Ryukyuan, once the language of the Ryukyu kingdom and the only language known to be genetically related to Japanese, shows notable dialectal variation throughout the Ryukyu Archipelago, especially between the northern group (including Amami and Okinawa dialects) and the southern group (including Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni dialects). The linguistic diversity of the region, in fact, rivals that of the whole of the mainland Japan. Many of these dialects, however, are endangered. Today, in Okinawa Island, the majority of people under 30 speaks a variety of Japanese with local accent (Uchinā-yamatuguchi) and has only a limited, if any, understanding of the language of their grandparents, while for many of older generations local dialects of Ryukyuan are still the main means of expressing their deepest emotions.
This paper aims at giving an overview of the history of linguistic assimilation which led up to the current state of language endangerment in Okinawa. A close look at the linguistic situation of Yambaru (northern Okinawa) will be provided, against the background of the region's drastic social and environmental change after Okinawa's reversion to Japan in 1972. Furthermore, the future prospects of language endangerment will be discussed.
Masayuki Onishi, Ph.D. in linguistics from the Australian National University is an honorary research associate in the Department of Japanese and Korean Studies at the University of Sydney.