Northern Ryukyuan
The Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture, Okinawa Islands (Okinawa Prefecture, Japan)
Linguistic classificationJaponic
Proto-languageProto-Northern Ryukyuan (Old Okinawan)
ELPAmami-North Okinawan[1]

The Northern Ryukyuan languages are a group of languages spoken in the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is one of two primary branches of the Ryukyuan languages, which are then part of the Japonic languages. The subdivisions of Northern Ryukyuan are a matter of scholarly debate.

Internal classification

Within the Ryukyu Kingdom, territory was divided into magiri, which in turn were divided into shima.[2] A magiri was comparable to a Japanese prefecture while shima were individual villages. There were about 800 shima in the Ryukyu Kingdom. Linguists Seizen Nakasone and Satoshi Nishioka have proposed that each shima developed their own distinct dialects or accents due to people very rarely traveling outside of their shima.[3]

At high level, linguists mostly agree to make the north–south division. In this framework, Northern Ryukyuan covers the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. The subdivision of Northern Ryukyuan, however, remains a matter of scholarly debate.[4]

In the Okinawa-go jiten (1963), Uemura Yukio simply left its subgroups flat:

Several others have attempted to create intermediate groups. One of two major hypotheses divides Northern Ryukyuan into Amami and Okinawan, drawing a boundary between Amami's Yoron Island and Okinawa Island. The same boundary was also set by early studies including Nakasone (1961) and Hirayama (1964). Nakamoto (1990) offered a detailed argument for it. He proposed the following classification.

The other hypothesis, the three-subdivision hypothesis, is proposed by Uemura (1972). He first presented a flat list of dialects and then discussed possible groupings, one of which is as follows:

The difference between the two hypotheses is whether Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan form a cluster. Thorpe (1983) presented a "tentative" classification similar to Uemura's:[5]

Karimata (2000) investigated Southern Amami in detail and found inconsistency among isoglosses. Nevertheless, he favored the three-subdivision hypothesis:

Karimata (2000)'s proposal is based mostly on phonetic grounds. Standard Japanese /e/ corresponds to /ɨ/ in Northern Amami while it was merged into /i/ in Southern Amami and Okinawan.

eye hair front
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima) k˭ɨ[6]
Shodon, Setouchi mɨː k˭ɨː mɘː
Inokawa, Tokunoshima mɨː k˭ɨː mɘː
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima) mɨː k˭ɨː mɘː
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) miː k˭iː meː
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) miː k˭iː meː
Gushiken, China (Western Okinoerabu) miː kʰiː meː
Jana, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa) miː k˭iː meː
Shuritonokura, Naha (Southern Okinawa) miː kʰiː meː

Word-initial /kʰ/ changed to /h/ before certain vowels in Southern Amami and several Northern Okinawan dialects while Northern Amami has /k˭/. The boundary between Northern and Southern Amami is clear while Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan have no clear isogloss.

Japanese /ka/ /ko/ /ke/ /ku/ /ki/
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima)
Shodon, Setouchi
Inokawa, Tokunoshima
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima)
Shitooke, Kikai (Northern Kikai) h
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) h t͡ʃʰ
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) h t͡ʃʰ
Wadomari, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) h t͡ʃʰ
Gushiken, China (Okinoerabu) h
Gusuku, Yoron h
Benoki, Kunigami (Northern Okinawa) h
Ōgimi, Ōgimi (Northern Okinawa) h
Yonamine, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa) h [clarification needed]
Kushi, Nago (Northern Okinawa)
Onna, Onna (Northern Okinawa)
Iha, Ishikawa (Southern Okinawa) t͡ʃʰ
Shuri, Naha (Southern Okinawa) t͡ʃʰ

The pan-Japonic shift of /p > ɸ > h/ can be observed at various stages in Amami–Okinawan. Unlike Northern Amami and Southern Okinawan, Southern Amami and Northern Okinawan tend to maintain labiality, though the degree of preservation varies considerably.

Japanese /ha/ /he/ /ho/ /hu/ /hi/
Itsubu, Naze (Amami Ōshima) h
Shodon, Setouchi h
Inokawa, Tokunoshima h
Inutabu, Isen (Tokunoshima) h
Shitooke, Kikai (Northern Kikai) ɸ
Nakazato, Kikai (Southern Kikai) ɸ h ɸ
Kunigami, Wadomari (Eastern Okinoerabu) ɸ
Gushiken, China (Western Okinoerabu) ɸ h ɸ h
Gusuku, Yoron ɸ
Benoki, Kunigami (Northern Okinawa) ɸ
Ōgimi, Ōgimi (Northern Okinawa) ɸ ɸ
Yonamine, Nakijin (Northern Okinawa)
Kushi, Nago (Northern Okinawa) ɸ
Onna, Onna (Northern Okinawa)
Iha, Ishikawa (Southern Okinawa) h
Shuri, Naha (Southern Okinawa) h ɸ h ɸ

