An Overview of Tsugaru-ben
Introduction to the Dialect
Tsugaru-ben is the dialect spoken in the Tsugaru region of Japan, which covers the western part of Aomori prefecture at the nothernmost tip of the main Japanese island of Honshu. It falls within the category of Tohoku dialects, and as such, shares similarities to neighboring regions.
Tsugaru holds the distinction of being one of the most difficult dialects to understand in Japan, which may be a result of its location at the most northern part of the island of Honshu, the geographic seclusion of the Tsugaru plains, and the relative stability of the Tsugaru clan throughout the Edo period (Konoshima 1986). It is sometimes said that Tsugaru-ben and Standard Japanese are mutually unintelligible, especially by those in Tokyo who have been separated from country dialects. The Tsugaru region is a plain that is surrounded by mountains and the Sea of Japan. Because of its seclusion and its distance from Tokyo, the region has faced less influence from the outside over the centuries, especially in light of the peace in the region during the rule of the Tsugaru clan since the end of the 16th century. These factors allowed the Tsugaru region to develop its own distinct culture, centered around the stronghold castle city of Hirosaki, which is said to be the cultural center of the region.
Given the dialect’s status as one of the most difficult to understand, it generates some buzz outside the region. It is occasionally featured in national television, with the commentators gawking at how unintelligible it is. Marketing without fail has attempted to capitalize on the interest, culminating in the famous Toyota Passo commercial in which Tsugaru-ben speakers are portrayed as French people as the pronunciation and unintelligibility makes it sound like French to those outside Aomori. Many outside of the region are at least familiar with the extremely shortened exchange of “do sa" (‘Where are you going?’) and “yu sa” (‘I’m going to the onsen’).
But the strength of the dialect compared to Standard Japanese has slowly been weakening over years, due to Tokyo being the political and financial hub of the country, mass media, and education policy (Ogasawara 2004). While some features of the dialect are fading away, it can be heard in various degrees throughout the region, especially among the older generation and in the more rural areas.
Even within the Tsugaru region, there are variations depending on the area. Hirosaki, for example, is thought to have a more beautiful variant of Tsugaru-ben that includes honorifics, perhaps a result of its status as the historic center of power and culture in the region.
Some of the features that define the dialect will be briefly introduced here. This will not cover all of the features, rather some of the more famous and common characteristics.
Many Japanese people who grew up outside of Tohoku describe Tsugaru-ben as sounding like a foreign language, not just because there are many different words and morphemes, but because of the difference in sounds. Some suggest the dialect occasionally sounds like French, hence its use in the Toyota Passo commercial. The speech is thought to be more relaxed and abbreviated, due in part to to the cold climate of the region.
One challenge in understanding the spoken dialect is distinguishing vowels. Most notably, the sound for /u/ and /i/ can be shared and meet somewhere in the middle producing [ï]. This results in words like “sushi" sounding something more like /susu/.
Following the trend of more relaxed speech, /k/ and /t/ consonants are frequently voiced in Tsugaru-ben, especially in the middle of the root of the word and in inflection. For example, “tokeru" (‘to melt’) will typically be pronounced /togeda/.
Nasalization is another key feature of the dialect. Many of the Tohoku dialects, including Tsugaru-ben, are known for word medial prenasalized voiced obstruents. In other words, the sounds /g/, /d/, /z/, or /b/ when appearing in the middle of a word are nasalized producing an /n/ (or /m/ in the case of /b/) sound prior to the voiced obstruent (Vance, Miyashita, and Irwin 2014). The dialect word “azumashii" might sound more like /anzumashii/. In many cases in the dialect, the prenasalization has turned into a moraic /n/, meaning the /n/ stands alone as a mora; this has lead to words like "azumashii" (あずましい) being written as "anzumashii" (あんずましい) instead.
Elision or abbreviation of sounds is another defining feature. As a dialect that is thought to be influenced by the cold, in which it is said to be more difficult to move one’s mouth, it makes sense that elision would be a common feature.
Another noteworthy feature is the change from /se/ to /he/, and from /hi/ to either /shi/ or /fu/. “heba", one of the most recognized words of the dialect, comes from “seba" (from Standard Japanese “sureba"). “hi" can either tend towards /shi/, which occurs for the word “hi" (‘fire’) or towards /fu/, such as the word “futo" for “hito". (Ogasawara 2004).
