The Sōgen-ji Eastern Entrance stele

It seems that most stelai inscribed druing the Ryūkyū Kingdom are either in Classical Chinese, or in Middle (or literary Early Modern) Japanese. Very few are actually in the contemporary vernacular Old or Middle Okinawan. The stele erected at the eastern entrance to Sōgen-ji (崇元寺) is one of the few exceptions, with one face in Classical Chinese, and another in Middle Okinawan.

Background on Sōgen-ji
Sōgen-ji was located between Tomari (泊村 Tomari-mura) and Makishi Villages (牧志村 Makishi-mura) near where the Asato River (安里川 Asato-gawa) split into Tomari Harbor (泊港 Tomari-kō) and the Kumoji River (久茂地川  Kumoji-gawa), on the western edge of classical Naha. Originally built as a Rinzai (臨済宗 Rinzai-shū) Zen Buddhist temple, it later served as a Royal Mausoleum (until the construciton of Tamaudun in 1501 CE). It was built early on during the reign of Shō Shin (尚眞, r. 1477–1526 CE), and was one of several Rinzai temples Shō Shin constructed1. Much of the temple was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 CE. Thankfully, the stele itself survived, and, along with a large number of other important stelai, was included in both facsimile and transcribed form in Tsukada 1970.

Description of the Stele
The stele itself is made of stone, with inscriptions on the front (Classical Chinese) and the back (Middle Okinawan). Unfortunately, the version in Tsukada 1970 does not describe where on the stele the date is inscribed, and the facsimile does not show where it is either.

The facsimile (and, presumably, the inscription itself) is perfectly legible. The Classical Chinese text is inscribed in regular script (楷書 kaisho), while the Middle Okinawan text is inscribed in cursive script (草書 sōsho).

The Classical Chinese text and the Middle Okinawan texts are equivalent to one another. They serve as a prohibition, warning potential visitors to the temple of its significance (as a Royal Mausoleum), and ordering them to dismount.

The inscriptions

Front (Classical Chinese)


dàn <jù> guānyuán rén děng zhì cĭ xià mă
only <all> anji common.people arrive here go.down horse

‘All anji and commoners arriving here, dismount.’

The character 但 dàn ‘only’ is erroneously used as a variant of 俱 jù ‘all’. Both share the radical 人, and some graphical variants partially overlap (see the Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants entries on dàn ‘only’ and jù ‘all’, respectively, for examples).

官員 guānyuán ‘(an) official’ is used here in place of the Okinawan あんし or 按司2 anji, a class of landed nobility in Okinawa, which existed not only during the Ryūkyū Kingdom, but also previous to it.

Back (Middle Okinawan)


anji=to kesu=mo kuma n-ite muma=kara orer-ube-shi
anji=COM common.people=ASF here COP-COOR horse=ABL go.down-DEB-RLS

Anji and also commoners must dismount from [their] horses.’

Here, like in many other Middle Okinawan texts, we see etymological or pseudo-etymological spellings throughout the text. A three-way vowel height distinction is maintained in writing, while it would have likely merged into a two-way distinction in speech (with front and back mid vowels merging into the front and back high vowels, respectively).

Despite the text being very short, there is at least one diagnostic lexical item hinting that the text is intended to be Middle Okinawan as opposed to Middle Japanese. Namely, Middle Okinawan くま kuma ‘here’, rather than Middle Japanese ここ koko ‘here’. While not as decisive, the unetymological spelling of orir- as orer- is interesting, and shows that there was confusion between mid and high vowels, which merged quite early in the history of Okinawan.

However, the influence of Middle Japanese can clearly be seen in the loan of the debitive suffix -ube- (see discussion in Vovin 2009: 879-880).

It is unclear to me if むま muma ‘horse’ is a loan from Middle Japanese, or an attempt at rendering the regressive assimilation of nasality into the initial vowel. Modern Okinawan ʔNma ‘horse’ is likely from earlier *uma ‘horse’, as it has a glottal stop as its initial segment, rather than a nasal. Compare ‘horse’ with the historical outcome of ‘all’, Modern Okinawan nNna ‘all’, which is from earlier *mina ‘all’. This too has regressive nasalization of the vowel, but additionally had regressive palatalization of the initial segment *m > n.



’25th day of the 7th lunar month, 24th of the sexagenary cycle, 6th year of [the reign of the] Ming Emperor Jiājìng’

In the Gregorian calendar, this date is 22 August 1527 CE. Note that I have no reference to the inscription, as a facsimile or otherwise; I am relying solely on Tsukada (1970)’s transcription.

