Aomori dialect

Recently, before I left Ireland to move back to the US, I was finishing up the Culture Class series on Japanesepod101.com. Among the later lessons in that series was a coverage of the infamous Aomori Dialect, which is a well-known and difficult dialect in the remote, northernmost prefecture of Aomori.

Actually, there are two dialects in Aomori, both difficult for other Japanese to understand: Tsugaru dialect (津軽弁) spoken around Aomori City, and Nambu dialect (南部弁) spoken around the city of Hachinohe. The lady who spoke on the JPod lessons was a native speaker of Nambu Dialect. Both are called pejoratively “zu-zu” dialect by other Japanese speakers because of the way the sounds “i” (ee) and “u” (oo) blend together, as well as many words end in ず (zu) or something similar.

Additionally, Aomori dialect is very clipped compared to standard Japanese so 私 (watashi, “me”) becomes “warashi” or even shorter. Also, polite Japanese or differences between gender are largely absent. The word お前 (omae, “you”) is abrasive in standard Japanese, but in Aomori dialect the related word おめ (ome) is perfectly normal and not rude.

What first struck me when I heard it in on the JPod lessons was how much it sounds like Korean to me. This may sound strange, but where I grew up, we had a lot of Korean families living there, and many of my friends were Koreans, so I got used to hearing it all the time.1 The words weren’t the same, but the tonal quality in the dialogue and certain sounds really, really reminded me of Korean. I don’t believe this is due to any borrowing from Korea, since Northern Japan is far removed from Korea, but may represent a kind of convergence of sounds. Since Korean and Japanese are believed to have a common ancestral language, I don’t think this idea is too far-fetched. As Aomori dialect is a more abbreviated version of standard Japanese, maybe the common root-sounds become more apparent.

Anyway, Aomori dialect is certainly not something you would use much, if ever, as a student of Japanese, but just an interesting example of how a single country and culture can develop such unusual dialects. :)

Additional resources:

1 I learned a bit of Korean then, which I can still remember. I have wanted to continue studying, but resources in the West are difficult until recently. I did try the KoreanPod101.com site recently, and liked it. Weeks later, some of the words still stick in my head, which is a good sign. :) Sadly, I have trouble learning even one language right now, especially with work and parenting, so I have to put off further Korean lessons for the time being, but after the JLPT test this year, I hope to dabble a little more.


11 Comments on “Aomori dialect”

  1. arunlikhati says:

    Much belated, but please allow me to say that I’m very impressed at how much language learning you manage to accomplish as a father, husband, full-time employee and on the move!

  2. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha. It has become something of an obsession these days. I was just at the bookstore yesterday and realized how true this was. About ten years ago I spent all my money on computer and technical books. Then starting five years ago it was books on Buddhism. Now it is books on Japanese language.

  3. johnl says:

    Many years ago, when I was still in the initial stages of learning Japanese (1), someone gave me a music tape by the famous Tsugaru shamisen player, Takahashi Chikuzan. One track was a kind of monologue by the musician, describing his life and times. At that point, I thought I had some familiarity with Japanese, but I couldn’t understand a single word! So discouraging! I agree that it sounds somehow like Korean–not that I have much experience with Korean, but for a while there was a Korean guy in my office who spoke Korean with clients on the phone.

    I wonder if your course will also introduce another infamous dialect, Satsuma-ben. I heard that the samurai of the region were encouraged to use special unintelligible language for security purposes (anti-intelligence gathering), and this influenced development of the dialect.

    (1) I haven’t progressed as much beyond the initial stages as one might expect having been here more than 30 years… ;-(

    JL

  4. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    Thank you Doug for your comments and support over on my blog.

    And, just in case you don’t see it there, I just want to say that part of the reason my blog is slowing down now is that I’ve started (finally!) to study Japanese – and following on from your praise of it on your blog here, I’m using Japanesepod101.

    I’d say ‘see you there’ but I doubt I will! You’ll be in the advanced area while I’m a newbie in the newbie classes! LOL!

    But thank you again mate and all the very best,

    Marcus

  5. Adam says:

    Hey Doug, Adam from Yakihito here. I too have noticed how some dialects of Japanese can sound like Korean. Apparently there’s even one in Kyushu (Miyazaki I think it is) that uses a few Korean words.

