What is historical kana usage?

Historical kana usage in a WW2-era poster

This page summarizes key aspects of the usage of kana in Japanese prior to the written language reforms of the 1940s. This is known in Japanese as kyūkanadukai (旧仮名遣い), "historical kana usage".

The historical system uses different kana spellings than the current system. For example the kyou (きょう) reading of the kanji 京 was written kyau (きゃう), and the きょう reading of 轎 was written keu (けう). Verbs which now have an u (う) ending, such as kanau (叶う), were written with a fu (ふ), 叶ふ. Although the spelling system was different, the pronunciation of the language was the same as now.

The change to the modern system was made after sixty years of often heated debate, to bring the writing into line with the modern pronunciation.

Many kanji dictionaries use the old readings for the on'yomi (see Why do have several different pronunciations?), and major Japanese dictionaries such as the Kōjien show the old readings as well as the modern.

General differences

This section uses Nippon-shiki romanization (see What is romanization?) for clarification. In historical kana usage:

Most of the historical kana usage has been found to accurately represent the way words sounded during the Heian era (794-1185). As the spoken language has continued to develop, some orthography looks odd to the modern eye. These peculiarities follow fairly regular patterns, and so they are not difficult to learn. However, some of the historical kana usages are simply mistakes. For example, 或いは / 或ひは / 或ゐは aruiwa meaning "or" should be 或いは. 用ゐる / 用ひる mochiiru (use) should be 用ゐる, and つくえ / つくゑ (tsukue, meaning desk or table) should be つくえ, according to the old pronunciations.

Some unusual forms of kana are not, in fact, historical kana usage. For example, writing どじょう dojō (loach, a sardine-like fish), in the form どぜう dozeu , is not historical kana usage but a kind of slang writing originating in the Edo period (1603-1867).


Verbs for which the dictionary form now ends in u (う) used to end in fu (ふ). For example, kanau (叶う) was written 叶 ふ This extended to conjugations of the verb, so 叶はず for kanawazu (叶わず), 叶ひつつ for kanaitsutsu (叶いつつ), 叶へば for kanaeba (叶えば), etc.

The mashō (ましょう) volitional/hortative verb ending was written maseu (ませう), and similarly deshō (でしょう) was deseu (でせう).

Sino-Japanese Words

Old-fashioned spelling in cartoon "Norakuro"

These are just a few words showing the old kana usage with kango (Sino-Japanese words). They can be seen in dictionaries like the Kōjien, where the entry for kōjō (荒城) (ruined castle) reads:

こう‐じょう【荒城】クワウジヤウ あれはてた城。
The old kana usage is the katakana クワウジヤウ.
Current Reading Old Reading Kanji Example(s)
きょう きゃう 京都 きゃうと
きやう 饗宴 きやうえん
狂歌 きやうか
けう 轎輿 けうよ
教育 けういく
きゅう きう 旧悪 きうあく
かん くわん 緩慢 くわんまん
ちょう てう 啄木鳥 たくぼくてう
しょう せう 昭然 せうぜん
そう さう 正装 せいさう
悪心 をしん

Native Japanese Words

Native Japanese words were also written using the different kana prior to the reforms. For example,

Examples Meaning Current Reading Old Reading
今日 Today きょう けふ
倒る To fall たおる
使ひ, 遣ひ Use つかい つか
Man おとこ とこ

History of kana spelling

This is an edited excerpt from the newsgroup post referenced below.

A few centuries back, all cases of vowel + "u" assimilated to a single long vowel. The "u" may have been written originally as う, the end of a Sino-Japanese reading, or a pure Japanese う resulting from the loss of "k" in く, or else written ふ, a case of where the intervocalic "h [p/f]" had ceased to be pronounced. If the preceding vowel was "u", the sound became just a long "u". If it was an "i", as in the きう of きうかなづかひ or as in the case of 言ふ, the result was a long "u" with a "y" in front.

The actual kana spelling remained rather random (although there were schools of orthography based on all kinds of weird ideas) until rekishiteki kanazukai was recovered and given the nod during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Then about half a century ago, a spelling reform resulted in things being written (with some strange exceptions) as pronounced, and きう became きゅう. いふ became いう, which is an exception--we'd expect ゆう--perhaps due to its being a verb.

The other changes involving う and ふ were their being pronounced "o" after an "e" or an "o". In the case of えう and えふ, the frontness of the first vowel left a trace, the initial "y" sound of the resulting よう.

In the case of what would be like "(-)あう/あふ" in rekishiteki kanadukai, both vowels changed to a lower "o" than the case of "(-)お う/おふ" and "(-)えう/えふ"--we know this only because the Portuguese distinguished them in romanization--but before long the two kinds of long "o" merged into one.

Another oddity is the word for "get seasick/drunk" (now 酔う/よう). Early in the history of Japanese it was pronounced wepu and thus spelled ゑふ. Then "w" ceased to be pronounced except when followed by the lowest vowel, "a", and the original "p" changed to "h" and people quit pronouncing it in the middle of most words (what true exceptions can you think of besides あひる and あふれる?). The remaining pronunciation "eu" then went through the assimilation-to-long-vowel bit, resulting in "yoo". And finally, in the dialects that ultimately preserved a "(-)u" at the end of verbs, we end up with the pronunciation "you" (not "yoo") for the spelling よう.



This answer uses material by Jim Breen based on his Mini-FAQ. Paul Blay assisted with formatting when this was part of the "wiki sci.lang.japan FAQ" (see FAQ Format).

Copyright © 1994-2016 Ben Bullock

If you have questions, corrections, or comments, please contact Ben Bullock or use the discussion forum / Privacy

Book reviews Convert<br>Japanese<br>numbers Handwritten<br>kanji<br>recognition Stroke order<br>diagrams Convert<br>Japanese<br>units