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Ainu (Ainu: , aynu itak; Japanese: ainu-go; Cyrillic alphabet: ) is an Ainu language spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidōmarker.

Until the twentieth century, Ainu languages were also spoken throughout the southern half of the island of Sakhalinmarker and by small numbers of people in the Kuril Islandsmarker. All but the Hokkaidō language are extinct, with the last speaker of Sakhalin Ainu having died in 1994, and Hokkaidō Ainu is moribund, though there are ongoing attempts to revive it.

Ainu has no generally accepted genealogical relationship to any other language family. For the most frequent proposals, see Ainu languages.


Ainu is a moribund language, and has been endangered for at least the past few decades. Most of the 25,000 – 200,000 ethnic Ainu in Japan speak only Japanese. In the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Hokkaidō) where many of the remaining native speakers live, there are 100 speakers, out of which only 15 used the language every day in the late 1980s.

However, use of the language is on the rise. There is currently an active movement to revitalize the language — mainly in Hokkaidō but also elsewhere — to reverse the centuries-long decline in the number of speakers. This has led to an increasing number of second-language learners, especially in Hokkaidō, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of the late Ainu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, himself a native speaker.


Ainu syllables are CV(C) (that is, they have an obligatory syllable onset and an optional syllable coda) and there are few consonant clusters.

There are five vowels:
The vowels of Ainu
  Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

The consonants of Ainu
  Bilabial Labio-

Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal

The glottal stop only occurs at the beginning of words, before an accented vowel. The sequence is realized as , and becomes before and at the end of syllables. The affricate has voiced and post-alveolar variants. There is some variation among dialects; in the Sakhalinmarker dialect, syllable-final , , , lenited and merged into . After an , this is pronounced .

There is a pitch accent system. The accentuation of specific words varies somewhat from dialect to dialect. Generally, words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong, while other words have the high pitch on the second syllable, although there are exceptions to this generalization.

Typology and grammar

Ainu is SOV, with postpositions. Subject and object are usually marked with postpositions. Nouns can cluster to modify one another; the head comes at the end. Verbs, which are inherently either transitive or intransitive, accept various derivational affixes.

Typologically, Ainu is similar in word order (and some aspects of phonology) to Japanese.

Ainu traditionally featured incorporation of nouns and adverbs; this is rare in the modern colloquial language.

Applicatives may be used in Ainu to place nouns in the dative, instrumental, comitative, locative, allative, or ablative roles. Besides freestanding nouns, these roles may be assigned to incorporated nouns, and such use of applicatives is in fact mandatory for incorporating oblique nouns. Like incorporation, applicatives have grown less common in the modern language.

Ainu has a closed class of plural verbs, and some of these are suppletive.


Officially, the Ainu language is written in a modified version of the Japanese katakana syllabary. There is also a Latin-based alphabet in use. The Ainu Times publishes in both. In the Latin orthography, is spelt c and as y; , which only occurs initially before accented vowels, is not written. Other phonemes use the same character as the IPA transcription given above. An equals sign (=) is used to mark morpheme boundaries, such as after a prefix. Its pitch accent is denoted by acute accent in Latin (e.g. á). This is usually not denoted in katakana.

Special katakana for the Ainu language

A Unicode standard exists for a set of extended katakana (Katakana Phonetic Extensions) for transliterating the Ainu language and other languages written with katakana.[10979],[10980] These characters are used to write final consonants and sounds that cannot be expressed using conventional katakana. The extended katakana are based on regular katakana and either are smaller in size or feature a handakuten. As few fonts yet support these extensions, workarounds exist for many of the characters, such as the small katakana ku used as in (Aynu itak).

This is a list of special katakana used in transcribing the Ainu language. Most of the characters are of the extended set of katakana, though a few have been used historically in Japanese , and thus are part of the main set of katakana. A number of previously proposed characters have not been added to Unicode as they can be represented as a sequence of two existing codepoints.

