Living Languages

If you spend a little time in Okinawa, you might hear bits of the Okinawan language: mensōre ('welcome') instead of the standard Japanese yōkoso – or nifei dēbiru instead of arigatō. What you may not realise is that besides Okinawan, there exists a colourful diversity of distinct dialects throughout the island chain – all considered Ryūkyūan languages. Sadly many of these dialects are dying out with older generations.

According to Unesco, of the existing 7000 or so languages spoken in the world, around 2500 are considered endangered. When Kiku Hidenori, owner of Yoron Minzoku-mura on Yoron-tō, heard this statistic several years ago, he was dismayed to find the Amami, Okinawa and Yoron dialects included among the endangered tongues. As someone who actively preserves traditional Yoron culture and grew up speaking Yoron-hōgen (Yoron dialect), he decided that he needed to help save his island's language from extinction.

Kiku notes that while he and peers of his generation can still speak Yoron-hōgen, nowadays fewer children grow up in the same homes as their grandparents, so they don't hear Yoron-hōgen spoken regularly, contributing to its decline in younger generations.

For his part, Kiku has begun teaching Yoron-hōgen in the local primary schools, and bringing junior high school students to Yoron Minzoku-mura to give older kids a sense of pride in their unique heritage and dialect. His independent work has attracted the attention of Japanese language academics. He is actively liaising with other dialect preservationists elsewhere in Japan to find the best strategies and methods for keeping these tongues alive. With any luck, such grass-roots efforts by him and others can bring these island dialects back from the brink.