Edit (13 May 2016) — Added forgotten citation to Vovin 2009.


  1. I am not as well versed as I would like on the history of Buddhism in Ryūkyū Kingdom. However, it seems to me that the introduction of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism by Shō Shin is a calculated move imitating Rinzai’s intimate ties to government in Japan. The Rinzai school was closely associated with the Muromachi Shogunate—more or less the “official” sect—and more widely, nobility in general (Matsuo 2007: 195). It also retained a strong connection with Chinese practice, including that Chinese monks were present in some Rinzai temples, and Rinzai monks were used in addition to diplomats as intermediaries between Japan and China (Matsuo 2007: 195–6). This seems even more clear in light of the fact that the head temple of Rinzai in Kamakura and in Shuri are both named Engaku-ji (円覚寺).
  2. This is likely ateji—Chinese characters used soley (or at least primarily) for their phonetic value.

ABL – ablative case
ASF – additive-scalar focus paticle
COM – commitative case
COOR – coordinating converb
COP – copula
DEB – debitive mood
RLS – realis mood


Matsuo Kenji. 2007. A History of Japanese Buddhism. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Tsukada Seisaku. 1970. 「琉球国碑文記」 Inscriptions of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Tōkyō: Keigaku Shuppan.

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

The Misery of Slavery (Ryūka Zenshū 2308)

As I mentioned in my previous post, one famous poet of ryūka was named Yoshia (ca. 1650–1688 CE).

Yoshia was sold into slavery as a prostitute as a young woman. Various forms of slavery, including enslavement as a way to pay off a debt, were common and codified in law in the various polities of East Asia. By her own admission in her writings, Yoshia’s parents sold her off as a prostitute. It was common in pre-modern Japan and, apparently, the Ryūkyū Kingdom to sell one’s daughter into slavery as a prostitute in order to cover a debt, and almost certainly the reason Yoshia was sold. The received wisdom was that Yoshia was sold when she was 8 years old (Shimabukuro and Onaga 1968: 480–1).

Original Text

SODAteranu OYA no / noyode WAMI NAtiyute / HANA ni osiIdiyati / yoso ni momasu

sudatir-an-u ʔúya=nu
raise-NEG-ADN parents=NOM.IANI

nuyudi wa-mi nachu-ti

fana n-i ʔush-i-ʔNjach-i
flower COP-INF push-INF-go.out-INF

yúsu=ni múmas-u
elsewhere=LOC suffer-RLS

‘Why did my parents who didn’t raise me give birth to me? They sent me out as a flower, and I suffer elsewhere.’

This poem appears to be metrical, and in the normal 8-8-8-6 style. Lines 2 and 3 are potentially hypermetric, due the vowel length of nuyudi ‘why’ (which may be nuuyudi) and nachuti ‘having given birth to, and…’ (which may be nachooti). As we have seen elsewhere, it is likely that vowel length did not factor in to authors’ calculation of meter in the composition of ryūka.

ʔúya ‘parents’ with the inanimate nominative-genitive case marker =nu is unexpected, as parents are humans, and thus animate. We would expect the animate nominative-possessive case marker =ga.

If the verb form from nas- ‘to give birth to’ in line 2 is ultimately morphologically simplex, nachuti is odd. We would expect nachiti. However, this form and similar forms do occur elsewhere. Okinawa Kogo Daijiten gives <なちやうて> and <なちょーて> (but not the form with a short vowel <産ちゆて> attested here) as attested forms of a compound of nas- and the auxiliary verb wu- for a 継続 (‘continuous’) form of nas-.

Nuyudi ‘why’, to the best of my knowledge, does not occur in modern Okinawan. The OKD lists the attested forms as <のよて> and <のよで>, but does not propose an etymology. The first element is likely identical to modern Okinawan nuu ‘what’, but I do not have a good explanation for the second element. Perhaps the ablative case marker より, but an isolated change of r to d is unexpected though not unprecedented, especially in light of the fact that modern Naha Okinawan, confined formerly to those of lower socioeconomic status in and around the city of Naha merges earlier *d and *ɾ into /d/.

Fana ‘flower’ is a euphemism for a woman sold into slavery as a prostitute, as the author Yoshia was.

1 – first person
ADN – adnominal
CONT – continuous aspect
COOR – coordinating converb
COP – copula
IANI – inanimate
INF – infinitve
LOC – locative
NEG – negative
NOM – nominative
POSS – posessive
RLS – realis
SG – singular

Shimabukuro, Seibin and Toshio Onaga. 1968. 「標音評釈琉歌全集」 The Complete Ryūka: Transcribed and Annotated. Tōkyō: Musashino Sho’in.

