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Basic Japanese : Old Japanese Alphabets

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Old Japanese Alphabets or Historical Japanese Alphabets


- "Gojyuu-on" : Hiragana version -

Aiueo Kana 1

- "Gojyuu-on" : Katakana version -


- "Iroha-uta" -

The two red characters in “gojyuu-on” and “iroha-uta” are out of use now.
Both characters had their own sounds consisting of a consonant and a vowel, but each of them changed into the same sound as a vowel which has a similar sound.

Although they couldn’t be distinguished by their pronunciations from respective vowels, they managed to survive in written texts until 1946 when the government decided to abandon them so that Japanese language could be written as it was spoken.

We call Alphabets including these left-out characters as “Old Japanese Alphabets” or “Historical Japanese Alphabets”.
The one we use now is called “New Japanese Alphabets” or “Modern Japanese Alphabets”.

“wi” and “i”

Aiueo 4
Aiueo Kana 2
Top: Hiragana
Bottom: Katakana

This character seems to be originally pronounced as “wi”, perhaps similar to English “we” but without prolonging the sound.
This one became the same sound as “i”.

“we” and “e”

Aiueo 5
Aiueo Kana 3
Top: Hiragana
Bottom: Katakana

This one was “we”, like the sound in an English word “went”.
Then became the same as “e”.

The survived characters in spite of the same pronunciation with others

There are three characters which got away from the government decision somehow.
I suppose it was because they were not as confusing as the previous two.
They are quite easy to distinguish even in speech, for they are not used as a part of a word unlike the abolished characters.
Their functions are similar to English prepositions, and usually come after a noun.

One of them has the same pronunciation as a vowel, and other two have their own sounds, but pronounced differently when used as particles.


Aiueo 6

Pronounced exactly the same as a vowel “o” (the right character in the image).
This one comes after a direct object of a verb.
For example, in a Japanese translation of an English sentence “I gave him a book”, this character should come after the word “hon” (Japanese for “a book”).
“Watashi wa kare ni hon o ageta.”


Aiueo 8

The left character is usually pronounced as “he” (like the sound in an English word “hence”), but when it’s used after a noun, its sound becomes “e” (like in “S”), the same pronunciation as the right character in the image.
This indicates direction like an English preposition “to”.
Ex.) In a sentence “I go to Kyoto”, “e” comes after the word “Kyoto”.
“Watashi wa Kyoto e iku.”


Aiueo 7

When the left character is used as a part of a word, its pronunciation is “ha” like English “Ha”.
When it’s attached to a word like an adverb, a subjective noun or something else, it changes into “wa”, the same as the right in the image.
This has several functions, but it’s a bit complicated for me to explain properly.

Ex.) A Japanese sentence “Inu wa kawaii” can be translated as “A dog (or Dogs or The dog) is lovely” (general) or “A dog IS lovely(, but…)” (emphasis or limitation).
You need to judge from the situation or speaker’s expression.

Next post: “Iroha-uta” line by line


Related posts:
#Japanese Alphabet (1: “Gojyuu-on” and “iroha-uta”)

#“I” in Japanese (1) (2) (3)

#Japanese honorific titles (1:Formal) (2:Casual) (3:In text) (4:Business titles)

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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