The historical kana spelling

The pronounciation of Japanese words have changed a lot since the Heian period. Although students of classical Japanese usually read the old texts in modern pronounciation, they still have to understand the old spelling, in order to recognize words written with hiragana.

For example, the word for "river" in classical texts, if written in kana, is spelled kaha. It would be kawa in modern pronounciation. The word "today", kyou, was written as kehu in old Japanese.

Fortunately, we rarely need to find out the old kana spelling from the modern word. We usually see a word in the old spelling, and we need to derive its modern form, in order to understand the text; - this is much easier. We have to follow the same changes as spelling changed during the centuries:

  • h becomes w in the middle of words, and later w disappeared in all positions except before a, as in

    kaha -> kawa ( "river" )
    kohi -> koi ( "love" )
    mahe -> mae ( "before" )
    In other words, except when they appear at the beginning of a word, ha, hi, hu, he, ho are read as wa, i, u, e, o respectively.

  • ou and au become oo (long o).

    tahu -> tau -> too ( "tower" )
    This rule does not apply for verbs ending in u, eg. au ( "to meet" ).

  • iu becomes yuu:

    shihu -> shiu -> shuu ( "collection", eg. Kokinshuu )
  • eu becomes yoo:

    kehu -> keu -> kyoo
  • wi becomes i, we becomes e, wo becomes o:

    wido -> ido ( "well" )
    tsuwi ni -> tsui ni ( "finally" )
    wokashi -> okashi ( "sweet" )
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