Resource: Ryukyu Language Dictionaries

The Ryukyu-go onsei database 琉球語音声データベース, produced by the Okinawa Center of Language Study at the University of the Ryukyus, is easily one of the better online Japanese-Ryukyuan language dictionaries.

The site contains not only listings for the Shuri-Naha dialect – the main, central Okinawan dialect to which the term Uchinaa-guchi usually refers – but also for the Nakijin (northern Okinawa, Yanbaru) language, and has a sister site for dictionaries of the Amami and Miyako languages.1

The interface is quite simple: enter a standard Japanese word in kanji or hiragana, or a Ryukyuan term in katakana, and it will list a series of possibilities, and related terms. Click through, and it gives you the equivalent Ryukyuan or Japanese term.

This can be extremely helpful, as the vast majority of sites and books give only a Japanese (or Japanized) reading for Ryukyuan places, names, and terms. You could (and I have) look through numerous articles, books, and encyclopedia entries on textile arts & the history of trade and tribute, and find the lavish textiles of the Miyako Islands rendered only as Miyako jôfu (宮古上布), with no indication of the Okinawan term for this product. Is it myaaku uwa nunu (みゃーくうわぬぬ)? Or myaaku juufuu (みゃーくじゅーふー)? Alternatively, many sources will give a Ryukyuan term, without giving the corresponding Japanese term. For example, I have seen numerous sources use the terms udun and dunchi to refer to Ryukyuan elite residences (or their occupants), without any explanation that these would be rendered in kanji as 御殿 (J: goten, “palace”) and 殿内 (lit. “inside the palace”), respectively. Having such a dictionary can thus help greatly to clarify or illuminate the meanings of Ryukyuan terms.

That said, unfortunately, this online dictionary has some flaws. Firstly, its coverage is sadly rather hit-or-miss. For example, taking the term Miyako jôfu which I mentioned above, entering 「宮古上布」 into the dictionary yields no results, and entering either 「宮古」 (a pretty major island chain within the Ryukyus) or 「上布」 yields only results from the Nakijin language, and none from “standard” Okinawan (Shuri-Naha dialect). The dictionary also, for the most part, contains largely only comparatively regular, everyday, words, and not historical terms. Depending on what you’re using it for, then, the dictionary can, of course, be extremely useful, but for me personally, trying to figure out the “authentic” Okinawan terms for specific governmental posts, for example, rather than their Japanized equivalents, this dictionary was less than ideal. If you’re trying to figure out that the Dance Magistrate (躍奉行, J: odori bugyô) – a more significant office than you might think – would have been called udui bujô in Okinawan, this dictionary is not going to help you (and neither will the Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia).

I have also found the dictionary often has trouble with single characters – if you’re trying to search for how to say 鳥、船、馬、or 日 in Okinawan, you might find the search yields only error messages. Still, this is the best we have, and it’s still quite good for what it is.

In print form, the Okinawan-English Wordbook (U Hawaii Press, 2006) and the Okinawa-go jiten 沖縄語辞典 (Kenkyûsha, 2006) are probably two of the best. While there are a number of Okinawan language guides and textbooks (which I don’t know well enough to comment on), I believe that most if not all of the other dictionaries I have come across have been rather expensive affairs.

The Wordbook is written entirely in English & romaji (romanization), with no kanji at all.
This obviously has certain advantages, for Anglophone scholars, journalists, or others trying to investigate something about Okinawa without having more extensive Japanese language ability, and for those of Okinawan descent trying to learn their ancestral language (or just some phrases) without having to go through years of Japanese first. The ability to search in English, and to look up Okinawan terms and get a direct English meaning without having to go through a Japanese intermediary stage, is also quite helpful even for those of us with stronger Japanese ability.

The book begins with a brief section explaining Okinawan grammar, verb conjugations, pronunciation, and so forth. Though it’s short, this really provides the reader with all the basics – while formal lessons, textbooks with example sentences & fuller explanations, and the like would certainly be preferable, I imagine one could begin experimenting with forming simple sentences from this Wordbook alone.