Character Unicode Appearance Name Ainu usage
31F0 Katakana Letter Small Ku Final k
31F1 Katakana Letter Small Shi Final s
31F2 Katakana Letter Small Su Final s, used to emphasize it's pronounced rather than normal . and are allophones in Ainu.
31F3 Katakana Letter Small To Final t
31F4 Katakana Letter Small Nu Final n
31F5 Katakana Letter Small Ha Final h , succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. ah) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F6 Katakana Letter Small Hi Final h , succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. ih) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F7 Katakana Letter Small Fu Final h , succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. uh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F8 Katakana Letter Small He Final h , succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. eh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F9 Katakana Letter Small Ho Final h , succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. oh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31FA Katakana Letter Small Mu Final m
31FB Katakana Letter Small Ra Final r , succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. ar)
31FC Katakana Letter Small Ri Final r , succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. ir)
31FD Katakana Letter Small Ru Final r , succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. ur)
31FE Katakana Letter Small Re Final r , succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. er)
31FF Katakana Letter Small Ro Final r , succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. or)
Rejected characters (Unicode represents them using combining characters)
31F7 + 309A Katakana Letter Small Pu Final p
30BB + 309A Katakana Letter Se With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark ce
30C4 + 309A Katakana Letter Tu With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark tu. ツ゜ and ト゜ are interchangeable.
30C8 + 309A Katakana Letter To With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark tu. ツ゜ and ト゜ are interchangeable.

Basic syllables






a ア

i イ

u ウ

e エ

o オ


ka カ

ki キ

ku ク

ke ケ

ko コ



sa シャ/サ 2

si シ

su シュ/ス 2

se シェ/セ 2

so ショ/ソ 2

-s / 2


ta タ

ci チ

tu ト゜/ツ゜ 2

te テ

to ト

-t /ッ 3


~ 1
ca チャ

ci チ

cu チュ

ce チェ

co チョ


na ナ

ni ニ

nu ヌ

ne ネ

no ノ

-n /ン 4

, , 5
h 6

ha ハ

hi ヒ

hu フ

he ヘ

ho ホ

-h 6







pa パ

pi ピ

pu プ

pe ペ

po ポ



ma マ

mi ミ

mu ム

me メ

mo モ



ya ヤ

yu ユ

ye イェ

yo ヨ


ra ラ

ri リ

ru ル

re レ

ro ロ

-ar 2

-ir 2

-ur 2

-er 2

-or 2

-r 2


wa ワ

wi ウィ/ヰ 2

we ウェ/ヱ 2

wo ウォ/ヲ 2

1: k, t, c, p are sometimes voiced respectively. It doesn't change the meaning of a word, but it sounds more rough/masculine. When they are voiced, they may be written as g, d, j, dz, b, ガ, ダ, ヂャ, ヅァ, バ, etc.
2: Both used according to actual pronunciations, or to writer's preferred styles.
3: ッ is final t at the end of a word. (e.g. pet = ペッ = ペ) In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it's a final consonant preceding the initial with a same value. (e.g. orta /otta/ = オッタ. オタ is not preferred.)
4: At the end of a word, n can be written either or ン. In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it's ン. (e.g. tan-mosir = タンモシ = タ+モシ, but not タモシ.)
5: before , before , elsewhere. Unlike Japanese, it does not become other sounds such as nasal vowels.
6: Initial h and final h are different phenomes. Final h exists in Sakhalin dialect only.


Final is spelt y in Latin, small ィ in katakana. Final is spelt w in Latin, small ゥ in katakana. is spelt ae, アエ, or アェ.

Example with initial k:
kay kuy koy kaw kiw kew key
カィ クィ コィ カゥ キゥ ケゥ コゥ ケィ

Since the above rule is used systematically, some katakana combinations have different sounds from conventional Japanese.

ウィ クィ スィ ティ トゥ フィ
Ainu ,
Japanese ~

Long vowels

There are long vowels in Sakhalin dialect. Either circumflex or macron is used in Latin, long vowel sign (ー) is used in katakana.

Example with initial k:
カー キー クー ケー コー

Oral literature

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called Yukar, which retain a number of grammatical and lexical archaisms.

See also

References and further reading

External links


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