Ryūka Zenshū 16

The Ryūka Zenshū1 (「琉歌全集」, ‘Complete Collection of Ryūka2) is the largest collection of the ryūka style of Okinawan poetry. It was compiled in the 1960s Shimabukuro Seibin (島袋盛敏) and Onaga Toshio (翁長俊郎), and transcribed phonetically into the Shuri lect1 of Okinawan by the latter.

Ryūka (琉歌 ‘Ryūkyūan3 poems’) are the traditional poems of Okinawa. They date to at least the 1700s CE, as the term ryūka itself first appears in the Konkōkenshū (「混効験集」, compiled 1711 CE), the earliest dictionary of Okinawan. This uniquely Okinawan poetic tradition likely dates back to even before the invasion of the Satsuma domain in 1609 CE, perhaps even as far back as the 1400s CE. Ryūka as a poetic style are not confined to the capital of Shuri, with several surviving examples from throughout the Ryūkyū Archipelago. Neither are they confined to the upper classes, as several examples exist from Onna Nabe (恩納なべ), a woman who lived as a farmer in the village of Onna (恩納村) in northern Okinawa, as well as from Yoshiya (よしや), a woman sold into slavery as a prostitute in the Nakajima (仲島) red-light district of Naha (previously on the southern banks of the mouth of the Kumoji River (久茂地川 Kumoji-kawa).

Ryūka have a set meter, most typically having three lines of 8 syllables and one line of 6 syllables, for a pattern of 8-8-8-6 (or 30 total syllables). At first blush, however, almost no written ryūka appear to resemble this meter. For example, the poem I will discuss in this post, RZ 16, is written as follows:

Original Text

kareyosi ya itumo / kareyosi do mesiyairu / tada ito no UE kara / Igiyai KItiyai

The poem appears to have 35 syllables, arranged in a pattern of 8-10-9-8. We know, however, that even very early in the history of Okinawan, sequences of vowels are reduced to individual vowels through coalescence (where CV1+V2 → CV3ː) and/or glide formation (where CV1+V2 → CGV2ː). For example, 上 ‘up; top’, which I transcribe as UE, would have likely already undergone a process of glide formation (and further changes) into something resembling modern Okinawan ッウィー [ʔʷíː] ‘up; top’. By way of these phonological changes, we can “fix”, or perhaps more accurately, reconstruct the poem as it was intended, which just happens to “fix” the hypermetrical lines, rendering all metrical, as below:

ka.i.ju.ɕi ja ʔí.tsi.n̩ / ka.i.ju.ɕi duɾu / tá.da ʔi.tu nu ʔʷíː ka.ɾa / ʔń̩.dʑa.i tɕi.tɕa.i

It is likely the case that syllables, rather than morae, count when it comes to determining the number of units allowed in a line. There is some evidence from modern Okinawan that ッウィー [ʔʷíː] ‘up; top’ is two morae: it has a clear fall in pitch over the length of the vowel, something that cannot occur with one mora words. It also has a long vowel, which means it cannot also have a geminite (or “heavy”, if you prefer) onset. But in this poem, the author is at least bending the rules, if not using syllable counts over mora counts when it comes to determining whether or not a line is metrical.

Onaga inconsitently has the more conservative karijusi (rather than the more innovative kaijusi) and the more innovative cicai (rather than the more conservative cicari)While it is unclear when the syllable /ɾi/ loses its consonant, the fact that there is variation between <ri> and <i> in the original text, with a more etymological spelling of かれよし <kareyosi> and a less etymological spelling of 来ちやい <KItiyai> (from earlier *ki-te ar-i) suggests that this had already taken place.

Interlinear gloss and free translation
kariyushi=ya ‘ítsiN / kariyushi=du mise-ru / táda itu=nu ‘wíi=kara / ‘Ndza-i chicha-i
good.fortune=TOP always / good.fortune=FOC give.HON-ADN / just silk=GEN top=ABL / go\PFV-RLS come\PFV-RLS

‘Good fortune! Always give [me] the good fortune [of travelling]! Only coming and going from the tops of silks.’

This is a poem asking for good fortune in the form of travel. As a courtier in the court of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, being assigned to be on a mission to Japan, China, Korea, or the like, was among the most prestigious duties that one could be granted.

