Saving a Language: Okinawan Words + Phrases for More Than Just Travel

May 4, 2017

Dubbed the “Japanese Hawaii”, the tropical islands of Okinawa sits off the southwestern tip of the Japanese archipelago, wedged between Japan’s mainland and Taiwan. Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) is spoken in the central and southern parts of the island and is the local language featured in tourist messaging. Along with Amami, Kunigami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni spread throughout more than 160 islands, it’s one of six existing Ryukyu languages from the once-independent Ryukyu Kingdom.

When Japan annexed Okinawa in 1879, it sought to diminish the Okinawan language by imposing strict assimilation policies to replace Okinawan languages with the Japanese language, and prohibited the locals to speak Okinawan in public. The assimilation into Japanese society proved to be detrimental to the Okinawan culture, as its native tongues are now endangered languages. Languages that once flourished in the Ryukyu Kingdom are rarely spoken in daily life today, but can still be found in traditional performing arts and is preserved by the local elders.

Did you know? In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that all six Ryukyu languages are on course for extinction by 2050 if no counter-measures are taken to preserve the language.

You can get around Okinawa without knowing Uchinaaguchi and you’ll certainly surprise the locals with your language skills (or maybe they won’t understand a word you’re saying) since standard Japanese is the official and most widely spoken language in Okinawa. Talk story with the locals and connect with the Okinawan people with these top 5 Okinawan words you should at least know:

Haisai / Haitai

Haisai can mean good morning, good day, good afternoon and is a universal greeting for any time of the day. Haitai is a derivative used by females to induce a more polite, softer tone to the greeting.

Mensore

Similar to “Yokoso” or “Aloha”, mensore is Okinawa’s greeting to welcome tourists to the islands.

Nifee Debiru

Niffee debiru is an expression of gratitude and appreciation, usually preceeded by ippee to say “Thank you very much!”

Maasan

How do you describe something that tastes good?

Karii

It’s no secret that drinking is a popular Japanese social activity and it’s certainly the same in Okinawa. Before taking a swig of your cold Orion beer, say cheers with a karii toast.

Greetings

Hello
Haisai / Haitai
ほいさい / ほいたい

Good Morning
Ukimi Soochii
うきみそーちー

Good Day
Chuu Wuganabira
ちゅーをぅがなびら

Good Night
Uyukuimi Soori
うゆくいみそおり

Goodbye
Guburii Sabira
ぐぶりーさびら

Please
Unige Sabida
うにげさびだ

Thank You
Nifee Deebiru
にふぇーでーびる

Excuse Me
Guburii Sabura
ぐぶりいさぶら

Sorry
Wassaibiin
わっさいびーん

Conversation

Yes
Uu
うう

No
Wuuwuu
をぅうをぅう

My name is…
Wannee … yaibiin.
わんねー … やいびーん。

How are you?
Hajimiti wuganabira
はじめてぃ をぅがなびら

Fine, thank you.
Uu ganjuu sooi biin.
うう がんじゅうそおいびいん。

Nice to meet you.
Yutasarugutu unigeesabira.
ゆたさるぐつうにげえさびら。

How much is this?
Uree chassa yaibiiga?
うれえちゃっさやいびいが

What’s this?
Kuree nuu yaibiiga?
くれえ ぬうやいびいが

Do you have…?
…aibiinaa?
…あいびいなあ

Do you speak English?
Eigo nu hanashiyabiimi?
エイゴ ぬ はなしやびいみ

I don’t understand
Wakayabiran
わかやびらん

Eating Out

I’d like… / I want to eat…
…kami-busaibiin.
…かみぶさいびいん。

Delicious
Maasan
まあさん

Cheers
Karii
かりー

Getting Around

Bus
Basu
バス

Rail
Rail
Rail

Car
Car
くるま

Taxi
Takushii
タクシー

Bike
Baiku
バイク

Airport
Kuko
くうこ

Where is…?
…-ya maa yaibiiga?
…-や まあ やびいが

I’m lost.
Michi bappe saibitan.
みち ばっぺ さびたん。

Numbers

One
Tiichi
Bus

Two
Taachi
たあち

Three
Miichi
みいち

Four
Yuuchi
ゆうち

Five
Ichichi
いちち

Six
Muuchi
むうち

Seven
Nanachi
ななち

Eight
Yaachi
やあち

Nine
Kukunuchi
くくぬち

Ten
Tu

It’s a Language, Not a Dialect

Language is at the heart of Okinawa’s culture, so let’s promote and preserve Uchinaaguchi with the intent of changing the course of it’s future. Learn the language, share a connection with the local people and be a part of the growing movement to perpetuate a language rich in history and culture.

I’ve scoured the web to curate this travel phrase list based on limited and inconsistent online resources. Don’t take the information in this post as fact. Leave a digital note below if you’d like to contribute or make corrections to this list.

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3 Comments

  1. Jeremiah Tobin

    I see changes since I left in 1960. The Okinawans that I knew called their language “Hogan”. Thank you was Nihee Debiru. Where is was just …ya maiaga. Although I spoke it fairly well at the time I have forgotten a lot over the past 60 years. Wa meant “I” or “my”. II meant “you” or “your”.

    Reply

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