Matt of No-sword has posted about a website that purports to give lessons in the reconstructed Japanese of the Jōmon period (or Joumon, as Matt prefers to call it). Apparently there’s controversy over whether the Jomon people even spoke Japanese, but as Matt says, it’s “cool to hear this stuff spoken instead of just read it on a page.” The example sentence Matt gives is 私は赤い着物が好きです。 (aba akaki kOrOmObO kOnOmibumu, ‘I like red clothes’); you can hear it spoken here (mpg file). I expect those of my readers who know about this stuff to tell me about the linguistic issues involved.


  1. I look forward to a similar website dealing with Proto-World.

  2. Man, if I’d knew you were going to quote that sentence I’d of wrote it more gooder.

  3. Ian Myles Slater says:

    Is anyone else reminded by this of “Schleicher’s Fable”?
    I refer to the little story about a sheep and a horse, composed by August Schleicher in his own reconstruction of “Proto-Indo-European” in 1868, and its various improved versions over the following hundred and thirty-some years.
    (Schleicher’s text, which was soon found unsatisfactory, and two of the three later versions, those by Hermann Hirt and by Winfred Lehmann and Ladislav Zgusta, with an English translation, can be found at

  4. It’s a pity that Wikipedia doesn’t have the most recent version of the tale that appeared in the EIEC. It’s pretty wild, distinguishing as it does laryngeals phonetically instead of just algebraically.

  5. Neat! How’s that pronounced in modern Japanese.

  6. Well, aba would be watakushi wa, akaki would be akai, and kOrOmObO would be koromo o; for the rest, you’ll have to ask somebody who actually knows what’s going on.

  7. The sentence in modern Japanese would be pronounced “Watashi wa akai kimono ga suki desu” and it is a translation into modern Japanese using completely different words, not a written fragment that can be read both ways (i.e. KOrOmO is, supposedly, the archaic form of the obsolete Japanese word “koromo”, not the modern word “kimono.”) You would need to use different characters and kana if you were actually attempting to transcribe the “Jomon speech” into Japanese writing.

  8. Yes, what vanya says. Most serious linguistic coverage of Old Japanese just uses romaji, to avoid the issue of which kana means which sound in which period and location, and also to handle the extra vowels. From memory, this site does include katakana in its videos, but that’s just to be more accessible.
    Minor nitpick/fun fact: in up-to-date modern Japanese you would probably say “fuku” (Chinese loanword for “clothing”) or “youfuku” (literally “western clothing”) instead of “kimono”, because as Japanese people adopted Western dress styles, “kimono” became more associated with traditional-style kimono specifically rather than clothing in general. (Even though the word “kimono” literally just means “thing you wear”.)

  9. Jimmy Ho says:

    I guess Jômon-speaking people have pretty conservative customs and wouldn’t wear 洋服.

  10. caffeind says:

    I think youfuku specifically means business suit.

  11. Matt, What was the Joumon word for 褌 ‘loincloth’?

  12. Jimmy: Zing!
    Caffeind: Hmm… it might have meant that back when Japan was first seriously Westernizing and the men were ahead of the women in adopting Western clothes, but if so that’s not the case any more. If anything I want to say that it has a slightly feminine ring (it very often gets the honorific/feminine “o-” prefix), but that might just be because the men of my acquaintance talk less about clothes than the women. Nowadays “suutsu” or, mustier, “sebiro” would be more common to specify a suit I think.
    Joel: Good question. Would you believe that I actually looked up the etymology for fundoshi once? Unfortunately, it’s inconclusive. Neither fundoshi nor the variant fudoshi are attested any earlier than the Edo period, and where they came from hasn’t been pinned down. One common explanation is fumi-tooshi, i.e. “step through”. Other people claim it has something to do with ancient words for horse reins (talk about machismo) that I forget right now. Then there is the variation on fumi-tooshi which replaces the “fumi” with “fun”, i.e., crap. Scholarship at its best.

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