  1. Abbreviated as RZ.
  2. Shuri is generally considered a dialect (or topolect) of Okinawan. While Shuri is geographically contained to the former capital of Okinawa, Shuri, it is perhaps better thought of as a sociolect, being spoken by the descendants of the Okinawan gentry. Compare this to the status of its neighboring Naha, spoken in an adjacent geographical area, but by the descendants of the common people of the capital region. I use lect here as a compromise, rather than choosing between the more traditional terminology of calling it a dialect, or the perhaps more historically accurate term sociolect.
  3. Or Okinawan, as opposed to waka (和歌 ‘Japanese poems) and kanshi (漢詩 ‘Chinese poems’).
  4. This is intended as a strict transliteration—not a transcription—of the original text, going from the poem as it is written. No analytic devices other than slashes, to divide lines, are used.

An improved analysis of the imperfective realis form of Okinawan verbs

User Hakaku on my thread about the last post on reddit’s /r/linguistics subreddit pointed out that there is perhaps a better analysis than the one I presented last time, and I am inclined to agree.

One thing I left out last time was the fact that I only dealt with consonant-stem verbs. Japonic languages also have vowel-stem verbs, and any adequate explanation must work for both. My previous solution does not. So here I present a better solution which should account for all regular forms. Here we’ll just work with the following roots: *kak- ‘to write’ (a consonant-stem verb), *kir- ‘to cut’ (another consonant-stem verb), and *ki- ‘to wear’ (a vowel-stem verb).

Note that vowel-stem verbs historically only ended in *-i or *-e, but this second group disappeared in Okinawan due to the Northern Ryūkyūan chain shift (or perhaps paradigm leveling with the former type, or both—the number of verbs ending in *-e in Japonic is quite small).

We start off much the same as last time, with the optionality of the glide at the beginning of *wor-*. In all forms, this creates a non-identical vowel cluster, which is illicit.

(1a) *kak-i+wor-um |write-INF+CONT-RLS| > *kak-i+or-um
(1b) *kir-i+wor-um |cut-INF+CONT-RLS| > *kir-i+or-um
(1c)  *ki+wor-um |wear\INF+CONT-RLS| > *ki+or-um

This vowel cluster is resolved with V2 elision, where the *o in *or- is elided:

(2a) *kak-i+or-um > *kak-i+r-um
(2b) *kir-i+or-um > *kir-i+r-um
(2c) *ki+or-um > *ki+r-um

Next, a special change affects just the verb ‘to cut’. Throughout Okinawan, sequences of *ri became *i. This again creates an illicit vowel cluster, which is resolved with elision.

(3a) *kak-i+r-um
(3b) *kir-i+r-um > *ki-i+r-um (*ri to *i) > *ki+r-um (V2 ellision)
(3c) *ki+r-um

 Next is the progressive palatalization/lenition of *r to *y.

(4a) *kak-i+r-um > *kak-i+y-um
(4b) *ki+r-um > *ki+y-um
(4c) *ki+r-um > *ki+y-um

Next is the palatalization of *ki to *t͡ɕi:

(5a) *kak-i+y-um > *kat͡ɕ-i+y-um
(5b) *ki+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-um
(5c) *ki+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-um

Next is a change that only affects ‘to write’, the coalescence of the *iy sequence to just palatalization on the proceeding consonant:

(6a) *kat͡ɕ-i+y-um > *kat͡ɕ+um
(6b) *t͡ɕi+y-um
(6c) *t͡ɕi+y-um

This complete coalescence could not occur in (6b) and (c) as it would obliterate the original root, which only is licit in the most frequent (in other words, irregular) verbs.

Penultimately, though this change is late it doesn’t necessarily have to be this late, the neutralization of syllable-final *m. and *n.:

(7a) *kat͡ɕ+um > *kat͡ɕ+un
(7b) *t͡ɕi+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-un
(7c) *t͡ɕi+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-un

Lastly, there is the morphological reanalysis of the auxiliary as part of the root, and the realis suffix as also having an imperfective meaning (expanding to take on an expanded version of the continuous function of the original auxiliary):

(8a) *kat͡ɕ+un > kat͡ɕ-un
(8b) *t͡ɕi+y-un > t͡ɕiy-un
(8c) *t͡ɕi+y-un > t͡ɕiy-un

As I mention in my reply on reddit, the one thing I don’t have a good explanation for is for “Naha” (lower class/innovative) forms like t͡ɕi-in ‘to cut, to wear’, It likely does not have anything to do with pitch accent (in some cases, a low pitch accent causes a vowel to lengthen in Naha but not Shuri), but instead likely caused by the difference in intensity between *i and *u, along with compensatory lengthening and morphological reanalysis.

