The Role of Contact in the Origins of the Japanese and Korean Languages


 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press , 2009)

“This rich, lively book is a significant contribution to ongoing debates about the origins of the Korean and Japanese languages and the nature of their relationship.  .  .  .  This challenging work requires real commitment from its readers—especially non-linguists—but the intelligence and verve with which it is written, and the remarkable range of information and insight it incorporates, ensure that it richly rewards the effort.”  —David B. Lurie, Japanese Studies (UK), vol. 29 no. 3 (2009).


Despite decades of research on the reconstruction of proto-Korean-Japanese (pKJ), some scholars still reject a genetic relationship. This study addresses their doubts in a new way, interpreting comparative linguistic data within a context of material and cultural evidence, much of which has come to light only in recent years.  The weaknesses of the reconstruction are due to the early date at which pKJ split apart and to lexical material that the pre-Korean and pre-Japanese branches later borrowed from different languages to their north and south, respectively. Certain Old Japanese words must have been borrowed from Korean from the fourth century C.E., only a few centuries after the completion of the Yayoi migrations, which brought wet-field rice cultivation to Kyushu from southern Korea. That leaves too short an interval for the growth of two distinct languages by the time they resumed active contact. Hence the original separation occurred on the peninsula much earlier, prior to reliance on paddy rice and the rise of metallurgy. Non-Korean elements in ancient peninsular place names were vestiges of pre-Yayoi Japanese language:  one should doubt the assumption that Korean developed exclusively from the language of Silla. More likely, the rulers of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla all spoke varieties of Old Korean, which became the common language of the peninsula as their kingdoms overwhelmed its older culture and vied for dominance.


Was the separation so early as to vitiate the hypothesis of a common source language? No: assuming non-relationship obviates difficulties of pKJ reconstruction, but it fares worse than the genetic hypothesis in relation to non-linguistic findings, and fails to explain a significant number of grammatical as well as lexical similarities. Though improving the reconstruction of pKJ will be challenging, the theory of genetic relationship is still the better working hypothesis.


Related publications


1977 Studies in Early Japanese Morphophonemics. Bloomington:  Indiana University Linguistics Club.  Second edition, 1993.


2013 A Possible Grammaticalization in Old Japanese and its Implications for the Comparison of Korean and Japanese.  Shared Grammaticalization in the Transeurasian Languages, ed. M. Robbeets and H. Cuyckens, pp. 341–53.

2012 The Likelihood of Morphological Borrowing: the Case of Korean and Japanese.  Copies versus Cognates in Bound Morphology, ed. L. Johanson and M. Robbeets, pp. 411–25.  Leiden:  Brill.

2010 New Etymologies for Some Japanese Time-words. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 130 no. 1 pp. 35–41.

2010 A Note on Como’s Weaving and Binding. PMJS: Premodern Japanese Studies (, PMJS Papersposted on-line.

2011 What Linguistic Units Do Chinese Characters Represent? Written Language & Literacy, vol. 14  no. 2 pp. 293–302.

2008 Early Japanese Lexical Strata and the Allophones of /g/. Proto-Japanese: Issues and Prospects, ed. Bjarke Frellesvig and John Whitman, pp. 43–53. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

2008 Dating the Collapse of Kō-Otsu Distinctions and the Status of /mo/. Current Issues in the History and Structure of Japanese, ed. Bjarke Frellesvig, Masayoshi Shibatani, and John Charles Smith, pp. 339–50. Tōkyō: Kuroshio shuppan.

2008 Two Japanese Vegetable Names Borrowed from Korean. Korean Linguistics, vol. 14 pp. 223–29.

2005 When was Korean First Spoken in Southeastern Korea?  Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, vol. 2 no. 2 pp. 88–105.

2004 Alternations of m and b in Early Middle Japanese: the Deeper Significance of the Sound-Symbolic Stratum. Japanese Language and Literature, vol. 38 no. 2 pp. 323–37.

2001 Layers of Words and Volcanic Ash in Japan and Korea. Journal of Japanese Studies vol. 27 no. 1 pp. 81-111.

2000 Reconciling Comparative and Internal Reconstruction: The Case of Old Japanese /ti ri ni/. Language vol. 76 no.3 pp. 655-81.

1990 Japanese and What Other Altaic Languages? Linguistic Change and Reconstruction Methodology, ed. Philip Baldi, pp. 547-61. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

1988 Middle Chinese Syllable-Final Stops in Sino-Japanese: A Critique of Vance’s Theory. Journal of the American Oriental Society vol. 108 no. 4 pp. 627-31.

1983 The Classification of Old Japanese Adjectives, with Yooko Itoo Tomita. Papers in East Asian Languages vol. 1 pp. 52-65.

1980 Etymology of the Word /kana/. Papers in Japanese Linguistics vol. 7 pp. 173-84.

1980 Revision of Proto-Korean-Japanese *sKorean Linguistics vol. 2 pp. 91-96.

1978 Intuition and Rigor: More on -type O-ending Syllables in Old Japanese. Papers in Japanese Linguistics vol. 5 pp. 337-92.

1975 On the -type O-ending Syllables of Old Japanese. Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese vol. 10 nos. 2-3 pp. 201-207.

1974 Dôshi katsuyôkei no kigen shiron [Initial Theory of the Origins of Japanese Verb Conjugations]. Abstract. Kokugogaku no. 98 pp. 81-82.

1971 Evidence of a Consonant Shift in Seventh-Century Japanese, with S. Robert Ramsey. Papers in Japanese Linguistics vol. 1 no. 2 pp. 270-95.

Book Reviews

2011 A History of the Japanese Language, by Bjarke Frellesvig. Language, vol. 87 no. 4 pp. 991–15.

1997 A Case Study in Diachronic Phonology: The Japanese Onbin Sound Changes, by Bjarke Frellesvig. Diachronica vol. 14 no. 2 pp. 363-66.

1997 Japan’s Name Culture, by Herbert Plutschow. Journal of Japanese Studies vol. 23 no. 1 pp. 206-10.

1995 Diversity in Japanese Language and Culture, edited by John C. Maher and Gaynor Macdonald. The Times Higher Education Supplement (London), 25 August.

1982 The Genetic Relationship of the Ainu Language, by James Patrie. Papers in Linguistics vol. 15 no. 4 pp. 317-20.

1981 Origins of the Japanese Language, by Roy Andrew Miller. Journal of Asian Studies vol. 41 no. 1 pp. 145-47.

1974 The Phonology of Eighth-Century Japanese, by Roland A. Lange. Canadian Journal of Linguistics vol. 19 no. 2 pp. 217-24.

1973 Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages, by Roy Andrew Miller. Papers in Japanese Linguistics vol. 2 no. 1 pp. 155-69.