Kyo Language (京言葉)

The term Kyo language (written in Japanese as either 京言葉, きょうことば or 京ことば) or Kyoto-ben (Kyoto dialect) means a Japanese dialect spoken either in the old town area of Kyoto City, in the narrow sense, or in the area including Yamashiro Province and Nantan (around Kameoka basin), in the broad sense, both in Kyoto Prefecture. In the old days, Kyodan was used as an equivalent term. Kyo language is a kind of Kinki dialect, but is sometimes treated separately from them. Its accents belong to a group of Keihan style accents, but it has still many different accents from those of Osaka dialect and other dialects of the same group. The number of correct speakers of Kyo language is now decreasing.

Kyo language is said to have been influenced by a court language spoken at court since the Imperial palace had been located in Kyoto for a long period.

In Kyo language, honorific language and euphemistic expressions are frequently used in order to make the tone of conversation euphonic and polite avoiding any offending expression as much as possible, but it often happens to induce ironic effects or cynicism and make people who do not correctly understand Kyo language feel some difficulty in communication. However, many scholars point out such way of soft expression of Kyo language is a factor that produces gracefulness, which is a major difference between Kyoto and Osaka dialects.


Kyo language can be classified into two prominent types, one being a noble language (Court language) spoken at the Imperial palace and another being an ordinary language (town language) spoken among the people in town. However, since Kyo language has recently been influenced by Osaka and other dialects including the standard dialect, and has gradually transformed itself toward the standard or Tokyo dialect's direction, so that difference between these dialects has become less.

The first one (noble language as described above) was spoken by court ladies among imperial families and court nobles within the Imperial court since the Muromachi period, part of which are still being spoken within some shrines and temples of today.

The latter one (town language) can be further divided into details according to occupations and areas of the speakers.

Nakagyo Language

The dialect spoken in Nakagyo-ku Ward and its surrounding area, including the wholesaler district of Muromachi-dori Street, is called Nakagyo language. It is regarded as representative of the town language.

Craftsmen Language

This is a dialect spoken among people engaged in the textile industry of Nishijin (Nishijin textile.)

Fleshpot Language

Fleshpot language is a dialect spoken among maiko (apprentice geisha) and geigi (a woman who gives fun with a song, a dance or a music instrument at a feast) in Gion and other fleshpots of Kyoto. There are some more dialects of Kyo language, such as 'miburi language' (gesture words) similar to a simplified sign language, as well as 'namasu language' (Red-light district language), a traditional language spoken in Shimabara, a famous amusement area.

Languages for Traditional Arts and Crafts

Vocational languages are spoken at various field sites of traditional arts and crafts like Kyoyaki porcelain, Kyoyuzen dyed fabrics and so on.

Farmers Language

A farmers language is spoken in rural areas around Kyoto City, such as Ohara and Kuchitanba.


Many people recognize Kyo language as 'being elegant.'
Such recognition may be attributed to its pronunciation and accents.

Generally speaking, it is characterized by frequent use of long vowels and euphonic changes 'u,' giving an impression of being slow-paced, unstrained and floppy.


Long vowels of 'u' and 'o' are cut short, modifying, for example, 'gakkou' (school) to 'gakko,' 'sanshou' (Japanese pepper) to 'sansho.'

Phonemic letters of nouns and verbs are sometimes long drawn in pronunciation, altering, for example, 'ka' (mosquito) to 'ka-a,' and 'no' (field) to 'no-o.'

Further, some people convert pronunciation of vowel 'i' into 'e' as a dialect, and pronounce, for example, 'shirame' instead of 'shirami' (louse).
In addition, occasional conversions may be made from 'e' to 'i,' from 'u' to 'o' and from 'o' to 'u.'

In other cases, a series of vowels may be combined, to pronounce, for example, 'meru' instead of 'mieru' (literally, 'can be seen' or 'look like').


There are some examples to change pronunciation of 'shi' [ʃi] to 'hi' [çi], as in the case of 'hitsurei' instead of 'shitsurei' (literally, 'excuse me'), as well as 's' to [ʃi] and 'm' to [b].

Euphonic Changes

In order to smoothen the combination of sounds, euphonic changes typical to the Kansai region are often applied to Kyo language.

Euphonic Changes 'U'

Akaruku naru' (literally, become bright) converts into 'akaru-u naru,' 'utsukushiku saku' (literally, blossom beautifully) into 'utsukushu-u saku.'

Euphonic Changes 'O'

Euphonic changes 'o' are often applied to the description of 'u.'

Nemutakute shikatanai' (literally, desperately sleepy) converts into 'nemutote shikatanai,' 'akaku somaru' (literally, become reddish) into 'ako somaru.'

Bursting Euphonic Changes

Erai kotoya' (literally, 'It's too bad') converts into 'erai kotcha,' 'okibari yasu' into 'okibari yassha.'

Flipping Euphonic Changes

Tsukanu kotowo' (literally, 'By the way') converts into 'Tsukan kotowo,' 'bosan' (literally, Buddhist monk) into 'bonsan.'


