Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons - Exhibit in the Etnografiska museet, Stockholm, Sweden

Ca’ Foscari holds the first Ainu language course in Europe

"Two hunting brothers are looking for a trick to get hold of the meat of a large walrus, without harming it. The first brother tricks the walrus by proposing to help it get rid of the louses. In this way, he manages to grab the meat, which represents the loot, but thanks the animal and lets it go. The second brother uses the same trick but mocks the walrus instead. Disrespect will be punished by death".

This story, titled Etaspe Komuy, is just one example of the many folklore tales in the Ainu language, a language spoken by an ethnic group in northern Japan, specifically on the island of Hokkaidō (the northernmost in Japan), in the Kuril Islands, in the northern part of Honshū, and in the southern part of the Russian island of Sakhalin. The Ainu dialect of Sakhalin can today be considered extinct, while that of Hokkaidō is still spoken.

Tales and legends were handed down orally by the village elders, who enshrined the memory of the oral Ainu culture. If we consider that the Ainu people were mammal hunters and that wild animals were considered divinities, this story emphasises the importance of a harmonious relationship between men, gods and nature, connected to an animistic conception of the universe. Disrespect of one's prey is in therefore punished.

Ca’ Foscari hosts about 1,000 Japanese students and is currently the first university in Europe to offer a real Ainu language curricular course, held by professor Elia Dal Corso, a former Ca’ Foscari graduate in Japanese. For the “Japanese Studies” series by Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, Prof. Dal Corso will shortly publish an Ainu language manual entitled “Materials and methods of analysis for the study of the Ainu language”.

Currently, Ainu speakers are mainly bilingual (Japanese-Ainu), who have learned Ainu as a second language, especially within their family. As a matter of fact, after the 1950s the Ainu language was no longer handed down, also due to political oppression of this ethnic minority, whose culture has been gradually absorbed by the Japanese one.

The last traces of the longest-lived generations of native speakers date back 2000s, yet these were people who mainly spoke Japanese in their daily lives. Although Ainu linguistic revitalisation projects have recently been developed, this language is not used in Japan and is not even taught at any level of compulsory education – with the sole exception of specific courses and of some private contexts.

Studying the language and culture of the “bear worshippers” and “tattooed women” helps students of Japanese language and culture to keep in mind a linguistically and culturally layered conception of Japan. The course is also open to Chinese and Korean learners.

Prof. Dal Corso, how did your studies in the Ainu language begin and what appealed you?

I became interested in the Ainu population while attending a master's degree course in history of Japan: I was fascinated by the diversity of the language and grammar of this ethnic group in the Japanese context. I approached the Ainu language driven by curiosity, studying a grammar used in BALI (Linguistic Area Library). Then curiosity turned into a real passion: I started to read some texts stored in online Japanese archives and I started my PhD in linguistics on the Ainu language.

What is the origin of the Ainu ethnic group?

The origin of the Ainu ethnic group is uncertain and there are several theories in this regard. According to the most corroborated assumption, these populations from Central Asia or even from the Caucasus travelled up to the Japanese archipelago pushed by migration flows. Other theories argue that these populations may represent a case of return migration from North America.

What are the linguistic characteristics of Ainu and how does it differ from Japanese?

The origin of this language is very ancient. It is an isolated language unrelated to other languages spoken ​​in the area and in the rest of the world. It is very different from Japanese and it does not even belong to the same language family. It resembles Japanese for some structures (subject-complement - verb at the end of the sentence), but it has a different syllabic structure: in Ainu we can find consonants at the end of the syllable, while in Japanese this never happens.
This language adopts more informal expressions and a more detailed lexicon (such as that related to hunting and shamanic or purification rites), which, depending on the period of the year were considered taboos, and could only be used under certain circumstances by people holding specific roles (for example shamans).

In your opinion, why should a Japanese learner study Ainu?

From a linguistic standpoint, Japan is made up of many dialects as well as the languages ​​spoken in the Ryūkyū Islands and Ainu. These have long been regarded as dialects and this has also led to the current uncertain situation of Ainu. Therefore, the Japanese linguistic reality is extremely varied, not only as regards the dialects but also in relation to linguistic contexts not related to Japanese such as, precisely, the Ainu language. For those interested in the Japanese linguistic reality, it is crucial to bear in mind this aspect that contrasts and enriches the image, consolidated within Japan, of a perfectly monolingual country, centred on the standard Japanese of the capital.

What sources can be used to study this language?

Ainu was born as a predominantly oral language which was later supported by a written language, developed by scholars (first Japanese and then also European). Initially, people wrote under dictation, although some recordings are available too. The testimonies mainly concern folklore tales transcribed from the 1900s onwards, but unfortunately very few recordings and transcriptions of daily conversations are available today.

What are the most fascinating aspects for Japanese learners who decide to study this language?

Currently, we have approximately forty attendees of this course, including students present in class, and students attending in dual mode. Ainu is an isolated language and not related to other known languages. Students are therefore fascinated by the idea of ​​being able to understand the mechanisms of a completely new language in a short time (two semesters) and to become familiar with its culture. I also try to involve them by using a very active teaching approach: students are guided to perform independent text analysis work to understand the use of this language on their own, and this makes them proud. The course aims to be an interactive workshop, based on the use of texts and audio materials, and promotes the sharing of ideas among students during the analysis of the sources.