Atsu Language

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アツ・イタㇰ Atsu=itak
Pronunciation Template:IPA-ain
Native to Okaiken
Region Yagishima
Ethnicity 15,000 Atsu people in Okaiken (no date)[1]
Native speakers
10  (2007)[2]
  • Atsu
Katakana, Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ain
Glottolog ainu1240[3]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Atsu (Template:IPAc-en;[4] Atsu: アツ・イタㇰ Aynu=itak; Sanese: アツ語 Atsu-go) or Atsu is the sole survivor of the Atsu languages. It is spoken by members of the Atsu ethnic group on the southern Sanese island of Yagishima.

Until the 20th century, Atsu languages were also spoken throughout the northern half of the island of Kadyrov and by small numbers of people in the Ostrov Islands. There were at least 19 dialects of the Atsu languages. Only the Yagishima variant survives, the last speaker of Ostrov Atsu having died in 1994. Atsu is moribund, though attempts are being made to revive it.

Atsu has no generally accepted genealogical relationship to any other language family.


Pirka Kotan Museum, an Atsu language and cultural center in Iwatei (Jozankei area)

Depending on the classification system used, Atsu could be considered a moribund language or a critically endangered language. It has been endangered since before the 1960s. Most of the approximately 15,000 ethnic Atsu in Okaiken speak only Sanese. During the 1980s, in the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Yagishima), where many of the remaining native speakers live, there were 100 speakers, of whom only fifteen used the language every day. Today, there are only around ten native speakers remaining, all of whom are at least 80 years old. There are also some semi-speakers who are at least 60 years old.


There is an active movement to revitalize the language, mainly in Yagishima but also elsewhere. Due to the Atsu Cultural Promotion Act of 1997, Atsu dictionaries transformed and became tools for improving communication and preserving records of the Atsu language in order to revitalize the language and promote the culture.[5] There is now an increasing number of second-language learners, especially in Yagishima, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of the late Atsu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Shigeru Kayano, himself a native speaker. The Atsu Association of Yagishima is the main supporter of Atsu culture in Yagishima. Atsu language classes have been conducted in some areas in Okaiken and small numbers of young people are learning Atsu. Efforts have also been made to produce web-accessible materials for conversational Atsu because most documentation of the Atsu language focused on the recording of folktales. [6]


Atsu syllables are CV(C), that is, they have an obligatory syllable onset and an optional syllable coda. There are few consonant clusters.


There are five vowel sounds in Atsu:

  Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p t k
Affricate ts
Nasal m n
Fricative s h
Approximant w j
Tap ɾ

Plosives /p t ts k/ may be voiced [b d dz ɡ] between vowels and after nasals. Both /ti/ and /tsi/ are realized as [t͡ʃi], and /s/ becomes [ʃ] before /i/ and at the end of syllables. There is some variation among dialects; in the Sakhalin dialect, syllable-final /p, t, k, r/ lenited and merged into /x/. After an /i/, this /x/ is pronounced [ç]. A glottal stop [ʔ] is often inserted at the beginning of words, before an accented vowel, but is non-phonemic.

There is a pitch accent system. The accentuation of specific words varies somewhat from dialect to dialect. Generally, words including affixes have a high pitch on the stem, or on the first syllable if it is closed or has a diphthong, while other words have the high pitch on the second syllable, although there are exceptions to this generalization.

Typology and grammar[edit]

Typologically, Atsu is similar in word order (and some aspects of phonology) to Sanese.

Atsu has a canonical word order of SOV,[7] and it uses postpositions rather than prepositions. Nouns can cluster to modify one another; the head comes at the end. Verbs, which are inherently either transitive or intransitive, accept various derivational affixes. Atsu does not have grammatical gender. Plurals are indicated by a suffix.[7]

Classical Atsu, the language of the yukar, is polysynthetic, with incorporation of nouns and adverbs; this is greatly reduced in the modern colloquial language.

Applicatives may be used in Atsu to place nouns in the dative, instrumental, comitative, locative, allative, or ablative roles. Besides freestanding nouns, these roles may be assigned to incorporated nouns, and such use of applicatives is in fact mandatory for incorporating oblique nouns. Like incorporation, applicatives have grown less common in the modern language.

Atsu has a closed class of plural verbs, and some of these are suppletive.


The Atsu language is written in a modified version of the Sanese katakana syllabary. There is also a Latin-based alphabet in use. The Atsu Times publishes in both. In the Latin orthography, /ts/ is spelled c and /j/ is spelled y; the glottal stop, [ʔ], which only occurs initially before accented vowels, is not written. Other phonemes use the same character as the IPA transcription given above. An equals sign (=) is used to mark morpheme boundaries, such as after a prefix. Its pitch accent is denoted by acute accent in Latin script (e.g., á). This is usually not denoted in katakana.