(9a) kat͡ɕ-un (Naha as in Shuri)
(9b) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-un (coalesence of *i and *y) > *t͡ɕi-n (V2 elision) > *t͡ɕii-n (compensatory lengthening) > t͡ɕi-in
(9c) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-un (coalesence of *i and *y) > *t͡ɕi-n (V2 elision) > *t͡ɕii-n (compensatory lengthening) > t͡ɕi-in

Or something.

reddit user Hakaku proposes the widely re-ocurring change of *yu to *i, which is probably a more straightforward analysis. We’d end up with:

(10) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-in (coalesence of *yu to *i) > t͡ɕi-in (reanalysis, Naha form)

Simple verbs in Okinawan aren’t so simple

In the last post on this topic, I glossed over the development of the Modern Okinawan simple (imperfective) realis form from an earlier continuous realis form. This will be a short post simply describing what I think the series of phonological and morphological changes involved are.

For illustrative purposes, we’ll use the verb root √kak– ‘to write’. The original form would have been something like *kak-i+wor-um |write-INF+CONT-RLS|.

First, the evidence we have for the realis originally being *-um. In both Western and Eastern Old Japanese, we only find -u (or -i with r-irregular verbs) as what Vovin (2009: 595) calls the final predication form (what I call the realis form). However, the situation is different in the Ryūkyūan subgroup. In Okinawan, we find a number of forms ending in a nasal, as in the simple realis form, given in (1):

(1) kach-un |write-RLS| ‘[Someone] writes.’

The most crucial piece of evidence, however, is the realis form followed by the general question clitic =i. For instance:

(2) kach-um=i |write-RLS=GQ| ‘Does [someone] write?’

It appears that at some point in the history of Okinawan the distinction between syllable-final -m and -n was neutralized and we only find syllable-final -n. But in the form with the general question enclitic, there is resyllabification, and instead of being syllable-final, the underlying -m is now syllable-initial, and it is now licit for it to appear overtly as m. I will represent this underlying form as -uM.

The next point we need to explain is the palatalization of the verb root *√kak- with the realis suffix -un. There appears to be no overt synchronic motivation, but a diachronic explanation of a following infinitive form motivating the palatalization to *kat͡ɕ-i ( < *kakʲ-i. But -uM should not prompt the infinitive. The only reason we would expect the infinitive in this context is with an auxiliary verb. In Western Old Japanese, for instance, we find that nearly all of auxiliaries and some converbs following this pattern (such as the clause chaining converb -te, which always follows an infinitive), and even in Modern Japanese, we find compound verbs formed on this pattern (for instance, tob-i+kom-u |jump-INF+into-IPFV| ‘[Someone] jumps into [something]’).

Another neutralization involved the auxiliary verb wor- |CONT| (as a lexical verb ‘to exist’). This was caused by the addition of a pair of rules. The first mandated consonantal onsets to all morpheme-initial positions. For vowel-initial morphemes, this was satisfied by the addition of a glottal stop. Thus, PR *ame ‘rain’ (<  PJ *Samay1 ‘rain’) became pre-Modern Okinawan *ʔame ‘id.’. Additionally, the initial consonant of wo, especially after raising to wu, became optional and could be replaced by a hiatus. wor- is unaccented, and thus high register in all Okinawan varieties, but although short vowels tend to be higher in pitch than their long counterparts (an apparent phonetic universal), it is not clear how pitch would have interacted here (as the pitch accent pattern of a main verb + auxiliary verb compound would likely be different than the root verb).

The most contentious point is the V2 elision, due to the fact that V2 elision is a typological rare phenomenon. V2 elision is a process where a sequence of two vowels, V1 and V2, results in the second vowel, V2, being deleted and the first vowel, V1, remaining. I propose that in this case, the motivation is the relatively higher sonority of *i versus *o (or, if it raises in the Northern Ryūkyūan chain shift before this point, *u, which is even less sonorous). In any case, both the infinitive *-i and the entirety of the auxiliary of *or- must both delete, as there is no residue of either in Modern Okinawan.

As I just mentioned, the initial vowel of the auxiliary *or- |CONT| then deletes, and creates an illegal consonant cluster (all non-geminate consonant clusters are illegal in Modern Okinawan), which then simplifies by deleting the second consonant.

