Akita Dialect – The Language of a Deep Snowy North
When I first came to Japan almost four years ago for the Akita International University Summer Program, I studied 標準語 (hyoujyungo), the standard Tokyo dialect. Being an English speaker, I thought that the Japanese language was, like English, universalized. Sure, people from England and Australia have different accents and some different words, but when we talk to each other we have no problems communicating.
One day on a trip out to Akita City, I found a little vocab flashcard set written by Takeshi Kobayashi, and the words contained were NOT the words I’d been learning in class. These were the native words and grammar of Akita. I still remember the first word I learned, 「おもしぇー」(omoshie–), "interesting". For me, finding out about a second “hidden” language was like unearthing a hidden shrine in my backyard, and I spent many hours in old libraries and online trying to learn about Akita-ben, the Akita dialect. One thing I learned on my study was that the vocab of Akita is not unified: people use different words in the south and north, but the grammar has consistent traits. Below, I’ve collected five grammar points that characterize the dialect.
In the Akita dialect, people often use さ (pronounced 'sa') to indicate the direction of an action. さ works like に (ni) in the standard dialect as a direction particle. If someone goes to the store, post office, or train station, they might use さ. For example:
んだ、おらのアンコ駅さ行ぐ nda, oranoanko egisa egu That’s right, my brother went to the station.
おめのとっちゃだば、今家さ帰る omeno tocchadaba, ima e sa kaeru Your father is coming home.
わらしは公園さ来だ warasiha kouensa kida Kids came to the park.
You may have also noticed another feature of Akita-ben in the examples with the words 「行ぐ」(egu) and 「来だ」(kida). In the standard dialect, one would say 行く(iku) and 来た (kita), but in Akita-ben some sounds become strongly voiced (強濁音化). This phenomena is not homogenous through all Akita, but generally the 「か」and 「た」series syllables get strongly voiced.
When someone says they want to do something in Akita, sometimes they’ll add てぇ, pronounced like “tei,” to the verb stem of a verb. This could look like:
おいケーキ食いてぇ！oi keeki kuitee! I want to eat cake!
腰いてぇ！ねまりてぇ！ koshi itee! nemaritee! My back hurts! I want to sitdown!
学校さ行ぎてぇぐね！ gakkou sa igiteegune! I don't to go to school!
In these examples, I used some regional words. In Akita the word 食う(kuu) is used more often for “to eat” and 「ねまる」 means “to sit.” There are many regional words in Akita, but not every word gets used universally. There are famous words used everywhere in Akita, like「け」which means "come", "eat", and/or "ichy". Also the words 「おら」and 「おい」both mean "I/me", but they’re used differently in different regions.
There’s probably a linguistic name for this particle, but I like to call this the "cute object particle". My reasoning: people add 「っこ」to small objects to "cutify" them.
飴っこ amekko candy
雪っこ yukikko snow
お茶っこ ochakko tea
おばこ obako beautiful young lady
犬っこ inukko doggie
酒っこ sakekko alcohol
未来っこ mikukko Miku-san?
In almost all of my examples, I attached「っこ」to objects, but let’s look at the last example. Miku is a woman’s name, but sometimes when among friends people might add「っこ」to the end of a name instead of 「さん」. This is similar to something in Osaka and Kyoto where people add 「ちゃん」and 「さん」to objects.
Back in grammar point 2, I wrote 「行ぎてぇぐね！」. Here, notice the use of 「ね」to mean "not". In the standard dialect people would write 「ない」, like 食べない (tabenai)、飲まない(nomanai)、行かない(ikanai). This feature of Akita-ben becomes important when trying to say that one must do something. Here are some examples:
ナマハゲ勉強さねばね namahage benkyou sanebane I must study Namahage.
先生と話さねばね sensei to hanasanebane I have to talk with the teacher.
Of course, you can’t write about Akita without mentioning the Namahage, the old gods of the Oga Peninsula that come down from their mountain to scare bad children into behaving. Another side note, there’s a really funny and famous example of this grammar point. When people say "to sleep" in Akita, they use 「寝る」just like the rest of Japan (mostly); however, when conjugating 「寝る」into "I must sleep" you get:
and to add more emotion to the phrase people will add another 「ね」:
and sometimes people will just drop the 「ば」which turns into:
Now, if you wanted to say "I have to sleep, but I just can’t" that would become:
ねねばねねが、ねれね！ nenebanenega, nerene!
A famous usage of 「ね」in Akita-ben involves Namahage asking "Are there any bad children?!?" Below is a Train ad parodying this famous saying.
For our last grammar point, we’ll look at how someone might get asked to do something. If I wanted to ask you to take out the trash or do your homework, I could say something like:
ゴミ投げてけれ！ gomi nagete kere! Please throw out the trash!
宿題してたんせ shukudai sitetanse! Please do your homework.
「てけれ」is used more often in Akita, but 「てたんせ」is also used, especially in Yokote, and is more polite than 「てけれ」. Also, you might have noticed in the first example that I used 「投げる」 instead of 「捨てる」for "to throw away". In the standard Japanese dialect, people will only use 「投げる」to mean physically throwing an object, but in Akita nageru means "to toss out" garbage. This can cause some comical confusion for non-Akita-ben speakers when they first come here, like, you want me to do WHAT with the trash?
In the photo below, there’s a message written on a banner for the Yokote Kamakura Festival; a Kamakura is like an igloo. Here, we can see 「たんせ」used to ask "Praise the Water God, Raise a Glass of Amazake":
In Akita these days, most people use the standard dialect, and only elderly people still use Akita-ben, but every so often you’ll find something written in the old dialect. If you go out of Akita City into the rural towns and villages, you might still find a sign advertising "sakekko", 「めんこい」(cute) Akita dogs, or even signs asking you to hoist a glass of Amazake. In Japan today, most young people only speak the Tokyo dialect, and speakers of the other dialects are aging, but learning Akita-ben, at least in my mind, helps preserve a uniqueness, splendor, and culture that lives in tandem with that more well-known dialect.
The dialects of Japan contain a vast wealth of meaning and complexity, and to me learning these dialects helps me better understand the country and language as a whole. If you’re interested in learning more Akita-ben, I’d suggest finding a copy of 「はじめての秋田弁」, 「秋田のことば」, or 「おらが村」. I fell in love with the dialect of the far north and deep snows, and if like me there’s a part of Japan you love, I encourage you to study the local dialect there.