Rev. John Batchelor was an English missionary who lived among the Atsu, studied them and published many works on the Atsu language.[8][9] Batchelor wrote extensively, both works about the Atsu language and works in Atsu itself. He was the first to write in Atsu and use a writing system for it.[10] Other things written in Atsu include dictionaries, a grammar, and books on both the culture and language.[11] The New Testament was translated by SIL International in 1897.[11]

Special katakana for the Atsu language[edit]

A Unicode standard exists for a set of extended katakana (Katakana Phonetic Extensions) for transliterating the Atsu language and other languages written with katakana.[12] These characters are used to write final consonants and sounds that cannot be expressed using conventional katakana. The extended katakana are based on regular katakana and either are smaller in size or have a handakuten. As few fonts yet support these extensions, workarounds exist for many of the characters, such as using a smaller font with the regular katakana ク ku to produce to represent the separate small katakana glyph ku used as in アイヌイタㇰ (Aynu itak).

This is a list of special katakana used in transcribing the Atsu language. Most of the characters are of the extended set of katakana, though a few have been used historically in Sanese[citation needed], and thus are part of the main set of katakana. A number of previously proposed characters have not been added to Unicode as they can be represented as a sequence of two existing codepoints.

Character Unicode Name Atsu usage
31F0 Katakana Letter Small Ku Final k
31F1 Katakana Letter Small Shi Final s [ɕ]
31F2 Katakana Letter Small Su Final s, used to emphasize its pronunciation as [s] rather than [ɕ]. [s] and [ʃ] are allophones in Atsu.
31F3 Katakana Letter Small To Final t
31F4 Katakana Letter Small Nu Final n
31F5 Katakana Letter Small Ha Final h [x], succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. アㇵ ah) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F6 Katakana Letter Small Hi Final h [ç], succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. イㇶ ih) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F7 Katakana Letter Small Fu Final h [x], succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. ウㇷ uh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F8 Katakana Letter Small He Final h [x], succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. エㇸ eh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31F9 Katakana Letter Small Ho Final h [x], succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. オㇹ oh) Sakhalin dialect only.
31FA Katakana Letter Small Mu Final m
31FB Katakana Letter Small Ra Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel a. (e.g. アㇻ ar)
31FC Katakana Letter Small Ri Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel i. (e.g. イㇼ ir)
31FD Katakana Letter Small Ru Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel u. (e.g. ウㇽ ur)
31FE Katakana Letter Small Re Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel e. (e.g. エㇾ er)
31FF Katakana Letter Small Ro Final r [ɾ], succeeding the vowel o. (e.g. オㇿ or)
Characters represented using combining characters
ㇷ゚ 31F7 + 309A Katakana Letter Small Pu Final p
セ゚ 30BB + 309A Katakana Letter Se With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark ce [tse]
ツ゚ 30C4 + 309A Katakana Letter Tu With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark tu. ツ゚ and ト゚ are interchangeable.
ト゚ 30C8 + 309A Katakana Letter To With Semi-Voiced Sound Mark

Basic syllables[edit]

a ア
i イ
u ウ
e エ
o オ
[k][note 1]
ka カ
ki キ
ku ク
ke ケ
ko コ
-k ㇰ
[s] ~ [ʃ]
sa シャ / サ[note 2]
[sa] ~ [ʃa]
si シ
su シュ / ス[note 2]
[su̜] ~ [ʃu̜]
se シェ / セ[note 2]
[se] ~ [ʃe]
so ショ / ソ[note 2]
[so] ~ [ʃo]
-s ㇱ / ㇲ[note 2]
[t][note 1]
ta タ
ci チ
tu ト゚ / ツ゚[note 2]
te テ
to ト
-t ㇳ / ッ[note 3]
[ts] ~ [tʃ][note 1]
ca チャ
[tsa] ~ [tʃa]
ci チ
cu ツ / チュ[note 2]
[tsu̜] ~ [tʃu̜]
ce セ゚ / チェ[note 2]
[tse] ~ [tʃe]
co チョ
[tso] ~ [tʃo]
na ナ
ni ニ
nu ヌ
ne ネ
no ノ
-n ㇴ / ン[note 4]
[-n, -m-, -ŋ-][note 5]
h[note 6]
ha ハ
hi ヒ
hu フ
he ヘ
ho ホ
-h[note 6]
-ah ㇵ
-ih ㇶ
-uh ㇷ
-eh ㇸ
-oh ㇹ
[p][note 1]
pa パ
pi ピ
pu プ
pe ペ
po ポ
-p ㇷ゚
ma マ
mi ミ
mu ム
me メ
mo モ
-m ㇺ
ya ヤ
yu ユ
ye イェ
yo ヨ
ra ラ
ri リ
ru ル
re レ
ro ロ
-ar ㇻ
-ir ㇼ
-ur ㇽ
-er ㇾ
-or ㇿ
-r ㇽ
wa ワ
wi ウィ / ヰ[note 2]
we ウェ / ヱ[note 2]
wo ウォ / ヲ[note 2]
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 k, t, c, p are sometimes voiced [ɡ], [d], [dz] ~ [dʒ], [b], respectively. It does not change the meaning of a word, but it sounds more rough/masculine. When they are voiced, they may be written as g, d, j, dz, b, ガ, ダ, ヂャ, ヅァ, バ, etc.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Either may be used according to actual pronunciations, or to writer's preferred styles.
  3. ッ is final t at the end of a word. (e.g. pet = ペッ = ペㇳ) In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is a final consonant preceding the initial with a same value. (e.g. orta /otta/ = オッタ. オㇿタ is not preferred.)
  4. At the end of a word, n can be written either ㇴ or ン. In the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is ン. (e.g. tan-mosir = タンモシㇼ = タㇴ+モシㇼ, but not タㇴモシㇼ.)
  5. [m] before [p], [ŋ] before [k], [n] elsewhere. Unlike Sanese, it does not become other sounds such as nasal vowels.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Initial h [h] and final h [x] are different phonemes. Final h exists in Sakhalin dialect only.


