An introduction to Ryukyuan languages

An introduction to Ryukyuan languages. Ed. by Michinori Shimoji and Thomas Pellard. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 2010. Pp. xix, 238. ISBN: 9784863370722.

Reviewed by J. Kevin Varden, Meiji Gakuin University

This book presents research on the endangered Ryukyuan archipelago languages in Japan. It is the culmination of the Linguistic Dynamics Science Project toward achieving easy access to research outcomes in Ryukyuan studies, 2008–2009, through the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The authors have provided a valuable service documenting the covered languages; UNESCO has classified Yaeyama Ryukyuan as severely endangered, and Amami, Okinawa, and Miyako Ryukyuan as definitely endangered.

The first article is an introduction to Ryukyuan language family, by Michinori Shimoji, including a typological overview and a succinct summary of its linguistic status. Many comparisons of the Irabu dialect of Miyako Island Ryukyuan to the larger family are included, and video and audio files are available on the author’s website. Hiromi Shigeno presents the Ura dialect of Amami Island Ryukyuan, followed by sketches of Yuwan (also Amami) by Yuto Niinaga, Tsuken (Okinawa) by Satomi Matayoshi, Oogami by Thomas Pellard, Ikema by Yuka Hayashi (both Miyako Ryukyuan), and Hateruma (Yaeyama Ryukyuan) by Reiko Aso. References and a sparse index round out the text.

The collection ‘…is open to both [Ryukyuan] specialists and non-specialists…’. Each article is in standardized descriptive format; grammatical features can be consistently found within the detailed table of contents. All articles provide basic information—an introduction to the language, its speakers, and degree of endangerment; and phonemic inventories, word classes, morphology, among others. The unique features preserved by the linguistic isolation of the islands are particularly interesting. Examples include the syllabic fricatives in vowel-less words found in Oogami (/fks/ ‘month’, ‘build’) and the relic kakari musubi syntactic construction found in Yuwan, Irabu, and Ikema. The grammatical discussions may prove challenging for the non-initiate; the detailed (and evidently first comprehensive) discussion of the verbal morphology and syntax of Yuwan springs to mind. However, the text is clearly written and well proofread. Each sketch wraps up with a glossed narrative of ‘The Pear Story’, a silent movie developed specifically for field elicitation purposes, and a list of abbreviations. I look forward to a comparison of the regional and ideolectal differences in the telling of this story.

Coverage of each language, while standardized, is a bit uneven: Yuwan and Ogami each cover about fifty pages, Hateruma forty, and Ura, Tsuken, and Ikema approximately twenty each. Nonetheless, each is valuable in its own right, and the collection as a whole is a strong step forward in the preservation and understanding of this unusual language group. I hope it will be the first of many. The book can be accessed free of charge for academic use from http://www.aa.tufs.ac.jp/en/publications/inquiry; request ILCAA book number B072. In addition, it is available as a downloadable PDF file at http://lingdy.aacore.jp/en/publications/.