Language | BILINGUAL

Reappreciating Okinawa's languages, while there's still time

The saying “a language is a dialect with an army” is a bit worn out in linguistic circles. A change in how it is uttered might save it, though. How about “gengo ndi yyu shē guntai muchuru hōgen yaibin” (言語んでぃっゆしぇー軍隊むちゅる方言やいびん)? This is how you would say it in uchināguchi, a language mainly spoken on Okinawa Island. To get this transliteration, I made a telephone call that went on for 45 minutes because words such as “language,” “army” and “dialect” cannot be easily translated into uchināguchi and the uchināguchi speaker I was consulting, Byron Fija, did not want me to write something weird. He agreed only to this exact version.

Fija and many other speakers of uchināguchi insist that, despite big lexical gaps, it is a language in its own right. If a lack of mutual intelligibility was to serve as an indicator for determining languages, one would have to agree; speakers of Japanese do not understand uchināguchi.

Nor do they understand “mǖnudzu tiia guntai u muchǖdzu sumafutsu tidu adzu” (むぬぅずてぃーや軍隊うむちゅずすまふつてぃどぅあず), which is a translation of the same saying into myakǖfutsu, a language spoken on Miyako Island, also in Okinawa Prefecture. Staff at Miyako City Hall who gave me this translation, insisted that I should not treat it as the sole possible translation, or, worse, the sole legitimate version of myakǖfutsu. There exists no standard myakǖfutsu.

Not everyone in Japan knows that five different groups of languages exist in the Ryukyu Islands, the southern half of which fall under Okinawa Prefecture’s administration. This multilingualism is not well known because the Ryukyu Islands are part of Japan and we tend to pair countries with just one language. But there are far more languages than nation states. By not being official or national languages, these tongues lack, to various extents, standardization and lexical development. Not being used for specific functions and rarely being written, many — although not all — are dying out.

This is the case with the Ryukyuan languages, whose proficient speakers are generally aged over 60. While the decline of a language is the result of a linguistic community’s collective choice to stop teaching a language to the next generation, such choices are usually made in circumstances largely shaped by others — specifically the linguistic majority. But circumstances change. Many Ryukyuans born since 1950 now regret being monolingual. Together with their parents’ generation, they rue language choices made in their families half a century ago. This change of mind  stems from a re-evaluation of local languages that can be seen in various efforts to maintain them, either as a tool of communication or as a part of their cultural heritage.

The latest example of the renewed appreciation of local languages is an art exhibition entitled “Okinawan Language — An Art Exhibition for Our Future.” The exhibition ran from Sept. 9 to Oct. 5 in the new Okinawan Prefectural Museum in Naha and was accompanied by lectures, music and theater performances on and in Ryukyu’s local languages.

The main contribution to the exhibition came from the Society for Documenting the Ryukyu Archipelago, which has conducted hundreds of interviews with Ryukyuans speaking in their local languages about their wartime experiences. The exhibition featured video, text and photographs from these sessions, as well as kana cards in local languages and verbal-arts performances. On a more interactive side, visitors were asked whether they regarded themselves as Okinawan or not. They were asked to wear T-shirts that read either “I am Okinawan” or “I am not Okinawan” and then had their photographs taken. The results might surprise some people.

A photograph of a Western man in an “I am Okinawan” T-shirt sat nestled beside photographs of people who looked Okinawan but said they were not. This interaction, and the resulting photo exhibition, gave participants and visitors a chance to reflect on what it means to be  Okinawan and what role language and ethnicity plays therein.

The end of the exhibition brought another opportunity for interaction; visitors could leave comments on what they had seen. “Shimakutuba rocks,” reads one message, referring to a Ryukyuan name for their languages.

What remarks would visitors leave behind at exhibitions on the future of official national languages such as Japanese or English? Maybe it is exactly the lack of an army that makes uchināguchi rock. But for how much longer?

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