We are then left with just the realis form -uM, which becomes the new simple (imperfective) form of the verb, and does double duty contrasting with both the perfective aspect (an expansion from its original continuous aspect meaning), and with various other mood markers (like the adnominal2 -uru and the tentative -ura)

So schematically:

(3) *kak-i+wor-um
(introduction of contrast between o with a non-glottal onset, (w)o, and with a glottal onset, ʔo; hiatus optionally replaces glide)
(neutralization of syllable-final -n/-m contrast)
kakʲ-i+or-un (palatalization of k- due to following -i)
kakʲ-i+r-un (V2 elision of o)
kakʲ+r-un (deletion of due to palatalization of kʲ-)
kakʲ+un (deletion of r due to illegal consonant cluster)
kakʲ-un (reanalysis of auxiliary as suffix)
(affrication of kʲ- to t͡ɕ-)


(1) The *S stands for some sort of fricative. In certain compounds, ‘rain’ shows up with an initial s-. For instance, WOJ pîsamë ‘hail’ (< ‘ice’ +samë ‘rain’). Vovin (2010: 109) speculates that this may be PJ *z or *h.

(2) I consider the adnominal form a mood marker due to its interaction with so-called focus particles. In addition to being used to form relative clauses, it is obligatory when the emphatic focus particle =du is used in a sentence, like how the realis mood is typically obligatory, or how the tentative mood is used when the general question particle is unraised. Compare (4a), (b), and (c):

(4a) sumuchi=∅ kach-un
book=ACC write-RLS
‘[Someone] writes a book.’

(4b) sumuchi=du kach-uru
book=EFP write-ADN
‘[Someone] writes a book

(4c) sumuchi=ga kach-ura
book=IQ write-TENT
‘[Someone] writes a book?’


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

Vovin, Alexander. 2010. Koreo-Japonica: A Re-Evaluation of a Common Genetic Origin. Folkestone: Global Oriental.


∅ – null
– – morpheme boundary
+ – compound boundary
ACC – accusative case
ADN – adnominal mood marker
CONT – continuous aspect marker
EFP – emphatic focus particle
GQ – general question (yes/no-question) particle
INF – infitivie
IPFV – imperfective aspect marker
IQ – information question (wh-question) particle
RLS – realis mood marker
TENT – tentative mood marker

Translating the Chūzan Seikan — Part 1

The Ryūkyū Koku Chūzan Seikan (琉球國中山世鑑 ‘A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom’) was compiled in 1650 CE by Haneji Chōshū (羽地朝秀). It is written in Early Modern Japanese and Classical Chinese and details the Ryūkyū Kingdom. This translation is based on the Tajima manuscript, which has been digitized by the University of the Ryūkyūs Library. As per the name, this manuscript was copied by by Tajima Risaburō. Based on his other manuscripts, it was likely copied some time in the 1890s CE, but the exact date is unknown. Like most of Tajima’s manuscripts, it has extensive annotations, in three different colors of ink, though all are presumably by Tajima himself. They include exegesis on various aspects of the text, as well as quotations from the Omoro Sōshi and other works.

The first 15 pages consist of an introduction to the work and a genealogy of the Kings of Ryūkyū, written in Classical Chinese. I have chosen to start, rather than from the very beginning, at the initial portion written in Japanese. Additionally, there are no page numbers, so I start counting from the initial page of the manuscript, not including the cover. Thus, I start on the verso, or b, side of page 15, and for continuity’s sake, I stop shortly before the end of the page.

I first reproduce, with some modernizations due to font limitations, the original text. I then add my interlinear glossed interpretation of the text. This is, of course, a work in progress and there are bound to be errors. Next, I include a free translation. Finally, I include any commentary I feel is necessary.

Original text

(Page 15b)


(1) 曩昔天城ニ阿摩美久ト云神御坐シケリ天帝是ヲ召シ
(2) 宣ケルハ此下ニ神ノ可住多處有リ去レトモ未タ島ト
(3) 不成事コソクヤシケレ爾降リテ島ヲ可作トソ下知シ
(4) 給ケル阿摩美久畏リ降リテ見ルニ多地トハ見ニケレ
(5) トモ東海ノ浪ハ西海ニ打越シ西海ノ浪ハ東海ニ打越
(6) シテ未タ島トソ不成ケル去程ニ阿摩美久天ヘ上リ土
(7) 石草木ヲ給ハヲハ1嶋ヲ作リテ奉ントソ奏シケル天帝
(8) 睿慮感有テ土石草木ヲ給リテケレハ阿摩美久土石草木
(9) ヲ持下リ嶋ノ数ヲハ作リテケリ.