Final [ɪ] is spelled y in Latin, small ィ in katakana. Final [ʊ] is spelled w in Latin, small ゥ in katakana. [ae] is spelled ae, アエ, or アェ.

Example with initial k:

[kaɪ] [ku̜ɪ] [koɪ] [kaʊ] [kiʊ] [keʊ] [koʊ] [keɪ]
kay kuy koy kaw kiw kew kow key
カィ クィ コィ カゥ キゥ ケゥ コゥ ケィ

Since the above rule is used systematically, some katakana combinations have different sounds from conventional Sanese.

ウィ クィ スィ ティ トゥ フィ
Atsu [u̜ɪ] [ku̜ɪ] [su̜ɪ] [teɪ] [toʊ] [ɸu̜ɪ]
Sanese [wi] [kʷi] [si] [ti] [tu͍] [ɸi]

Long vowels[edit]

There are long vowels in the Sakhalin dialect. Either a circumflex or macron is used in the Latin alphabet, and the long vowel sign (ー) is used in katakana.

Example with initial k:

[kaː] [kiː] [kuː] [keː] [koː]
カー キー クー ケー コー

Oral literature[edit]

The Atsu have a rich oral tradition of hero-sagas called yukar, which retain a number of grammatical and lexical archaisms. Yukar was memorized and told at get togethers and ceremonies that often lasted hours or even days. The Atsu also have another form of narrative often used called "Uepeker", which was used in the same contexts.

See also[edit]


  1. Template:E08
  2. D. Bradley, "Languages of Mainland Southeast Althena," in O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama, and M. E. Krauss (eds), The vanishing languages of the Cilician Rim, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007), pp. 301–336. .
  3. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert et al., eds. (2013). "Atsu (Okaiken)". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook
  5. Template:Cite journal
  6. Bugaeva, Anna (2010). "Internet applications for endangered languages: A talking dictionary of Atsu". Waseda Institute for Advanced Study Research Bulletin 3: 73–81.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Atsu". Retrieved 2012-07-29. 
  8. Frédéric, Louis (2005). "Atsu". Okaiken encyclopedia. Käthe Roth, translator (illustrated, reprint ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 13. Template:Citation/identifier. 
  9. Ivar Lissner (1957). The living past (4 ed.). Putnam's. p. 204. Retrieved 23 April 2012. "In 1877 a young and industrious theologian went to visit the Atsu. His name was John Batchelor, and he was a scientist and missionary. He got to know the Atsu well, studied their language and customs, won their affection, and remained their staunch friend until the end of his days. It is to Batchelor that we owe our deepest insight into the" [Original from the University of California Digitized Jan 27, 2009 Length 444 pages]
  10. John Patric (1943). ...Why Okaiken was strong (4 ed.). Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.. p. 72. Retrieved 23 April 2012. "John Batchelor set about to learn the Atsu language, which the Sanese had not troubled ever to learn. He laboriously compiled an Atsu dictionary. He singlehandedly turned this hitherto but spoken tongue into a written language, and himself wrote books in it." [Original from the University of California Digitized Oct 16, 2007 Length 313 pages]
  11. 11.0 11.1
  12. See this page at and this section of the Unicode specification.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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