Language: The Okinawan Language

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Language is said to be a representation of culture. Through Language - whether they are visual, verbal, or even objects - we are able to express ourselves in different ways and stand for certain concepts, ideas and feelings. We use language to maintain and convey our beliefs. Therefore representation through language is referred as the processes of cultural meanings.

Okinawa Prefecture is located in the most southern part of Japan, consisting a number of small islands. In these islands people speak various Okinawan Languages that was originally stimulated from the Ryukyu Kingdom. Some linguists argue whether the Okinawan Language is an independent language or just one of the dialects in Japan.

Uchinaguchi is one of the local languages spoken
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The major differences would be that some words might be pronounced differently, and the shifted vowel and consonants. The Okinawan sentence structure and grammar remains similar to the classical Japanese, which this language style was often used in songs and poems in that period.

The Ryukyu language plays an important role in the history of Japan as a country. Until 1879 when Okinawa was annexed by the Japanese government, the Ryukyu Kingdom was independent. It was a trade center between Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. By this time, the use of Okinawan and other dialects were discouraged, and instead the standard Japanese dialect was introduced to the local population. In schools, the standard Japanese dialect became the language of education and therefore younger generations are not familiar with the Ryukyu language and very few are willing to learn
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I feel ashamed for not even understanding the Okinawan jokes.” says an elementary student.

The loss of Language means so much more than the uses but it forms an important part of anyone’s culture and identity. The Okinawan theater plays are performed in a mixture of several Okinawan Languages including Uchinaguchi where language has the ability to express a variety of roles such as the Japanese traditional samurai. If Okinawa loses its language, it may also result with the loss of traditional jokes, music and literature.

As the loss of language always corresponds with changes of local culture, language acts as a powerful symbol that represents Okinawa and it’s cultural historical backgrounds. Despite the minorities that use the Okinawan Language, we cannot guarantee these languages will be spoken forever because the reality is that Language can vanish within its present speakers. Without local awareness and efforts made by the citizens of the Ryukyu Islands, there is no one else who can choose to spread the languages to a wider population. Yet not everyone supports the effort to save these languages. Some may criticize that there is no such thing as an “Okinawan Identity” because of the mixture of diverse cultures. The Lack of appreciation of the traditional language is what challenges younger generations to keep interests; and as soon as the last speaker of the language dies, Okinawa will no longer be a unique
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