Transcription and Interlinear Gloss

(Page 15b)

Ryūkyū Kingdom Chūzan Historical.Record Scroll One

Ryūkyū Creation=GEN matter

once heaven castle=LOC Amamikyu say.DV say-ADN deity reside.HON-RETR-FIN Heavenly.Emperor her=ACC summon.HON-INF

(2) NOTAMAF-Iker-e-ba KOKO SITA=ni KAMI=no SUM-UBE-KI OFO-KI TOKORO Ar-i-sar-e-domo IMAda SIMA to
say.HON-RETR-EV-CONJ here below=LOC deity-GEN reside-DEB-ADN many-ADN place exist-INF-completely-EV-CONC yet island be.DV

(3) NAR-AZ-U KOTO=koso kuyashi-kere NANJI KUDAr-ite SIMA=wo TUKUR-UBE-SI to zo SITA SIRAs-i-
become-NEG-ADN matter EFP regretful-EV you descend-CC island=ACC make-DEB-FIN be.DV EFP below rule-INF-

(4) -TAMAF-Iker-u AMAMIKYU KASIKOMAr-i FUr-ite MI-ru=ni OFO-KI TOKORO to fa  MI-n-iker-e-
-HON-RETR-ADN Amamikyu obey-INF descend-CC look-ADN=LOC many-ADN place be.DV TOP see-PFV-RETR-EV-

(5) -domo TOUKAI=no NAMI fa SEIKAI=ni UT-I KOs-i SEIKAI=no NAMI fa TOUKAI=ni UT-I KO[s-ite]
-CONC Eastern.Sea4=GEN wave TOP Western.Sea=LOC hit-INF go.over-INF Western.Sea=GEN wave TOP Eastern.Sea=LOC hit-INF go.over-CC

yet island be.DV EFP become-NEG-RETR-ADN thus-exist-ADN degree=LOC Amamikyu heaven=ALL rise-INF earth

(7) ISI KUSA KI=wo TAMAfar-e-ba SIMA=wo TUKUr-ite TATEMATUR-Am-u to zo MAWOs-iker-u TENTEI
stone grass tree=ACC present-EV-CONJ island=ACC make-CC offer.HUM-TENT-FIN say.DV FPT say.HUM-RETR-ADN Heavenly.Emperor

Emperor’s.pleasure feeling exist-CC earth stone grass tree=ACC bestow-INF-exist-PFV-RETR-EV-CONJ Amamikyu earth stone grass tree

(9) =wo MOT-I KUDAr-i SIMA=no KAZU=woba TUKUr-ite-ker-i…
=ACC hold-INF bestow-INF island=GEN number=ACC.TOP make-PFV=RETR-FIN

Free Translation

A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Volume 1

On the Creation of the Ryūkyūs

Once, a goddess who was called Amamikyu lived in a Heavenly Castle. The Heavenly Emperor summoned her, and when he said, “Although there were many places below here where spirits resided, the fact that there were not yet islands was regrettable. You should go down to make islands.” ruling over the [lands] below. Amamikyu descended obediently and when she looked, although she saw that there were many lands, and waves washed from the Eastern Sea into the Western Sea, and washed from the Western Sea into the Eastern Sea, and yet, there were not islands. And then, Amamikyu said, “I will make and offer islands and present trees and grass and stone and earth to the the Heavens [for you].” The Heavenly Emperor was pleased and when he bestowed Amamikyu [with] trees and grass and stone and earth, Amamikyu made a number of islands and bestowed them with trees and grass and stone and earth.


(1) The Shimabukuro-bon (URI: is much clearer, with 給ハレハ tamafareba, which makes a lot more sense. Thanks to Matt Treyvaud for pointing this out to me.

(2) I had originally assumed that 曩昔 mukasi was something more complex. Matt Treyvaud pointed out an entry in 「日本国語大辞典」, which I don’t have access to at the moment, which has it simply as mukasi.

(3) It is generally assumed that Amamikyu—spelled <あまみきよ> in Old Okinawan, and pronounced as [amamit͡ɕuː] in Modern Okinawan—is partially cognate with Amami, as in the Amami Islands.

(4) In modern Okinawan, the Eastern Sea is [ʔagaɾinuʔumi], and the Western Sea is [niɕinuʔumi]. These correspond to the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, respectively.

Update 10 Jan. 2014

Fixed a few errors. Thanks to Matt Treyvaud for catching them. If anyone else has any comments, questions, or concerns, please feel free to contact me. As always, any mistakes remain my own.

