Historical Japanese Writing

The Japanese language has certainly come a long way, as we saw in Origins of Kana and Kanji. The phonetic system has underwent changes, as people became lazier and lazier in speech. At the same time, its writing system (which had already been developing for hundreds of years, not to mention the countless before it for the development of Kanji itself), up to its present form to make up for these phonetic changes. The modern form we see today is as recent as World War II. That’s incredible, to think that Japanese was so different just over a hundred years ago.

But because these changes are so recent, there are still materials out there that are written in an older style of Japanese that is no longer used today except by a few people. This post aims to explain some of the changes that occurred over the years and what old Japanese writing resembled.

The Phonetic Side

In Modern Japanese, there are only forty-six sounds in the Kana syllabaries. And yet the Japanese refer to these sounds as the 五十音 (ごじゅうおん), or fifty sounds. The Kana syllabaries are called this for a reason. Let’s look at a Hiragana table (a Katakana one works too).

Hiragana Table
n w r y m h n t s k
a
i
u
e
o

Ignoring the ん sound, you will notice that there are gaps in the table under the y-column and the w-column. Years ago, possibly as early as the Heian era (if not before), there existed “wi, we, wu, yi,” and “ye” sounds in the spoken language, long before there was Hiragana or Katakana. Over time, people lazily started mispronouncing them as “i, e,” and “u.” This mispronunciation lead to miswritings under Hiragana and Katakana, when “wi” and “we” were still in use in writing but were read as “i” and “e,” respectively.

I have stumbled upon an old atlas which seems to contain a Katakana chart to some old form of Korean. There are characters in spots where “wi, wu, we, yi,” and “ye” would go, but there is a small problem – the sounds are inconsistent to how they should be written.

  1. “wi” is written with イ (which should be ヰ, “wi”)
  2. “yi” is written as 井 (which is a Kanji)
  3. “wu” appears to be ウ (u) with the top dot written as a horizontal stroke
  4. “we” and “ye” are both written as ヱ (which is actually supposed to be “we”)

As we can see from this example, people easily confused these sounds for other sounds due to the simple lack of correct pronunciation. In writing, there seems to be no real “yi” or “ye,” since at the time of the creation of Kana, these sounds were readily being pronounced as “i” and “e.” The proper way to read ヰ/ゐ and ヱ/ゑ is “wi” and “we,” respectively, but as mentioned above they are currently read as “i” and “e” due to nobody being able to pronounce the former sounds any more. They are no longer in common use but writings from at least a hundred years ago may still use them.

Now look back up at the Hiragana table. Notice how poor old ん is sitting by itself? It was popular back at a similar time for the nasal ‘n’ to be written as む in hiragana, as is characterized in the Iroha poem. In fact, there were all sorts of strange ways to write things simply because the characters didn’t exist, which leads us to another topic…

Old Style Kana Orthagraphy

In modern Japanese, we see combination characters (a kana ending in ‘i’ plus a y-row sound), and double consonants (using っ). These features of the Japanese language are fairly new, as early as 1900. Before then, there were different ways in which these sounds could be written.

Below lists a table of old styles of writing the Japanese language in comparison to the modern form. Different ways of writing which sounded the same are listed under the same sound. Note that this list is not necessarily complete, but it also has sounds that may not be used all that commonly.

Sometimes, an h-row sound would be used to represent a vowel (except for “a”), or a w-row sound, as long as it wasn’t the first sound in the word. For example, 笑う would have been written as 笑ふ, and in its volitional form in accordance to Japanese grammar rules would be written as 笑はう (which was really read 笑おう). Another example is 用いる, which would have been written as 用ひる, but it really represented 用ゐる (mochiwiru).

Each form listed below accounts for its regular form, as well as its voiced form (if it has it, the form with the two lines) or voiceless form (for the h-row only, the form with a small circle). Note that sounds that have more than one form are those that are used in different (sometimes specific) cases. For example, 蝶 (ちょう) was written as てふ (chou) but 丁 (ちょう) was written as ちやう (chou).

In addition, double consonants were written with an upper case つ rather than a lower case one, so the difference between がっこう and がつこう was not distinguished.

Old Style Japanese Modern Japanese
おを OR おほ おお
あう / あふ OR おふ OR をう / をふ OR わう / わふ おう
いふ ゆう (いう)
かう / かふ OR こふ こう
きあ(あ) OR きや(あ) きゃ(あ)
きゆ きゅ
きう / きふ OR きゆう きゅう
けう/ けふ OR きよう / きよふ OR きやう / きやふ きょう
きよ きょ
くふ くう
くわ / ぐわ か / が
さう / さふ OR そふ そう
しあ(あ) / しや(あ) しゃ(あ)
しゆ しゅ
しう / しふ OR しゆう しゅう
しよ しょ
せう / せふ OR しよう / しよふ OR しやう / しやふ しょう
たう / たふ OR とふ とう
ちあ(あ) / ちや(あ) ちゃ(あ)
ちゆ ちゅ
ちう / ちふ OR つゆう ちゅう
ちよ ちょ
てう / てふ OR ちよう / ちよふ OR ちやう / ちやふ ちょう
なう / なふ OR のふ のう
にあ(あ) / にや(あ) にゃ(あ)
にゆ にゅ
にう / にふ OR にゆう にゅう
によ にょ
ぬふ ぬう
ねう / ねふ OR によう / によふ OR にやう / にやふ にょう
はう / はふ OR ほふ ほう
ひあ(あ) / ひや(あ) ひゃ(あ)
ひゆ ひゅ
ひう / ひふ OR ひゆう ひゅう
ひよ ひょ
へう / へふ OR ひよう / ひよふ OR ひやう / ひやふ ひょう
まう / まふ OR もふ もう
みあ(あ) / みや(あ) みゃ(あ)
みゆ みゅ
みう / みふ OR みゆう みゅう
みよ みょ
めう / めふ OR みよう / みよふ OR みやう / みやふ みょう
やう / やふ OR えう / えふ OR ゑう / ゑふ よう
ゆふ ゆう
らう / らふ OR ろふ ろう
りあ(あ) / りや(あ) りゃ(あ)
りゆ りゅ
りう / りふ OR りゆう りゅう
りよ りょ
るふ るう
れう / れふ OR りよう / りよふ OR りやう / りやふ りょう
づ and ぢ ず and じ

Phew, that is a long list! I hope this helps somebody out, as it was certainly fun to research. There is a good chance there are inaccuracies, but I tried to make everything as accurate as I could. Have fun trying to read old Japanese ;)

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