The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Research > Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers


Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

to the development of international linguistics through the Ainu language

Anna Bugaevea
Associate Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Yearning for kanji, yearning for the Orient

When I was small, I had a yearning for kanji and the Orient. In Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), where I was born and raised, there was an abundant Oriental art collection at the State Hermitage Museum, and with my mother being a linguist majoring in Korean there were many books in kanji in our house which influenced me greatly. To me, entering the Japanese Department at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Saint Petersburg State University with the aim of becoming a linguist seemed an extremely natural course to take.

Japanese language research at Saint Petersburg State University has over 150 years of history. I think it is the oldest Japanese linguistics base in the West. For my graduation research I took on the topic "problems of origins of the Japanese language", but that topic was too big for a faculty student (laughs). On top of thinking about the origins of Japanese, I was instructed that it was imperative to also think about the relationship with the Ainu language. This was my first encounter with Ainu. After that, when continuing on to graduate school in Japan, I thought about Japanese language research, but I also had thoughts of researching the rarer Ainu language, and entered Hokkaido University Graduate School.

To an international linguist, Ainu is a revered research topic. The reason is, because Ainu doesn't belong to any linguistic family it possesses inherent characteristics not seen in other languages, the potential for discovering important linguistic knowledge is huge. More than anything, the fact that it is a rare language facing extinction is also important. Starting with my mother, people around me supported my decision to take up to Ainu research. At Hokkaido University I studied under Ainu research specialist Tomomi Sato (currently professor), and after that, as a postdoctoral research fellow at Chiba University, I received guidance from Hiroshi Nakagawa (currently professor). To be taught by two Ainu language researchers, and to be able to go into the field myself and have the opportunity to conduct direct surveys with native Ainu speakers, is truly a blessing.

Photograph 1 At the beginning of the 20th century, due to strong oppression from the Japanese government, the language was rapidly abandoned, and by the 1950s it had vanished from use in daily conversation. In 1997 the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture was enacted, and since the official recognition of Ainu as the indigenous people of Hokkaido there has been a change for the better in the attitude toward their culture and language, however the Ainu language still remains in danger of extinction.

In researching Ainu, a language passed down orally with no written language, being able to record the natural voice of native speakers has huge merits. Over the two years enrolled in postgraduate courses on my arrival in Japan, I conducted interviews with a native speaker of the Chitose dialect, one of the southwestern dialects of Ainu, who could almost be said to be the last native speaker. She was an elderly lady close to 90, I would travel to her hospital to talk with her, and she was always looking forward to my visits.

The Ainu people have left behind a great amount of oral literature, but even now at the age of 90 and not having used Ainu on a daily basis for decades, her ability to tell tales so smoothly surprised me immensely. Ainu oral literature has been published in writing by linguist Kyosuke Kindaichi, but to actually experience the real thing is truly moving. An animistic belief that life and god (spirit) exists in everything, often appears in such oral literature. I respect the Ainu people who hold feelings of gratitude toward the god of water, the god of fire, all the gods of nature, and have lived while treasuring nature and the environment. What is also appealing is that, as human beings, they are open-minded. There is a lot of physical contact in their greetings, and when saying greetings like "How have you been?" they will hold and stroke your hand. I was extremely sad when the lady I spent my first two years with passed away.

The appeal of Ainu as a language

At a deep level, Ainu is structurally different from Japanese. There are many distinct characteristics that Japanese doesn't have, such as the verb form changing depending on the grammatical person of the subject and object, the lack of particles like ga and wo in Japanese, and understanding the tense through the context without tense markers. Conversely, there are also many verb changes in Ainu that don't occur in Japanese.

As an example of a characteristic not seen in Japanese, there is a phenomenon called noun incorporation which packs the object noun into the verb. As in watashi wa sakana wo totta (I caught a fish), you must say five words in Japanese, whereas the same content can be expressed in a single verb in Ainu, ku=cep-koyki (I fish catch). (See diagram 1. (1) is an example of a general sentence structure with no noun incorporation, and (2) is an example of a sentence structure with noun incorporation.) On the other hand, as a characteristic which can be said to be similar to Japanese, there is the existence of noun-concluding sentences called mermaid construction. Although there are 106 types of nouns in Japanese that indicate closure and take on a verb, such as shita tokoro, shita you, shita sou and shita tsumori, only 10 types exist in the Ainu language.

Diagram 1 Noun incorporation example

A characteristic of Ainu that has recently gained attention is its expressions of "evidentiality". In regards to a certain utterance, an evidentiality category such as where the information source gained its knowledge, and how did it understand, is always attached. For example, even in Japanese, by changing the verb form, as in ame ga furusou da (it is supposed to rain) and ame ga furisou da (it looks like it's going to rain), we can distinguish evidentiality, but Ainu is even clearer, where nouns expressing four distinctions, ①statements of consideration: "ru-w-e"(trace of〜), ②hearsay statements: "haw-e" (voice of〜), ③visual statements:"sir-i" (appearance of?) and ④statements of sensation: "hum-i" (sound of〜), are perfunctorily attached (diagram 2).

