Linguistic periodization of Okinawan – Part 1

Last time, I talked about one way of periodizing Okinawan, based off of non-linguistic criteria. This time, I’m going to talk about two linguistic criteria we might use to differentiate Modern Okinawan from earlier forms of Okinawan.

The first criterion is a major reanalysis in the verbal system which occurred at some point in the history of Okinawan, sometime after our Old Okinawan texts (to 1609 CE), and presumably sometime during Middle Okinawan (from 1609 to 1879 CE), though it isn’t clear to me at this point when this would have occurred—especially owing to the fact that I don’t have access to the Ryūka Zenshū, the major collection of Middle and Early Modern Okinawan poetry, but if memory serves me correctly, this sort of construction is not attested in the Ryūka.

This reanalysis took the derived, morphologically complex construction of the infinitive form of the main verb plus the auxiliary verb or- ‘to exist’—but in this case the progressive auxiliary, and reanalyzed it as the basic, morphologically simplex imperfective form of the verb, an analysis first proposed by Hattori Shirō (Vovin 2009: 611).

So for instance, the verb ‘to approach’ is given as Old Okinawan <よる> yor-u |approach-ADN| in the Omoro Sōshi (OS I: 13), while it is Modern Shuri Okinawan <ゆゆる> yuyu-ru |approach.IPFV-ADN| (from pre-Modern Okinawan *yor-i or-u |approach-INF PROG-ADN|).

The second morphological change, which post-dated this first change, is another reanalysis. This time, an extension of the use of the adnominal -ru with both consonant and vowel stem verbs, rather than just vowel stem verbs. Historically, consonant stem verbs would use the allomorph -u.

This can be seen in the example above, but for a further example, compare Old Okinawan <てる> ter-u |shine-ADN| with Modern Shuri Okinawan <てぃゆる> tiyu-ru |shine.IPFV-ADN|.

So in summary: two innovations which can be used to divide Modern from pre-Modern (Middle?) Okinawan are the reanalysis of the morphologically complex progressive construction as the morphologically simplex imperfective form of the verb, as well as the expansion of the adnominal -ru to all verb classes.

Update (23 December 2014)

I found the verb form <待る> MAT-Uru|wait-ADN| (the capitals indicate my inference of a semantographic Chinese character) in the Ryūka Gimon Roku (Gyokuzan 1900: 2b). Compare Western Old Japanese mat-u |wait-ADN|.


Gyokuzan. 1900. Ryūka Gimon Roku  ‘A List of Questions [About] Ryūka.’ University f the Ryūkyūs manuscript. URI:

Vovin, Alexander. 2009. A Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese. Part Two: Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Conjunctions, Particles, and Postpositions. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

The chronology of Okinawan

To the best of my knowledge, there is no agreed upon chronology of Okinawan into the usual terminology of “modern”, “Middle”, “Old”, etc. This is a simple attempt at creating such a terminology.

Our earliest well-dated texts, like the Haytwong Ceykwukki (「海東諸國紀」 ‘A Record of the Various Countries of the Eastern Sea’, 8 May 1501 CE1) or the Tamaudun epitaph (somewhere from 12 October to 10 November 1501 CE2), are all from the 15th century CE. The first book of the Omoro Sōshi (「おもろさうし」 ‘A Collection of Omoro‘) claims to have been compiled between 1531 and 1532 CE3—with most of the books dating later, but we know the Omoro Sōshi was recompiled much later (and at several different times over), and the omoro poetic form (and potentially some omoro in the collection) is claimed to date back to the 5th or 6th century CE (Hokama and Saigo 1972: 527). These all fall under the banner of what I call “Old Okinawan.”

The next large set of texts which we can use to create a chronology for Okinawan are the ryūka (‘Ryūkyūan4 Poems’). However, these partially overlap both with Old Okinawan and modern Okinawan, with the oldest ryūka dating from the 14th and 15th centuries CE, up to the 20th century CE (Shimabukuro and Onaga 1983: 9).

