Early Middle Japanese
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Early Middle Japanese
Early Middle Japanese
EraEvolved into Late Middle Japanese at the end of the 12th century
Early form
Hiragana, Katakana, and Han
Language codes
ojp (Old Japanese)
ojp Described as "The ancestor of modern Japanese. 7th-10th centuries AD." The more usual date for the change from Old Japanese to Middle Japanese is ca. 800 (end of the Nara era).
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

The Early Middle Japanese (, ch?ko nihongo)[1] is a stage of the Japanese language between 794 and 1185, which is known as the Heian Period. The successor to Old Japanese, it is also known as the Late Old Japanese. However, the term "Early Middle Japanese" is preferred, as it is closer to Late Middle Japanese (after 1185) than to Old Japanese (before 794).


Old Japanese had borrowed and adapted the Chinese script to write Japanese. In Early Middle Japanese, two new scripts emerged: the kana scripts hiragana and katakana. That development simplified writing and brought about a new age in literature with many classics such as The Tale of Genji, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and The Tales of Ise.



Major phonological changes were characteristic of the period.

The most prominent difference was the loss of the J?dai Tokushu Kanazukai, which distinguished two types of /i/, /e/ and /o/. While the start of the loss can already be seen at the end of Old Japanese, it was completely lost in Early Middle Japanese. The final distinction to be lost was /ko1, go1/ vs. /ko2, go2/.[2]

In the 10th century, /e/ and /je/ merged into /je/, and /o/ and /wo/ had merged into /wo/ by the 11th century.[3][4][5]

An increase in Chinese loanwords had a number of phonological effects:

The development of the uvular nasal and geminated consonants occurred late in the Heian period and brought about the introduction of closed syllables (CVC).[6]



  • /a/: [a]
  • /i/: [i]
  • /u/: [u]
  • /e/: [je][3][4][5]
  • /o/: [wo]


Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n
Stop (p) b t d k ?
Fricative ? s z
Liquid r
Approximant j w

Phonetic Realization

/s, z/

Theories for the realization of /s, z/ include [s, z], [ts, dz], and [?, ?]. It may have varied depending on the following vowel, like in Modern Japanese.[]


By the 11th century, /?/ had merged with /w/ between vowels.[7]


Syntactically, Early Middle Japanese was an subject-object-verb language with a topic-comment structure. Morphologically, it was an agglutinative language. Major word classes were nouns and pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and various grammatical particles. Nouns could be followed by particles to indicate case but also occurred without particle. Verbs had to be marked with affixes, many of which were inflected as verbs in their own right and so allowed the accumulation of complex strings of suffixes. Adjectives were largely inflected for the same categories as verbs and so are often referred to as stative verbs.

Nouns and pronouns

Nouns occurred with postpositive case particles such as these:

  • -ga and -no (genitive.)
  • -wo (accusative). Optional.
  • -ni (dative/locative).-ni had a wide range of functions ('to' or 'for' a person; 'by' an agent'; 'at' or 'to' a place; 'at' a time), and in some uses, especially when indicating time, it was optional.
  • -yori (ablative).
  • -made (terminative: 'until'; 'as far as').
  • -to (comitative: 'with'; essive 'as').
  • -fe (allative: 'to'). -fe w derived from the noun fe (? [?] or ?) 'vicinity; direction', which wa occasionally found in the location noun structure Noun + -no + Location Noun to mean 'near', or in the noun-deriving suffix -be (< -no-fe) in such words as midube 'beside the water' or yamabe 'around the mountains'.

The nominative function was marked by the absence of a particle in main clauses and by the genitive particles in subordinate clauses. The dative/locative particle -ni was homophonous with the simple infinitive form of the copula -ni, with verbal suffixes supplies more complex case markers -ni-te ('at' a place) and -ni si-te or -ni-te ('by means of'). A number of particle + verb + -te sequences provided other case functions: -ni yori-te 'due to' (from yor- 'depend'), -ni tuki-te 'about, concerning' (from tuk- 'be attached'), and -to si-te 'as' (from se- 'do'). More complex structures were derived from genitive particle + Location Noun + appropriate case particle (typically locative -ni) and were used particularly to express spatial and temporal relations. Major location nouns were mafe 'front' (Noun-no mafe-ni 'in front of Noun'), ufe 'top' (Noun-no ufe-ni 'on top of Noun' ~ 'above Noun'), sita 'under' (Noun-no sita-ni 'under Noun), saki 'ahead' (Noun-no saki-ni 'ahead of Noun)', etc.


Early Middle Japanese verb inflection was agglutinative. All verbs were conjugated in a small number of 'stems' and could be combined with grammaticalized verbs to express tense, aspect, mood, voice, and polarity. Several of the grammaticalized verbs could combine in a string, and each component determined the choice of stem of the preceding component. A small number of other grammatical endings were not verbs but carried various co-ordinating or subordinating functions.

Early Middle Japanese inherited all eight verbal conjugations from Old Japanese and added one new one: Lower Monograde.