Diagram 2 Example sentences of the four-term evidential distinction

While learning from the theory of cutting-edge linguistics, we can demonstratively discover knowledge about this kind of evidentiality and changes in verb forms from rare languages such as Ainu, and by again giving feedback to linguistics field, we can contribute to the further development of linguistics theory. Because, up until now, there has been almost no Ainu research or records translated into foreign languages and provided to the rest of the world, this has attracted high interest from linguists abroad.

There is a research field called linguistic typology which focuses on the diversity of these kinds of languages and investigates the possibilities of sentence structures of languages from around the world. Whether it be the passive voice or evidentiality, certain languages will possess neither, while others may possess several types, showing that language is truly diverse. However, the important thing is, those combinations are by no means infinite. In the languages that humans have created and used, somewhere there is an extent of finiteness, and searching for those boundaries is what makes typology interesting. I participated in the joint research project led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutional Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany (diagram 3), and constructed a database of the Ainu language. There was a point that the knowledge of Ainu extended the limit of the conventional sentence structure.

This kind of international research was impossible 20 years ago, but with the academic world globalizing and the development of digital and networking technology, it is now being undertaken lively on a global scale. In addition to this, I also took part in a Stanford University relative clause database project, and received a massive stimulus from the researchers from all over the world and the knowledge gained from research in other languages.

Diagram 3 Ainu language database stored in the Max Planck Institute for Evolutional Anthropology digital library
As Associate Professor Bugaeva's motto, the whole database is composed of only sentences actually used by native speakers

Transmitting the existence of Ainu to the world

Presently, there are about 7000 languages in the world, but they are actually becoming extinct at the pace of one language every three weeks. Ainu is also one of those languages facing the danger of extinction. Fortunately though, I think that Ainu has been recorded extremely well, even for one of the world's rare languages. Japanese linguists, folklorists and unaffiliated researchers laboriously collected texts from the late 19th century, and quite a number of audio materials are also remaining. Professor Kyosuke Kindaichi, Chiba University Professor Hiroshi Nakagawa and Waseda University Professor Suzuko Tamura (now professor emeritus), have collected a substantial amount of texts. I, myself, haven't compiled a great number of texts, but from the data I have obtained with my own eyes and ears, I believe I have become to see the true form of the language.

Since 2007 I have been involved in the Endangered Languages Digital Archive, a joint research project run by the University of London, and have constructed an Ainu language multimedia archive. So far, with about 10 hours of Professor Hiroshi Nakagawa's old Ainu audio materials, along with the recording I took in my direct interviews with native speaker Setsu Kurokawa, about 4000 audio items of basic vocabulary and daily conversation have been uploaded. Worldwide internet access to the database has been available from March 2010 (Photograph 2, Diagram 4).

Photograph 2 Interview with native speaker of the Saru dialect of Ainu, Setsu Kurokawa (September 2008)

Diagram 4 Ainu language archive stored in the University of London Endangered Languages Digital Archive

Furthermore, based on the material in this database, I have compiled an online dictionary, the Online Ainu Conversation Dictionary, consisting of about 4000 Ainu, Japanese and English words and phrases with audio (diagram 5). Seizing on the opportunity presented when the Ainu people were officially recognized as the indigenous people of Hokkaido in 2008, this was created after receiving a strong request from the Ainu community. Reviving a disappearing language is extremely difficult, but I firmly believe that putting together this kind of dictionary is indispensable in order to restore the Ainu identity.

I have a job as editor of the Ainu Handbook, a major project of the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, which is about to start. This will be compiled with cooperation from researchers Japan and overseas, and will be published by a major overseas publisher. I want Ainu to be known even more by people the world over. To do this, I intend to continue my research in Japan indefinitely.

Diagram 5 Online Ainu Conversation Dictionary

Anna Bugaevea
Associate Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Born in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), Russia. After graduating from the Japanese Department at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Saint Petersburg State University in 1996, attended Osaka University of Foreign Studies and Hokkaido University on a Japanese Government (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) scholarship for research students. Received doctorate (linguistics) from Hokkaido University Graduate School of Letters in 2004. After working as a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science foreign postdoctoral fellow at Chiba University and visiting research fellow at the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, La Trobe University, Australia, took up the post of assistant professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study in 2008. Started current position in 2011. Majors in descriptive linguistics (Ainu), linguistic typology. (Temporary associate professor in charge of crosslinguistic studies at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics from December 2012)