Bungo Nyûmon
A Brief Introduction to Classical Japanese

Orthography 

 

     There are many different points in how MJ and CJ are “spelled” vis-à-vis how they are pronounced. This historical orthography (in Japanese, “rekishiteki kanazukai”) was in use up till the end of WWII, when the Ministry of Education rewrote the rules on how Japanese would be written and read to bring the spelling more in line with the pronunciation. In this process, they eliminated two kana (namely wi and we) and retained as the solitary function of their row-mate wo that of the object-marker.

     [H-] becomes [w-] in the middle of words, and later the sound /w/ disappeared before all vowels except before the [a]. At the beginning of words, they are clearly pronounced, but in all other cases, [ha, hi, hu/fu, he, ho] are read as [wa, i, u, e, o] respectively.

Classical Orthography
Modern Orthography
Pronunciation
Meaning
ka·ha
ka·wa
kawa
river
ko·hi
ko·i
koi
love
ma·he
ma·e
mae
front
o·ho·ki·mi
o·o·ki·mi
ôkimi
great lord

  [Au] and [afu] become [oo] or [ou] — either way pronounced as the long-o [ô]. (This rule doesn't apply to verbs ending in [u]. See note* )

Classical Orthography
Modern Orthography
Pronunciation
Meaning
ta·u
to·u
east
ta·fu
to·u
tower
ha·ya·u
ha·yo·u
hayô
early
a·fu
a·u
au
to meet

  [Iu] and [ifu] become [yû].

Classical Orthography
Modern Orthography
Pronunciation
Meaning
i·fu
i·u
to say
shi·fu
shi·(yu)·u
shû
collection

  [Eu] and [efu] become [yô].

Classical Orthography
Modern Orthography
Pronunciation
Meaning
ke·fu
ki·(yo)·u
kyô
today
se·u·shi·n
shi·(yo)·shi·n
shôshin
small stature

  [Wi] becomes [i], [we] becomes [e], [wo] becomes [o].

Classical Orthography
Modern Orthography
Pronunciation
Meaning
wi·do
i·do
ido
well
su·we
su·e
sue
end
wo·to·ko
o·to·ko
otoko
man

  A final note: the distinction between [zi] and [dzi] and [zu] and [dzu] were lost in the Edo period; in CJ, they are distinctly different in writing and were possibly so in pronunciation as well.

 

 

 

 

 

* This does cause some confusion: although the rule is clear, verbs are accepted as being pronounced with modern orthography (e.g., in CJ “warafu,” is pronounced as the MJ “warau”). However, in the Japanese dictionary produced in the end of the 16th century by the Jesuits, the pronunciation for many “–afu” verbs is different; they clearly indicate, for example, that the CJ “tamafu” is not pronounced as the MJ “tamau,” but as /tamô/.     Return

This page was last updated on 3/24/04.

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