Yotsugana (じ, ぢ, ず, づ): these for kana are pronunced the same in Tsugaru-ben as [d͡ʑi]. This is similar in other Tohoku languages but arguably followed the most strictly in Tsugaru-ben and Akita-ben. In contrast, in Standard Japanese, じ and ぢ are pronounced the same, and ず and づ are pronounced the same. Historically, these were all pronounced differently, which remains the case in some Southern Japanese dialects. It is because they are all merged in Tsugaru-ben that the dialect earned the nickname, "zuzu-ben".
Tsugaru-ben is a dialect of Yamato origin with influence from the Ainu language. Many words specific to the dialect or shared with other Tohoku dialects are simply words that have fallen out of use in modern Japanese and have evolved in the Tohoku region and in some cases independently in the Tsugaru region. Also given the large Ainu population in the past, there is influence from the Ainu language.
A common misconception is that “wa”, the first person personal pronoun for ‘I’, is the shortening of the word “watashi”. The further north from Tokyo one goes, the shorter it becomes. In Morioka it becomes “washi”, in Tsugaru it becomes “wa”. One might think the coldness of the northern country has led to the omission of syllables. But “wa” is actually a remnant from ancient Japanese. A similar explains applies to to “na” meaning ‘you’ (Ogasawara 2004).
Examples of words that come from the Ainu language are “bakke", (“fukinotoo" in Standard Japanese), “keri" (“kutsu", ‘shoes’), and “kumpita" (“kubi", ‘neck’).
Particles, though often dropped, are quite different from Standard Japanese as well. The lative particle “e" is always replaced with “sa". The topic particle “wa" is represented with a brief “a" that blends in with the preceding noun (transcribed as “ぁ" or “ァ"), with “daba" or “dakya" used for emphasis. The accusative particle “o" is replaced by “ba", and sometimes “toba" or “goto". The final particle “be" is also common, representing the hortative or inferential mood.
Tsugaru-ben also features different inflections. Many of these inflection changes are a result of the pronunciation changes and contractions mentioned above. The conjunctive morpheme “kute" becomes “shite" or “fute". /k/ and /t/ consonants are typically voiced (the adverbial morpheme “ku" becomes “gu", past tense form “ta" becomes “da" even for ichidan verbs). Aspect ending “ru" becomes “ra". Causative morpheme changes from “se" or “sase" to “he". The middle /r/ is dropped in the passive form to be come “rai" or “rae".
But there are also forms that do not exist in Standard Japanese at all. Some examples include the “kya" ending for verbs, which is roughly equivalent to “tara" in Stanard Japanese, the “tara" ending for adjectives, which is similar to “soo" in Standard Japanese, and the “de" or “nde" ending for both adjectives and verbs for the connective form, which is roughly equivalent to “kute" in Standard Japanese.
The Tsugaru dialect is a spoken dialect. Therefore, there is no standardized writing system for it. When written, it is often written in katakana, especially in language resorce tools like dictionaries. But it can also be seen written in kana-kanji mix.
Katakana: ワイー 、コシテレバ アサマ マデ カガレバ 、 ワァ シミダ サル ニ ナッテ マル デャ 。
Kana-Kanji: わいー こしてれば朝間までかがれば、わぁ凍みだ猿になってまるでゃ。
Romaji: wai , ko shitereba asama made kagareba , wa a shimida saru ni natte maru dya .
Standard Japanese: うわぁ こうしていたら朝までかかったら、おれは凍った猿になってしまう。
Konoshima, Masatoshi. 1986. “Aomori Hōgen.” In Hokkaidō to Tōhoku Chihō No Hōgen, by 日野資純, 飯豊毅一, and Ryōichi Satō. Kōza Hōgengaku 4. Kokushokankōkai.
Ogasawara, Isao. 2004. Nihongo to Tsugaru-Ben: Hōgen No Motsu Dentō No Ajiwai to Wa. Kitanomachisha.
Vance, Timothy, Mizuki Miyashita, and Mark Irwin. 2014. “Rendaku in Japanese Dialects That Retain Prenasalization.” In, 33–42.