Update 27 February 2016

Commentor David pointed out an important typo: the document was compiled in 1650, not 1605. This was a typo on my part, and is now corrected in the original text.


Haneji, Chōshū. 1605. Ryūkyū Koku Chūzan Seikan [A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom]. Copied by Tajima Risaburō, University of the Ryūkyūs Library manuscript.


ACC – accusative case
ADN – adnominal form
ALL – allative case (‘toward’)
CC – clause-chaining converb (‘and’)
CONC – concessive converb (‘although’)
CONJ – conjunctive converb (‘because’, ‘when’)
DEB – debitive mood
DV – defective verb
EFP – emphatic focus particle
EV – evidential mood
FIN – final form
GEN – genitive case
HON – honorific
INF – infinitive
LOC – locative case
NEG – negative
RETR – retrospective aspect
TENT – tentative mood
TOP – topic

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.

Some Nivkh vowel correspondences

While the likes of Robert Austerlitz and Roman Jakobson did some initial work reconstructing the language history of Nivkh, much remains, especially in terms of the vowel system of Nivkh.

Nivkh, a critically endangered language isolate spoken in the Russian Far East, can roughly be divided into two dialect groups: Amur-Northwest Sakhalin (abbreviated NWN) varieties and Southeast Sakhalin (abbreviated SEN) varieties. Speakers reportedly claim further differences to be small, and no thorough research has been done on the language up to this point (Shiraishi 2006: 10–12).

One interesting correspondence has to do with /ɨ/. It seems that at least two vowel phonemes underwent a merger to /ɨ/ in the Amur-Northwest Sakhalin varieties, but not in the Southeast Sakhalin varieties, which have either /ɨ/ or /a/. Some examples (all data taken from Savel’eva and Taksami 1970):

(1) NWN [mrɨ-] ‘to swim’
SEN [mra-] ‘to swim’

(2) NWN [ŋɨŋg] ‘hair’
SEN [ŋamx] ‘hair’
PN ?*ŋVmVk

(3) NWN [vɨlki] ‘chain’
SEN [valki] ‘chain’
PN ?*vVlki

(3) NWN [indɨ-] (with no direct object) ~ [ŋr̥ɨ-] (with no DO) ‘to see’
SEN [idɨ-] (w/ no DO) ~ [ŋr̥ɨ-] (/w DO) ‘to see’
PN ?*(i-)ŋr̥ɨ- ‘to see’

(4) NWN [kɨls] ‘length’
SEN [kɨlr̥] ‘length’

(2) is a bit suspicious, due to the number of changes needed between NWN [ŋɨŋg] and SEN [ŋamx]—the deletion of the second vowel, the assimilation of PN *m to NWN [ŋ] due to the following velar, the spirantization of PN *k to SEN [x], and the voicing assimilation of PN *mk to NWN [ŋg], but I think these forms are ultimately cognate.

Another interesting thing is the large number of consonant clusters found in Nivkh. This is unlike the situation found its neighbors, and, both internal variation as well as loanwords into Ainu and Ul’ta (Orok) make it clear that this vowel loss is recent. A good example of this is the word for ‘reindeer’, where we have good internal evidence, as well as good external evidence—the Nivkh word was loaned into Ainu and into Japanese.

(5) NWN [cʰolŋi]
SEN [tlaŋi]
PN ?*Tolanki
Sakhalin Ainu [tunakaj]
Japanese [tonakai]

It is likely that Nivkh /ŋ/ has a secondary origin, from earlier *nk. Also interesting, but perhaps not at all surprising, is the correspondence of Nivkh [l] to Sakhalin Ainu [n]—unsurprising because Ainu does not have [l]. The internal evidence points to just final *-i, while the external evidence points to a final diphthong, *-ai. Here I privileged the former kind of evidence over the latter.

Finally, I still have no good explanation for the distribution of [cʰ] and [t], which I reconstruct with the placeholder *T. Compare the above with the word for ‘tree’, which is frustratingly reversed in terms of which group has which consonant:

(6) NWN [tiɣr] ‘tree’
SEN [cʰxar̥] ‘tree’
PN ?*Tikar̥ (n.b., initial and medial fricatives are secondary in Nivkh)

Savel’eva, Valentina Nikolaevna and Chuner Mixaylovich Taksami. 1970. Nivxsko-Russkiy Slovar’ [Nivkh-Russian Dictionary]. Moscow: Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya.

Shiraishi, Hidetoshi. 2006. Topics in Nivkh Phonology. PhD dissertation: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.