holding its own because writers use it routinely and the government has officially replaced Castilian with Rioplatense for official documents and communications.  Locally produced television programs use Rioplatense, but programming comes from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Television as much as nationalism is the great leveler worldwide when it comes to language, and the enemy of regional dialects.

So . . . back to  the Ryukyuan languages.  Ryukyuan languages have sometimes been considered to be dialects of Japanese (hence Dialect Day), but they are not mutually intelligible with Japanese or even with each other. It is not known how many speakers of these languages remain, but language shift towards the use of Standard Japanese and dialects like Okinawan Japanese has resulted in these languages becoming endangered. UNESCO labels four of the languages “definitely endangered” and two others “critically endangered.”

The Ryukyu Islands stretch in a long arcing band from southern Japan to Taiwan and for centuries they were isolated from Japan and from one another.  Hence the dialects of Japanese diverged in the various islands to the point where they are now mutually unintelligible with standard Japanese and generally with one another.  Today, few children are being brought up speaking the Ryukyuan languages usually only when the children are living with their grandparents (much the same as with regional dialects worldwide). The Ryukyuan languages are still used in traditional cultural activities, such as folk music, folk dance, poems, and folk plays. There has also been a radio news program in the Naha dialect since 1960.

In Okinawa, people under the age of 40 have little proficiency in the native Okinawan language. A new mixed language, based on Japanese and Okinawan, has developed, known as “Okinawan Japanese.” Although it has been largely ignored by linguists and language activists, this is the language of choice among the younger generation. Similarly, the common language now used in everyday conversations in the Amami Ōshima is not the traditional Amami language, but rather a regional variation of Amami-accented Japanese, locally nicknamed トン普通語 (Ton Futsūgo, literally meaning “potato [i.e. rustic] common language”) by older speakers.

To try to preserve the language, the Okinawan Prefectural government proclaimed on March 31, 2006 that September 18 would be commemorated as Shimakutuba no Hi (しまくとぅばの日, “Island Languages Day”), as the day’s numerals in goroawase spell out ku (9), tu (10), ba (8) (September 18); kutuba is one of the few words common throughout the Ryukyuan languages meaning “word” or “language” (a cognate of the Japanese word kotoba (言葉, “word”)). A similar commemoration is held in the Amami region on February 18 beginning in 2007, proclaimed as Hōgen no Hi (方言の日?, “Dialect Day”) by Ōshima Subprefecture in Kagoshima Prefecture. Each island has its own name for the event:

Amami Ōshima: Shimayumuta no Hi (シマユムタの日?) or Shimakutuba no Hi (シマクトゥバの日?) (also written 島口の日)

On Kikaijima it is Shimayumita no Hi (シマユミタの日?)

On Tokunoshima it is Shimaguchi no Hi (シマグチ(島口)の日?) or Shimayumiita no Hi (シマユミィタの日?)

On Okinoerabujima it is Shimamuni no Hi (島ムニの日?)

On Yoronjima it is Yunnufutuba no Hi (ユンヌフトゥバの日?).

Yoronjima’s fu (2) tu (10) ba (8) is the goroawase source of the February 18 date, much like with Okinawa Prefecture’s use of kutuba.

Ryukyu cuisine, also sometimes confusingly called Okinawan cuisine even though it stretches beyond Okinawa, has Japanese elements but it is not what Westerners think of when they think of Japanese cooking – nor do the Japanese. It has strong elements from China and SE Asia because of longstanding trade connexions with these regions. I have chosen hirayachi (Okinawan: ヒラヤーチー Hirayaachii) for today’s dish. Hirayachi is an Okinawan pancake-like dish made of eggs, flour, salt, black pepper and green onions (scallions or leeks), fried with a little oil in a pan. It is similar to a very simple type of Japanese okonomiyaki.

Hirayachi means “bake flat” in the Okinawan language. It is characteristic Okinawan home cooking and Okinawans often think of it as a taste of home, or comfort food. Like any pancake or omelet it can be eaten plain or with added ingredients such as seaweed, tuna or corned beef.  It is customarily eaten with a special dipping sauce.  This is available commercially in Asian markets and is typically called “so-su” (sauce) or sometimes “Japanese Worcestershire sauce.” It tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce but is much thicker and sweeter.


200 gm all-purpose flour
150 ml Japanese dashi stock
200 ml (approx) water
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp chopped leeks or Chinese garlic chives
sesame oil
Japanese Worcestershire-style sauce


Make a batter with the flour, egg, dashi, and salt to taste, adding the water slowly and whisking until the batter is smooth and pourable, but not watery. Add the leeks (or chives) and mix.

Heat a small amount of sesame oil to coat the bottom of an omelet pan over medium heat and pour in the batter to make a thin pancake. Turn the heat to low and let it cook slowly.  Do not let the bottom burn. The top will bubble and dry when it is fully cooking.

Turn on to a plate, cut into four and fold the quarters over.

Serve with dipping sauce.

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