These shared features appear to support the three-subdivision hypothesis. However, Karimata also pointed out several features that group Northern and Southern Amami together. In Amami, word-medial /kʰ/ changed to /h/ or even dropped entirely when it was surrounded by /a/, /e/ or /o/. This can rarely be observed in Okinawan dialects. Japanese /-awa/ corresponds to /-oː/ in Amami and /-aː/ in Okinawan. Uemura (1972) also argued that if the purpose of classification was not of phylogeny, the two-subdivision hypothesis of Amami and Okinawan was also acceptable.

Pellard (2009) took a computational approach to the classification problem. His phylogenetic inference was based on phonological and lexical traits. The results dismissed the three-subdivision hypothesis and re-evaluated the two-subdivision hypothesis although the internal classification of Amami is substantially different from conventional ones.[7] The renewed classification is adoptedin Heinrich et al. (2015).[8]

The membership of Kikai Island remains highly controversial. The northern three communities of Kikai Island share the seven-vowel system with Amami Ōshima and Tokunoshima while the rest is grouped with Okinoerabu and Yoron for their five-vowel systems. For this reason, Nakamoto (1990) subdivided Kikai:

Based on other evidence, however, Karimata (2000) tentatively grouped Kikai dialects together.[4] Lawrence (2011) argued that lexical evidence supported the Kikai cluster although he refrained from determining its phylogenetic relationship with other Amami dialects.[9]

As of 2014, Ethnologue presents another two-subdivision hypothesis: it groups Southern Amami, Northern Okinawa and Southern Okinawa to form Southern Amami–Okinawan, which is contrasted with Northern Amami–Okinawan. It also identifies Kikai as Northern Amami–Okinawan.[10]

Heinrich et al. (2015) refers to the subdivisions of Northern Ryukyuan as only "Amami" and "Okinawan". There is a note that other languages, specifically within the Yaeyama language, should be recognized as independent due to mutual unintelligibility.[11]


  1. ^ Endangered Languages Project data for Amami-North Okinawan.
  2. ^ Smits, Gregory. "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism". Asia-Pacific Journal, 2010. Date accessed=7 October 2015. <>.
  3. ^ Satoshi Nishioka 西岡敏 (2011). "Ryūkyūgo: shima goto ni kotonaru hōgen 琉球語: 「シマ」ごとに異なる方言". In Kurebito Megumi 呉人恵 (ed.). Nihon no kiki gengo 日本の危機言語 (in Japanese).
  4. ^ a b c Karimata Shigehisa 狩俣繁久 (2000). "Amami Okinawa hōgengun ni okeru Okinoerabu hōgen no ichizuke" 奄美沖縄方言群における沖永良部方言の位置づけ (Position of Okierabu Dialect in Northern Ryukyu Dialects)". Nihon Tōyō bunka ronshū 日本東洋文化論集 (in Japanese) (6): 43–69.
  5. ^ Thorpe, Maner L. (1983). Ryūkyūan language history (Thesis). University of Southern California.
  6. ^ The vowels /ɨ/ and /ɘ/ are traditionally transcribed ⟨ï⟩ and ⟨ë⟩. The (slightly) aspirated stops [Cʰ] and tenuis stops [C˭] are typically described as "plain" ⟨C’⟩ and "tense" or "glottalized" ⟨C‘⟩, respectively. (Martin (1970) "Shodon: A Dialect of the Northern Ryukyus", Journal of the American Oriental Society 90:1.)
  7. ^ Pellard, Thomas (2009). Ogami: Éléments de description d'un parler du sud des Ryukyus (PDF) (Thesis) (in French). Paris, France: École des hautes études en sciences sociales.
  8. ^ Patrick Heinrich; Shinsho Miyara; Michinori Shimoji, eds. (2015). Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages.
  9. ^ Wayne Lawrence (2011). "Kikai-jima hōgen no keitōteki ichi ni tsuite 喜界島方言の系統的位置について". In Kibe Nobuko; et al. (eds.). Shōmetsu kiki hōgen no chōsa hozon no tame no sōgōteki kenkyū: Kikai-jima hōgen chōsa hōkokusho 消滅危機方言の調査・保存のための総合的研究: 喜界島方言調査報告書 (General Study for Research and Conservation of Endangered Dialects in Japan: Research Report on the Kikaijima Dialects ) (PDF) (in Japanese). pp. 115–122.
  10. ^ "Amami-Okinawan". SIL International. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  11. ^ Heinrich, Patrick et al. Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages. 2015. Pp 13–15.