The rest of the book consists chiefly of Okinawan->English dictionary listings, with an English->Okinawan index in the back. Where there is a directly related or equivalent Japanese term, this is also given in romaji. For example, a listing might look like this:

chura-kaagi, n. [kiyora+kage] Beauty.

This “wordbook” is a great resource, but it is unfortunately rather less extensive than a full dictionary. However, Profs. Stewart Curry & Leon Serafim are reportedly in the process of compiling a new edition which will help to rectify this.

The Okinawa-go jiten serves much the same purposes as the online dictionary, and has many of the same advantages. Because it uses kana and kanji (rather than romaji), it is very easy to see what the equivalent or directly related Japanese term is – and this can also help one to understand the nuance or meaning of a term. Sometimes, it even gives the directly equivalent kanji term, and then also a different explanation or translation in Japanese, where the nuances of meaning are actually different between the languages. For example, since Okinawan uses chimu (肝, J: kimo, E: liver) where Japanese would use kokoro (心, “heart”), one ends up with dictionary entries like: 「チムサワジ 【肝騒ぎ】胸騒ぎ、漠然たる不安、心配などで心が穏やかでないこと。」

Another nice feature of this dictionary is that it gives examples of compound phrases. Opening to ヌブイ (上り, J: nobori, E: “to go up”), for example, I find the entry offers: 「スイヌブイ(首里上り)、ヤマトゥヌブイ(大和上り、本土へ行くこと)」, showing how it’s used to mean “to go (up) to Shuri [the Ryukyuan royal capital],” and “to go (up) to Japan.”

This dictionary also has a section in front explaining grammar, pronunciation, verb conjugation and so forth, and a Japanese->Okinawan index to complement the Okinawan->Japanese core of the volume. There is also a brief section which gives the ryûka poems, and kumi udui theatre lines from which some of the words were plucked, thus providing a fuller context, along with Japanese translation of the full poem or line.

The Okinawa-go jiten has some of the same disadvantages, or problems, as the online dictionary, though, in that it includes mostly only “regular” words, and while there are many cultural terms included, there are also a great many which are absent. Miyako jôfu, one of the chief famous “local products” (meibutsu) of the prefecture, and historically a major tribute good sent by the Ryukyu Kingdom to China and Japan, doesn’t appear in this dictionary at all, for example, and neither does hachimachi (鉢巻, J: hachimaki), the court caps worn by aristocrats which, by their color, indicated the wearer’s rank.

For family names, personal names, and placenames, though, at least we have Shunzô Sakamaki’s Ryukyuan Names (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1964). The book doesn’t seem to be too easily accessible commercially (as I write this, Amazon is right now showing just two copies from third-party sellers, each for US$99.99), but for those with access to a university library, it shouldn’t be difficult to get your hands on a copy. Sakamaki lists thousands of names and placenames, along with variant forms – varying either within standard Okinawan, or because of varying degrees of Japanization. For example, the name Kinjô 金城 is a Japanization of the Okinawan name Kanagusuku or Kanagushiku, and can also be Japanized as Kaneshiro. A very useful resource, indeed, for trying to figure out the pronunciation (reading) of Okinawan names, or for trying to figure out the de-Japanized version.

Outside of fuller textbooks that walk you through lessons in learning the language, these are the main resources of which I am aware. If you know of any others that you would recommend, please let us know!

1) Though all of the Ryukyuan languages are often referred to as “dialects”, or hôgen 方言, they are to a considerable extent not mutually intelligible with one another, nor with Japanese, and are thus considered by most linguists to be distinct languages.

About Travis

I am a scholar of Japanese & Okinawan history with a particular interest in the history of arts and culture, and inter-Asia interactions, in the early modern period. I have been fortunate to enjoy the opportunity to live in Okinawa for six months in 2016-17, and in mainland Japan on multiple occasions, including from Sept 2019 to now.
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