Imperative forms of some godan doshi (5-grade conjugation verbs) conjugate at 'i' dan (i-grade), being considered as an abbreviation of 'nasai' and may be used in addition to normal forms of the standard Japanese.

(Example) 'Hashiri' (literally, 'run')

Negative forms of godan doshi conjugate at 'a' dan (a-grade).

(Examples) 'arahen' (literally, 'there is no...'), 'hashirahen' (literally, '... do not run')

The wording of 'Hashirehen' instead of 'hashirahen' means '... cannot run,' the same way as in the standard Japanese.

In other Kinki dialects, many people do not discriminate between '... rahen' and '... rehen,' which frequently causes communication gaps among speakers.

Negative forms of SA-gyo and KA-gyo henkaku katsuyo (SA-row and KA-row irregular conjugation group verbs) conjugate frequently at 'i' dan (i-grade,) in which cases 'hin' shall be fixed as a relevant postpositional particle. Presently, such wording as 'e' dan (e-grade) conjugative group verbs with postfix 'hen' are increasingly used, due to the influence of Osaka and other dialects.
Such forms as i-dan (i-grade) conjugation plus postfix 'hin' and 'e' dan (e-grade) plus 'hen' are both the conversion from imperfective forms plus 'yahen.'

(Examples) 'shi-hin' (shinai, literally 'do not do'), 'ki-hin' (konai, literally 'do not come').

In order to have godan doshi express inducement, its 'o' dan (o-grade) syllable is not stretched long.
In order to make ichidan doshi (1-grade conjugation verbs) express inducement, a short postfix 'yo' is added but for the verb 'suru' (literally, 'do') which changes itself to long pronunciation of 'sho.'

(Examples) 'hashiro' (literally, 'Let's run'), 'iko' (literally, 'Let's go'), 'miyo' (literally, 'Let's see'), 'neyo' (literally, 'Let's go to bed')

Expressions of Ability

As in the standard Japanese, the postfixes of 'reru' and 'rareru' are used to express ability. Negative expression of ability is made by adding '... rehen' and '... rarehen' to each verb.

(Examples) 'hashireru' (literally, 'can run'), 'nerareru' (literally, 'can sleep'), 'hashirehen' (literally, 'cannot run'), 'nerarehen' (literally, 'cannot sleep')

Alhough open to misunderstanding, the expression of '... rehen' is often used in Kyoto.

Expressions of inability, or negative expressions of ability, often take a form of 'yo... n' or 'yo... hin.'

(Examples) 'yo hashiran' (literally, 'cannot run'), 'yo nen' (literally, 'cannot sleep'), 'yo okihin' (literally, 'cannot get up')

Respectful Languages

... Haru

Nasaru' (standard respectful form of 'do') may be modified to 'naharu.'
Compared with other Kansai areas, this form of respectful expression is more mundanely used in Kyoto, but with less degrees of respect.
(Example) 'notte kiharuwa' (literally, 'Look, they are getting on')

Only in the surrounding areas of Kyoto, some polite languages are used to make an expression objective.
(Example) 'Uchino Ko-o, yo-u nakaharuyaro' (literally, 'As you see, our child cries very much')

O... yasu

This is a light imperative expression with implied respects, and is used as greetings.
(Examples) 'Okoshiyasu' (literally, 'Welcome, here'), 'okakeyashitookureyasu' (also referred as dozo okakekudasaimase, literally, 'please take your seat')

... Toiyasu

This is a converted form of '... teoiyasu.'
(Example) '... shitoiyashita' (... shiterasshaimashita, literally 'you were kindly doing...')

... Teomi, Toomi

This can be written in Kanji as 'て御見' which corresponds to the common language of 'tegoran' (literally, 'You had better try to....')
(Example) 'Mitoomi' (also referred as Mitegoran, literally 'Would you look at... ?')

... Yoshi

This is an imperative expression used toward equal or lower ranking persons.
(Example) 'hayo ikiyoshi' (hayaku ikinasai, literally 'you must go quickly')

... Osu

This is a polite form of '... aru' (literally, '(there) is,' which is equivalent to '... omasu' in Osaka dialect. This is also used by putting it after adjectives.
(Examples) 'daremo ohen' (literally, 'nobody is there'), 'oishiosu na' (literally, 'this is very delicious, isn't it?')

... Dosu

This is one example of the well-known Kyo language as a polite form of decisive expression, corresponding to '... desu' in Tokyo dialect and '... dasu' in Osaka dialect. This is a conversion from '... deosu,' and may be said as '... dofu,' too. This expression was used by both men and women from the late Edo period to the Showa period.
(Examples) 'Omedetosandosu' (literally, 'congratulations'), 'Asu ikaharun dosuka' (literally, 'Are you leaving tomorrow?'), 'so doshita' (literally, 'so you have told')


In the case of request or declination, Kyo language prefers euphemistic and indecisive expressions and avoids straightforward words.

For example, in order to make a request for somebody to 'do something,' negative interrogatives by insinuation are used, such as '... shite morawashimahen yaroka' (... shite moraewashimasen deshoka, literally 'Won't you kindly do... ?').

