This post was originally written in 2014, as part of my A-Z of Endangered Languages challenge. Since then, a lot has changed – there are more and more resources for Ainu, and I’ve even had a go at learning it myself!
So, I’ve revamped this post to give you the most up-to-date resources and information I can. Enjoy!
What is the Ainu language?
Ainu – or Hokkaido Ainu – is the only survivor of a group of languages known as the Ainu languages and is spoken by a handful of people on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. UNESCO classifies the language as being critically endangered, and Ethnologue lists it as ‘nearly extinct’ (2016).
As for the other Ainu languages: the last speaker of Sakhalian Ainu died in 1992, though this variant was considered extinct in Sakhalian from the 1970s.
Today, the Ainu language is spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group, and while their numbers range between official estimates of 25,000 to unofficial estimates of 200,000, the number of speakers is obviously small. The differences in these population estimates are due to the fact that for many years, but mostly since the 1899 Hokkaido Former Natives Protection Act, Ainu people have denied and downplayed their heritage to avoid discrimination. This has led to significant losses in terms of their culture – which does, of course, include their language.
Revitalisation of the Ainu language
In 1997, a law was passed that aimed to preserve Ainu culture and guarantee the human rights of those with Ainu heritage, but this did not recognise them as indigenous people.
This brought some attention to the plight of the Ainu language – although there were, of course, some major issues still remaining. However, an active movement to revitalise the language has been present since at least the late 1980s, with Ainu language classes having been hosted since 1987. In 2016, STVradio Broadcasting released a radio course that served as an introduction to the Ainu language.
In 2019, a new bill was approved that recognised Japan’s ethnic Ainu minority as an indigenous people for the first time.
How is Ainu written?
A key issue for many endangered languages is that they have no standardised orthography; oral languages become extinct faster, as they are more difficult to record through the generations.
However, Ainu is written using a modified form of Japanese katakana, though some words can be written using kanji. A Latin-based alphabet is also used and in fact, the Ainu Times (アイヌタイムズ), the only magazine published in the Ainu language, uses both.
Some basic Ainu phrases
So, how do you speak Ainu? Here’s a few basic words and phrases for you:
|Irankarapte / イランカラㇷ゚テ||Hello|
|Iyairaykere / イヤイライケレ||Thank you|
|E / エ||Yes|
|Somo / ソモ||No|
|Apunno paye yan / アプンノ パイェ ヤン||Goodbye (if you’re leaving)|
|Apunno oka yan / アプンノ オカ ヤン||Goodbye (if you’re staying)|
Want to learn Ainu?
Here’s some resources so you can learn Ainu too:
Unilang: Ainu for beginners – A comprehensive course; an English (semi) translation of the Japanese Sapporo TV Radio Lessons from 2006. There are 52 lessons in total.
Memrise: Complete beginner’s Ainu – Another comprehensive course based on the Sapporo TV lessons. There are 102 levels in total.
Memrise: Intermediate Ainu – An intermediate course by the same user who created the above Ainu course; this one has 32 levels.
YouTube: Ainu lessons – A playlist of videos on YouTube that teach Ainu. Only three videos are in the playlist but there appear to be around 35 lessons in total on the channel.
Drops App: Ainu – The Drops app offers Ainu as one of its languages. Learn hundreds of words and become familiar with the katakana used to write the language.
STV Ainu radio course – The site is in Japanese, but you can find links to the audio in the left sidebar going back to 1998. The 2006 audio that goes with the Unilang course is available there.
Freelang Online Dictionary – English – Ainu – An Ainu-English-Ainu online dictionary, with just over 5000 entries.
Ainu-English Word List – A wordlist created from the book The Languages of Japan by Masayoshi Shibatani (1990). Written in the Latin alphabet, you can download a PDF at the bottom of the page.
Sources / Further reading
- Aino Folk-Tales
- Omniglot: Ainu
- Panorama: Will the Ainu Language Die?
- YIRA Japan Trip 2013: Ainu Itak – An introduction to the Ainu language and its current state
- Tofugu: The Ainu – Reviving the Indigenous Spirit of Japan
- Martin, Kylie: Aynu itak – on the road to Ainu language revitalization
- Learning an Endangered Language: Ainu – Mathias Barra – Medium
- Ainu Neno an Ainu (2021) – A documentary (in Japanese) about the Ainu people. You can watch a trailer here.
- Ainu Mosir (2020) – A coming of age film about a young Ainu boy who is coming to terms with his father’s recent death. According to IMDb, its featured languages are Japanese, English, and ‘Aboriginal’ (Ainu?) You can watch a trailer here.