Traditionally, verbs were divided into five regular conjugations: quadrigrade (yodan ), upper monograde (kami ichidan ), lower monograde (shimo ichidan ), upper bigrade (kami nidan ), lower bigrade (shimo nidan ). There were also four 'irregular' conjugations: K-irregular (kahen ), S-irregular (sahen ), N-irregular (nahen ), R-irregular (rahen ). The conjugation of each is divided into six stems: irrealis (mizenkei ), infinitive (ren'y?kei ), conclusive (sh?shikei ), attributive (rentaikei ), realis (izenkei ), and imperative (meireikei ). The English names for the irrealis and the realis differ from author to author, including negative and evidential, imperfective and perfective, or irrealis and realis.

Verb Class Irrealis Infinitive Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative
Quadrigrade -a -i -u -u -e -e
Upper Monograde -i -i -iru -iru -ire -i(yo)
Upper Bigrade -i -i -u -uru -ure -i(yo)
Lower Monograde -e -e -eru -eru -ere -e(yo)
Lower Bigrade -e -e -u -uru -ure -e(yo)
K-irregular -o -i -u -uru -ure -o
S-irregular -e -i -u -uru -ure -e(yo)
N-irregular -a -i -u -uru -ure -e
R-irregular -a -i -i -u -e -e

The system of nine conjugation classes appears to be complex. However, all nine conjugations can be subsumed into variations of two groups: the consonant-root verbs, and the vowel-root verbs. Consonant-root verbs were quadrigrade, N-irregular and R-irregular verbs. The irregularity of N-irregular verbs occurred only in the conclusive and the attributive, and as there are no quadrigrade verbs with n-roots, quadrigrade and N-irregular verb patterns may be treated as being in complementary distribution.[8] Vowel-root verbs consist of bigrade verbs (the majority), a few monograde verbs (especially mi- 'see' and wi- 'sit'), the K-irregular verb ko- 'come', and the S-irregular verb se- 'do' (or -ze- in some compounds).[9] The difference between 'upper' and 'lower' bigrade or monograde verbs is whether the vowel at the end of the root was i or e. There was only one 'lower' monograde verb, kwe- 'kick', which was a 'lower' bigrade verb kuwe- in Old Japanese, changed pronunciation to ke- in early Late Middle Japanese (completed around 1300), and changed conjugation class again in later Japanese to become quadrigrade (Modern Japanese ker-). The difference between bigrade and monograde was whether in the conclusive, attributive and realis the initial u of the ending elided the vowel of the root or the vowel of the roots elides the initial u of the ending.

There are problems with that arrangement of stems.

  • The irrealis did not occur by itself but always with another ending. There is good evidence that it actually was a fusion of the root of the verb with the a-sound that began the following ending: quadrigrade yom- 'recite' + -azu (negative suffix) has been later re-interpreted as a stem yoma- + -zu.[10]
  • The infinitive had two functions, a linking function with another verb or with a verb ending and a nominal function as a verb-noun, and both functions were distinguished in having different pitch patterns. *The conclusive occurred as it is in the above table only at the end of a sentence (including before a quotative particle to), but before tomo 'even if', monograde verbs used the infinitive (quadrigrade yomu tomo 'even if ... recites', but monograde mi tomo 'even if ... sees'),[11] and before endings such as -besi 'have to' R-irregular verbs use the attributive instead (ari 'is' at the end of a sentence but aru-besi 'has to be'). Probably, the monograde verb form that was used before tomo is the earlier true conclusive form, and in Old Japanese, it was the only conclusive form attested (always before tomo). In Early Middle Japanese, the attributive form of monograde verbs came to be used also as a conclusive. With endings such as -besi, there is strong evidence that they were originally -ubesi and that a fusion of the root of the verb with the u-sound of the ending (quadrigrade yom- 'recite' + -ubesi) has been interpreted as conclusive yomu + -besi. That means that the apparently-anomalous u in aru-besi was part of the ending, not of the verb stem.[12] In Old Japanese, the root of the ending -ubesi, ube was attested as an independent noun. A more accurate representation of stems, therefore, would be:
Root Conjugation Root Meaning Root + a Infinitive Verb-Noun Conclusive Root + u Attributive Realis Imperative
+ tomo End of Sentence
Consonant-Root Quadrigrade *yom- 'read' yoma- yomi yomu yome yome
N-Irregular *sin- 'die' sina- sini sinu sinuru sinure sine
R-Irregular *ar- 'be' ara- ari aru ari aru are (are)
Vowel-Root Monograde *mi-
















Bigrade *oti-
















S-Irregular *se- 'do' se- si su suru sure seyo
K-Irregular *ko- 'come' ko- ki ku kuru kure koyo

Verb endings

Verb endings are attached agglutinatively to the various stems of verbs. They are divided into endings that behave like verbs themselves and endings that act as conjunctions.

Verb-like endings

Verb-like endings behaved like verbs in that they exhibited all or most of the stems that a lexical verb exhibits. The usual forms are listed below, and the way in which they were attached to the preceding verb follows the revised system of stems above. A verb could be followed by several such endings in a string.