When declining any solicitation, too, shadowy expressions are used, like 'ookini' (literally, 'thank you'), 'kangaetoki massa' (literally, 'let me consider') and so on, which expressions are considered respectful to the solicitors.
Another way used frequently to decline any request politely is to subjectify other persons like your husband, saying, for example, 'I have to ask for my husband's opinion.'

As is described below, a story of 'bubu zuke' was created in such a climate as people disliked any direct expression.

Bubu Zuke

As a typical example of non-verbal communications in Kyoto, a story of 'bubu zuke' (also referred as cha-zuke, literally 'a bowl of rice doused in hot tea') is often cited, although there are many other examples such as 'zabuton' (literally, 'a cushion') on a doorstep and 'a hibachi brazier' in a cold day. This story of bubu zuke tells that, when you visit somebody and are offered bubu zuke, you must understand you are casually induced to leave soon. In that case, the host has never prepared any bubu zuke for you.

On the one hand, this story is generally interpreted as the host's apology to say, 'I cannot entertain you with anything more than bubu zuke today, so please come on the other day, if you like,' but at the same time this is considered as a kind of communication rules to express the host's intention without giving bitter feelings, that is a special custom available only in such closed society as Kyoto. In the first place, 'being offered any meal' means that you are visiting him at mealtime or you have extended your stay until mealtime, and this kind of action should be regarded as unmannerly from common-sense. The host may expect a sociable effect of 'offering meals' that reminds any guest of lapse of time and urges him to leave without discourteousness.

The most ideal case of such communications might be that, after once or twice the host offers bubu zuke which the guest declines, the host still offers it so that the guest may accept it and get into the house to take it with gratitude.
It is considered as a common-sense for a visitor to once decline an offer of bubu zuke, and, therefore, if he accepts the offer and takes it without reserve, he will give an impression to the host that 'he or she is bold.'

However, in most cases, the host will not continue to offer bubu zuke more than once or twice, and then the visitor may say 'Well, I have to leave now.
Thank you for meeting me.'
Thus, the visitor may take action to depart. Otherwise, the host may sometimes take an action to casually induce the visitor to leave.

Nevertheless, since it is possible that some hosts might in fact wish to entertain his guest with bubu zuke, visitors are required to be skilled in the technique of rhythmic breathing to understand the host's real intent.

Needless to say, the story of 'bubu zuke' is just a parable of one of so many traditional implicit communications existing in the daily life of the people living in Kyoto that may never be explained in a simple sentence. This kind of sense is very special which can never be felt unless having the experience of in fact living in Kyoto.

Any of such ways of communication of Kyoto people as established through their traditional customs is usually unfamiliar to the people of non-Kyoto areas, and causes various troubles of miscommunication; for example, a host might be compelled to prepare any meal in a hurry. Another example of such trouble is to give an unfavorable impression to any guest who knows the implication of bubu zuke simply as 'kaette okure yasu' (literally, 'please leave here'), which may possibly lead them to an unnecessary conflict; and, such being the case, bubu zuke and other typical communication ways of traditional Kyoto people are not recommended to use except for between congenial persons.

An episode concerning 'bubu zuke' is cited in a novel "Mystery of bubu-zuke legend" by Ko KITAMORI (contained in a collection of short stories of the same title).
In this novel, the author has a character speak as follows:
Bubu zuke legend is widely known. But, I've never heard of any person who has in fact experienced it.
Nor, any one living in Kyoto told me about having treated a guest in that way.'


In addition to such typical clitic words as '... nahai,' '... ya' and '... e,' many distinctive expressions and vocabularies are used in Kyoto.

In Kyo language, there are many patterns creating new nouns from other word classes, like 'dadako' which is made from 'dadawo koneru ko' (a child who throws a terrible tantrum).

As well, some nouns (mainly concerned to a daily life) are modified to 'o...' and 'o... san (han)' to be used in the following ways:

otsumu: atama (head)

otsukuri: sashimi (sliced raw fish)

onemoji: negi (leeks)

oagesan: aburaage (deep fried bean curd)

okudosan: kamado (furnace)

Folding Words

By repeating the same word, its meaning is emphasized.

Uketamawarimashite gozaimasu de gozaimasu' (literally, 'I have respectfully acknowledged it')

Kitsu-kitsu iu' (also referred as tsuyoku iu, literally, 'say strongly')

Ako-ako natte kimasue' (literally, 'it will become richly red')

And so on.

Onomatopoeia and Mimetic Words

Kyo language uses many rhetorical techniques (onomatopoeia) to compose an element of rhythmic structure. Gata gata,' 'miru miru,' and others.

Also many mimetic words are used like 'gunnari' (literally, 'limb'), 'chinmari' (literally, 'very small') and so on, which have 'n' at the second syllable and 'ri' at the fourth syllable as in the word 'hannari.'
Though the word 'hannari' originates from 'flower,' it means humble and pretty appearances rather than 'flamboyant' ones.

[Original Japanese]