The New York Times reports today on a study which identifies the origin of the Japonic language family with the Yayoi people who came to Japan from Korea around 2200-3000 years ago.
This is one field I have never really kept up with – and it’s quite complicated and controversial – so I don’t know how up to date or widely accepted the essential assumptions here are. The assumption that the Yayoi people came from Korea, bringing with them rice growing culture, and taking over the islands, displacing the Jomon people who then assimilated into the new Yayoi-dominant society and ethnicity. The assumption that this all began around 2200-3000 years ago.
Furthermore, maybe it’s just because I don’t understand linguistics, but I have a hard time understanding how the methods of this study work. Basically, it seems they used some kind of algorithm or program to estimate the dating of the origins of the language family based on knowing the dating of later changes (e.g. the shifts from Old Japanese to Middle Japanese, the split between Tokyo and Kyoto dialects beginning around 1603, and the split between Japanese and Ryukyuan occurring apparently sometime around 600-700 CE), and on the pace at which languages gradually change over time.
If that’s all they’re going on, I find it difficult to understand how this all works, or how the findings could possibly be considered valid. Languages change at different rates, after all, and the rate of change itself also changes over time, presumably, depending on any number of factors, including isolation and interaction. The imposition in the Meiji period of a nation-wide standard version of Japanese aside, there is a reason that Japanese is largely mutually intelligible (largely the same language) throughout Tohoku down to Kyushu, and yet the native languages of many of the individual Ryukyuan islands are not mutually intelligible from island to island – because the language shifted at different rates in different places under different circumstances.
Well, in any case, if the professional linguists and archaeologists, i.e. the scholarly community, wants to accept this, then I certainly will take them on their word. An interesting find, to be sure. Though, seeing as how this is coming from the New York Times, and not from any scholarly journal or anything, I wonder if it’s old news, or if there’s more out there on this study? Anyone?