In the absence of well-formed linguistic diagnostic criteria, I think it is best to appeal to non-linguistic factors in this case, though this is something I intend to return to in the future. One possible criterion here would be a major societal change, such as the collapse or overthrow of a ruling dynasty, a major natural disaster, large-scale population movement, or similar sorts of factors. Large-scale linguistic change will likely lag behind this, but will likely be related, as we can see in many cases of language death and endangerment.

As for the case of Okinawan, we have several points where we can put some tentative boundaries. The first of these would be the unification of the Three Kingdoms of Okinawa  (三山 Jpn. sanzan) under King Shō Hashi (尚巴志) in 1492 CE. However, we only have one extant text from before this period, Liúqiú kuăn yìyŭ  (琉球館譯語  ‘A Wordlist of Ryūkyūan’), which was compiled in 1469 CE. All other texts, to the best of my knowledge, post-date the start of the 16th century. So this date is certainly important, as it likely would have marked the start of the various levelings that would occur in Okinawan (cf., the fact that all attested Okinawan varieties aside from Naha and Itoman have the same pitch accent system as Shuri), but with basically no linguistic evidence, we will likely not even be able to come to firm conclusions in the future. We will call Okinawan before 1492 CE Pre-Unification Old Okinawan.

The next major societal change in Okinawa would have been the Satsuma invasion 1609 CE. This would have marked much more extensive contact, at least among the nobility, between the (Early Modern) Japanese language and Okinawan. From 1492 CE to 1609 CE, we will use the term Post-Unification Old Okinawan, and from 1609 CE, we have Middle Okinawan.

I am intentionally avoiding the qualifiers “Early” and “Late” here, as I think they would be more appropriately based on linguistic factors, and “Pre-“and “Post-Unification” make it more clear that we’re dating Old Okinawan based on extra-linguistic factors.

The next event we will use as an extra-linguistic diagnostic is the formal annexation of Okinawa as Okinawa Prefecture by the Empire of Japan in 1879 CE. A similar event, the reorganization of the Ryūkyūs into the Ryūkyū Domain (琉球藩 Jpn. Ryūkyū Han) took place slightly earlier, in 1872 CE. Either date will do, as they both mark an even stronger subsumption of the Ryūkyūs under the Japanese. We will choose the later date simply for convenience. This will mark the end of Middle Okinawan, and the start of Modern Okinawan.

To summarize:

Date Period Criterion
Before 1492 CE Pre-Unification Old Okinawan Pre-dates unification of the Ryūkyū Kingdom
1492-1609 CE Post-Unification Old Okinawan Post-dates the unification of the Ryūkyū Kingdom
1609-1879 CE Middle Okinawan Post-dates the Satsuma invasion
After 1879 CE Modern Okinawan Post-dates formal annexation

Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to give some more firm linguistic diagnostic criteria, but for the time being, this will have to do.


Hokama, Shuzen and Nobutsuna Saigō. 1972. Omoro Sōshi [‘A Collection of Omoro]. Nihon Shisō Taikei 18. Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten.

Shimabukuro, Seibin and Toshio Onaga. 1983. Hyō’on Hyōshaku Ryūka Zenshu [‘The Complete Ryūka, Annotated and Transcribed’]. Tōkyō: Musashino Sho’in.


1. Date given in the manuscript: 「弘治十四年四月二十二日」’22 Day, 4th Lunar Month 14th Year of the Reign of the Hóngzhì Emperor (of the Ming Dynasty)’.

2. Date given on the inscription: 「大明弘治十四年九月大吉日」 ‘An Auspicious Day, 9th Lunar Month, 14th Year of the Reign of the Hóngzhì Emperor of the Ming Dynasty’.

3. Date given as: 「嘉靖十年」 ’10th Year of the Reign of the Jiājìng Emperor (of the Ming Dynasty)’

4. As opposed to Chinese (Jpn. 漢歌 karauta) or Japanese (Jpn. 和歌 waka) poetry.