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Japanese Dialects: Kansai

Japanese Dialects

As in many countries, numerous dialects are spoken in Japan. An island nation, the country was isolated from the rest of the world until late in the 19th century. In addition, areas of the country were effectively isolated from each other due to the many shogunates. Hence, different dialects developed and have endured.

Japanese dialects can be divided into two principal types, the Tokyo type and the Kyoto-Osaka type. In other words, there is north-south divide.


What is standard Japanese?


What is standard Japanese?

During the era of modernisation in the late 19th century, a standard form of Japanese was promoted by both the government and the intellectuals of the day. Regional languages and dialects were suppressed and characterised as inferior. This suppression continued into the 20th century and had peaked by the 1960s. But the regional dialects survived and are now valued as both uplifting and markers of local identity.


Until the Edo period (1603 – 1867) the Kansai dialect was essentially standard Japanese. However, during the Edo period, Edo (Tokyo) became the largest city in Japan and the dialect of this region was to be adopted as hyojun-go (standard Japanese).


What is Kansai?

Kansai, also referred to as Kansai-ben is a dialect of the Kyoto-Osaka type. It is spoken in the region that includes the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Kansai is the best known and most widely spoken Japanese dialect. It is considered to be a more melodic and yet harsher dialect than standard Japanese.


The term Kansai-ben actually describes a group of dialects spoken in the region but is commonly used to refer to the dialect spoken in Osaka, the largest city in the Kansai region. Kansai-ben has evolved over the years as it has been impacted both by standard Japanese and overseas influences.

Kansai is notable for featuring in Japanese pop culture. Numerous entertainers, comedians and talk-show hosts hail from the Kansai region and use Kansai-ben in their performances.


Kansai Phonology

The Kansai dialect features strong vowels whereas the Tokyo dialect is characterised by strong consonants. However, the phonemes (distinct units of sound) used are similar.

Vowel reduction at the end of words is rarer in Kansai than it is in standard Japanese. /ai, ae, oi/ sounds are usually pronounced distinctly whereas in Tokyo dialects they are often expressed as /e:/.

Kansai Phonology

In Kanai, there is a tendency to lengthen vowel sounds at the end of nouns where the final syllable boasts a single constituent (mora) in standard Japanese. But conversely, the longer vowel sounds found in standard Japanese are often shortened in Kansai.

Vowels and semivowels that follow /I/ and /e/ are sometimes palatalized in Kansai to produce a more guttural sound.

The [dzi] and [dzw] sounds of standard Japanese are often replaced with [zi] and [zu] in Kansai. In addition, /h/ is sometimes used in place of /s/ while /m/ is sometimes used in place of /b/.

The /r/ + vowel in  verb conjugations is sometimes changed to /N/ in Kansai.


Kansai pitch

Native Japanese speakers can identify the Kansai dialect by pitch accent alone. The Tokyo accent distinguishes words only by a downstep (where a high pitch begins to fall) but in Kansai, words are also distinguished by initial tones. This is why the Kansai dialect features more pitch patterns than standard Japanese, hence the sense that it is more melodic.


Kansai grammar

The Kansai dialect also differs grammatically from standard Japanese.

In Kansai, classical Japanese words and structures are often contracted. Such contractions are rare in standard Japanese. Verb conjugations can also vary from those of standard Japanese.

Double consonant sounds in standard Japanese verbs may be replaced by long vowels in Kansai and auxiliary verbs are often contracted.

The Japanese language features a causative verb ending /-aseru/  and this is usually replaced with /-asu/ in Kansai dialect. Similarly, the potential verb endings /-eru/ and /-rareru/ are often shortened to /-reru/.

The negative forms of verbs in Kansai vary from those of standard Japanese. In Kansai negatives the [nai] part of the verb is replaced [hen].

There is no specific conjugation for the presumptive form of adjectives in the Kansai dialect, /jaro/ is added to the plain form. Polite suffixes are also used.


Politeness


Keigo (honorific speech) is used more frequently in Kansai than in other regional dialects but not more than in standard Japanese to which people tend to switch in formal situations. There was a time when standard Japanese did not feature Keigo. It was later borrowed from the medieval Kansai dialect. However, despite being derived from the same dialect, keigo in Kansai does differ in some respects from Kaigo in standard Japanese.


Distinctive Kansai words and phrases

Kansai words and phrases

There are far too many nuances of the Kansai dialect to fully explain here. We would also struggle to list every word or phrase that you may encounter in the Kansai region. But we can give you a few examples:






  • Ookini – a contraction of several phrases that began with this word which means “thank you” and is comparable to the standard Japanese “arigato”.

  • Nambo – a word meaning “how much”. It reflects Osaka’s history as Japan’s trading centre.

  • Shaa-nai – roughly meaning “that’s how it goes” is equivalent to “shiyo ga nai” or “shikata ga nai” in standard Japanese.

  • Bochi-bochi – a contraction of “bochi-bochi denna”, a response to being asked how things are going for you which means so-so. The equivalent phrase in standard Japanese is “botsu-botsu”.

  • Maido – means “good afternoon” and is the equivalent of the standard Japanese word “konnichiha”.

  • Cyau – means “wrong” or “incorrect”. The standard Japanese word with the same meaning is “chigau”.

  • Hayo – a word meaning “quickly” that is equivalent to standard Japanese “hayaku”.


In summary


Kansai differs from standard Japanese in terms of pitch, intonation, grammar and vocabulary. As such, it is truly a dialect and not merely an accent. We have outlined several of the significant differences between Kansai and standard Japanese, but we would need to write a book to fully explore Kansai-ben! To complicate matters further, Kansai-ben is a group of dialects which have commonalities, but which are each unique to at least some degree. Several books would be required to explain each of these in detail!

Noel Myatt

4 min read

Mar 27

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