    I’ve been told that dialects occur because a language “freezes” in a place and then continues to develop elsewhere, so what you have is a snapshot of how that language was spoken hundreds of years before. Of course, geological isolation, etc plays a part too.

  6. Doug says:

    Wow, lots of responses. :)

    Johnl: I think Adam touched a little on the Miyazaki dialect. On my daughter’s TV show, nihongo de asobo, they have a segment where a nice old lady from Miyazaki recites a famous poem, but in the Miyazaki dialect. They have to use furigana subtitles because some words sounds radically different, while some are pretty familiar. To me, from what little I heard, it was pretty different than regular Japanese or Aomori. Another divergence.

    Interestingly, my first months in Ireland when I lived there were difficult. I knew we were speaking the same language, but I struggled to get used to the different tones, slightly different vocabulary, and different way of phrasing questions, so I would understand maybe 60%, even though we were both native speakers of the same language! After a few months, I got acclimated and could understand Irish people just fine, but then on a trip to the UK, I had to start all over again! Three different English speaking countries, and yet it’s interesting to see the divergences already happening. :)

    I bet this is how Japanese feel when they travel to various parts of their own country.

    Marcus: Glad to see you studying Japanese. With your background in Korean, it should be pretty easy, but I’d appreciate your insights on how similar/different they are. Funny how women from culture X inspire us to learn language X. ;)

    Adam: Already replied in part to your comment earlier, but just wanted to add welcome to the JLR!

  7. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    LOL! I never learnt a word of Korean! I’ve lived there three different times, over three years altogether, and not a single sentence!

    Same with Thai. Been living in Bangkok on and off since 2000. Thai wife. Thai kids. Can’t even count to ten! LOL!

    So learning Japanese is a whole new thing for me! But I’ve watched the progress you’ve made over the past few years on your blog(s) Doug and I’m mighty impressed. There you go – you’re my language role model! Thank you!

    All the best and with palms together,

    Marcus

  8. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    I’ve just realised what that link on your site to Japanesepod101 is for! I’m so sorry I didn’t get there via your site Doug! I could kick myself! Grrrr. Sorry.

    Marcus

  9. Doug says:

    Hi Marcus! Glad to see you’re taking up language studies. I like studying language over religion these days because of the practical benefit that comes with it. I spent too much time in the past wracking my brains over various Buddhist teachings and weighing my options, which was just a lot of wasted energy. Language is something that’s immediately beneficial as you can cross cultural boundaries and make new friends (or impress old ones).

    I know of other people who lived in Asia but never learned the language. It can definitely be done, but I think the experience is even better when you can see things through the other person’s language. :)

    Best of luck!

  10. JonJ says:

    I don’t think “wracking one’s brains over Buddhist teachings” is a waste of energy in itself (and I don’t think you are implying that), but it certainly can be if it isn’t accompanied by some sort of practice in a ratio sufficient so that you can see it making a difference in your daily life. The problem is that, after so many centuries, there is such a mass of Buddhist teachings that it is easy to drown in them. I guess that’s what the Bodhisattva Vow “The dharma gates are infinite; I vow to master them” is getting at. :-)

    As for incomprehensible dialects, I first went to Japan during Carter’s administration, and taught a little English to pick up cash. I found it very strange to meet Japanese English students who seemed to me to be quite familiar with English but who swore than when they saw clips of Carter speaking on news programs they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Of course, I had no trouble at all understanding him, though I had never spent a day in Georgia. What seem like slight differences in dialect to a native speaker may baffle a non-native.

    On the other hand, when I run into something like Yorkshire dialect in a British film, I’m desperate to see subtitles!

  11. Doug says:

    Hi John, I think you hit it on the head: practice and study should come in some kind of equal measure. My struggle until now has been the practice aspect especially in Ireland where there was no place to go. Now I am back in Seattle where I hope to restore some balance. :D

    As for language, I had the same issue in Ireland where there are many accents. The sing-song accent Americans know well is from places like Southern Ireland (Cork and such), but accents in Dublin were entirely different and difficult for me. I really couldn’t understand well at first. Then there accents from places like Kilkenny and the North that were different still! So much variation on one language. :-p


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