An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Name Origin. The word aynu means 'person'.

Overview. Ainu is a nearly extinct language that was spoken by the Ainu people of northern Japan. The Ainu were animist hunters and gatherers who in the past probably occupied larger areas of Japan but were progressively confined to Hokkaido and neighboring islands by the Japanese. The language of the Ainus is not obviously related to any other in the world including Japanese. It is characterized by a simple sound system, lack of inflections, extensive use of affixes and incorporation of a variety of word-types and morphemes into the verb which can constitute an entire sentence on its own.

Classification. Ainu is considered a language isolate. The hypotheses relating it to certain families or individual languages have not been proved. With Japanese there are some similarities but also substantial differences.

Distribution. Until the 19th century, Ainu was spoken in the northernmost Japanese islands of Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril archipelago as well as in the northern region of Honshu (the main island of Japan). Sakhalin and the Kuril were overtaken by the Russian Empire and now belong to Russia. The last bastion of Ainu is Hokkaido where the few remaining speakers live now.

Speakers. Ainu ethnic population is around 24,000, but virtually no one speak their language any more. Only between 5 to 10 speakers remain, who are at least 60 years of age.

Status. The language is near extinction. It is spoken now by a few old aged people. After the intensive settlement of the Ainu speaking areas by the Japanese, starting in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, the Ainu were marginalized and discriminated against. Afterwards, the Japanese have been persistently reluctant to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people with their own language and culture until a belated resolution of the Diet in 2008 did so.

Varieties. Ainu has a literary form called Yukar used in the epics which has differences in syntax and vocabulary with the colloquial dialects. These included Southern Hokkaido, Eastern Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Kuril.


All consonants may occur at the beginning of a syllable, but in final position ts, h, and the glottal stop are not allowed. An initial vowel is always preceded by a glottal stop giving a CV or CVC syllable structure. Ainu basic sounds are comparatively few and they include five vowels and only twelve consonants.

Vowels (5):  i, e, a, u, o. The vowels a and u cannot co-occur with o.

Consonants (12): All stops, affricates and fricatives are voiceless.


Stress. Ainu has a pitch accent system: syllables are pronounced with either high or low pitch.

Script. It can be written with the Japanese katakana syllabary or with the Latin alphabet. With the latter [ts] is written c and the glottal stop with an apostrophe (or frequently not written); in some contexts s is pronounced [ʃ] and written sh.


Ainu is a polysynthetic language. Polysynthesis is the capacity of building long and complex words by the successive addition to a root of several morphemes. As a result, a single word may function, sometimes, as a whole sentence. Literary Ainu is more polysynthetic than the colloquial language, adding affixes (mostly prefixes) to the root.


    Nouns have no case inflections and don't make gender or number distinctions. The suffix -utar may be added to a noun to make it plural. Possession is marked by personal prefixes added to a noun, the same ones used for transitive subject-marking (see below).

   Subject and object are identified by word order but other syntactical relations are marked by postpositions or verbal prefixes. Postpositions are more commonly used in the colloquial language. The indirect object is marked by word order or by an object-personal prefix attached to the verb, or by using the postposition orun (‘to’). Location may be marked by the postposition ta, direction by ta or un, source by wa or orwa, instrument by ari and company by tura(no). A genitive relation between two nouns is expressed by adding special possessive suffixes to the possessed noun.

    Ainu has 1st, 2nd and 3rd, singular and plural, independent personal pronouns. Normally they are omitted because person is marked on the verb by affixes, but they may be used to reinforce meaning.


   Ainu (mostly the literary variety) is a polysynthetic language that incorporates, extensively, various morphemes in the verb. In addition, Ainu verbs may incorporate adverbs and nouns. Only those nouns which are subjects of intransitive verbs or objects of transitive verbs can be incorporated.

    Verbs are marked for person and number of the subject and object by means of personal affixes. Subject personal affixes differ for transitive and intransitive verbs. There are, thus, three types of personal affixes: subject transitive, subject intransitive and object. They distinguish three persons (1st, 2nd and 3rd) and two numbers (singular and plural). The difference between these three types of affixes is confined to the first person, the second person is the same for all of them and the third is unmarked. Singular and plural are only distinguished in the second person. Plurality of the third person may be indicated by adding the suffix -pa or by using a suppletive verb.

     Subject and object personal markers in Literary Ainu are:


     The copula ne takes the same personal affixes as the transitive verbs while auxiliary verbs take none. As the table shows, most personal affixes are prefixes, and when subject and object prefixes are attached to the same verb the subject prefix precedes the object one. Due to the sameness of many affixes, ambiguities frequently arise.

    Another way to express plurality of subjects or objects, besides pronominal prefixes, is to use plural verb forms which are constructed by adding the plural markers p/pa to the root or by using suppletive verbs.

    Besides subject and object affixes, and the plural marker, the Ainu verb can incorporate a large number of other prefixes and suffixes which can convert  a transitive verb into an intransitive one, indicate a reciprocal or reflexive action,  suggest a causative meaning or express a passive voice.

  Ainu lacks tense distinctions, instead it has a rich aspectual system. Perfective, incipient,  progressive, terminative and other aspects are conveyed by some auxiliary verbs (sit, stand, have, finish) or by suffix markers which function like adverbs.

   Ainu has several moods. The imperative is expressed by the bare form of the verb with the optional addition of the particle hani. Modal expressions of various sorts are constructed by combining some noun-derived particles with the copula. They refer to the intentions or expectations of the speaker, or to the trustworthiness of a statement.

    New verbal forms can be obtained by compounding verbs with nouns, and nouns can be derived from verbs by adding the deverbal nominal suffix -p(e).


Ainu basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb. As nouns are not inflected, word order and postpositions are important to determine word function. It is a head-final language: modifiers (adjectives, demonstratives, quantifiers) and genitives occur before the head, adverbs before verbs, main verbs before auxiliary verbs, subordinate clauses before main clauses. Questions are marked by intonation or by the final particle ya.


There are numerous words referring to fishing and hunting, reflecting the Ainu lifestyle of the past. It has many borrowings from Japanese.

Basic Vocabulary

one: shine

two: tu

three: re

four: ine

five: ashikne

six: iwan

seven: arawan

eight: tupesan

nine: shinepesan

ten: wan

hundred: ashikne hotne

father: ona

mother: unu

elder brother: yup

younger brother: ak

sister: ture

elder sister: kakap, saha, sapo

younger sister: matak

son: okkai poho, poho, po

daughter: matnepo

head: sapas

eye: sik

foot: kema, ure

heart: ekonramu, keutum

tongue: parumbe


Ainu has a rich tradition of oral literature, in verse and prose, including songs, verse epics about gods and heroes, and folk tales.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Ainu'. M. Shibatani. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 15-17. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  2. -The Languages of Japan. M. Shibatani. Cambridge University Press (1990).

  3. -The Ainu Language. S. Tamura. Sanseido (2000).

  4. -A Reconstruction of Proto-Ainu. A. Vovin. Brill (1993).

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