Voice: 'passive' and 'causative':[13][14]

  • Consonant-stem verbs + -aru, vowel-stem verbs + -raru (lower bigrade): passive voice; spontaneous voice (expressing lack of volitional control); honorific; potential ('can').
  • Consonant-stem verbs + -ayu, vowel-stem verbs + -rayu (lower bigrade): passive voice; spontaneous voice (expressing lack of volitional control); honorific; potential ('can').
  • Consonant-stem verbs + -asu, vowel-stem verbs + -sasu (lower bigrade): causative; honorific.
  • Any verb + -asimu (lower bigrade): causative; honorific.


  • -eri (R-irregular): progressive or perfect aspect. Only attached to quadrigrade or S-irregular verbs.
  • Infinitive + -tari (R-irregular): progressive or perfect aspect. Attached to any verbs.
  • Infinitive + -nu (N-irregular): perfective aspect.
  • Infinitive + -tu (lower bigrade): perfective aspect.
  • Infinitive + -ki (unique conjugation): witnessed past tense. The morpheme has a suppletive conjugation: conclusive -ki, attributive -si, realis -sika, and no other stems.
  • Infinitive + -keri (R-irregular): unwitnessed past tense, or emotive assertion.
  • -amasi (unique conjugation): counterfactual ('would have ... ed'). The morpheme has conclusive -amasi, attributive -amasi or -amasiki, realis -amasika, and no other stems. The combination -amasika-ba expresses a counterfactual condition ('if ... had ... ed').

Other aspectual functions can be expressed with auxiliaries that also exist as independent verbs:

  • Infinitive + -wori (R-irregular): progressive aspect. C.f. wori 'sit; live; be'.
  • Infinitive + -oku (quadrigrade): preparative aspect, expressing an action performed in readiness for some future action. C.f. oku 'put'.
  • Infinitive + -miru (monograde): speculative aspect, expressing an action performed experimentally, to 'see' what it is like. C.f. miru 'see'.

Other auxiliaries express direction, either literally or metaphorically.


  • -amu (quadrigrade): tentative mood, expressing among other functions uncertainty ('maybe', 'shall I?'), intention ('I shall'), and hortative ('let's').
  • -ubesi (siku-adjective): debitive mood, expressing 'can', 'should', or 'must'.
  • -unari (R-irregular): hearsay mood.


  • -azu (unique conjugation): negative. The morpheme has conclusive and infinitive -azu, attributive -anu, and realis -ane.
  • -azi (uninflected): negative of the tentative mood, functionally the equivalent of -amu + -azu, a combination that does not occur.
  • -umazi (siku-adjective): negative of the debitive mood, an alternative of -ubekarazu (< -ubesi + -azu).

Conjunction-like endings[19][20]

  • Infinitive + -te: 'and (then/so), when, because'. It usually expressed a close sequential link between the verbs that it connects. The subjects of the two verbs connected by -te were usually the same.
  • Realis + -ba: 'and (then/so), when, because'. It usually expressed a looser sequential link between the verbs that it connected. The subject of both verbs connected by -ba was usually different.
  • -ade: negative 'and', 'without ... ing', 'rather than ... ', functionally an alternative to -azu-te.
  • Realis + -do or -do-mo: 'although, but'. The longer form involved the addition of the particle -mo 'also, even' to the shorter form.
  • -aba: 'if'.
  • Infinitive + -tutu: 'while (at the same time)'.
  • Various stems + -tomo: 'even if, even though'. Most verbs took the conclusive stem, bigrade verbs take the infinitive in earlier texts, and r-irregular verbs took the attributive stem.
  • Infinitive + -nagara: 'while, while still' or 'despite'.


There were two types of adjectives: regular adjectives and adjectival nouns.

The regular adjective was subdivided into two types: those for which the adverbial form ended in -ku and those that ended in -siku. That created two different types of conjugations:

Adjective Class Irrealis Adverbial Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative
-ku   -ku -si -ki -kere  
-kara -kari -si -karu   -kare
-siku   -siku -si -siki -sikere  
-sikara -sikari -si -sikaru   -sikare

The class of siku-adjectives included a few adjectives that had z, rather than s: adverbial -ziku, conclusive -zi, attributive -ziki., e.g. imizi 'be terrible'. Onazi 'be the same' usually had -zi rather than -ziki, in its attributive form.

The -kar- and -sikar- forms were derived from the verb ar- "be, exists." The adverbial conjugation (-ku or -siku) was suffixed with ar-. The conjugation yielded to the r-irregular conjugation of ar-. The resulting -ua- elided into -a-.

The adjectival noun kept the original nar- conjugation and added a new tar-:

Type Irrealis Adverbial Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative
Nar- -nara -nari
-nari -naru -nare -nare
Tar- -tara -tari
-tari -taru -tare -tare

The nar- and tar- forms shared a common etymology. The nar- form was a contraction of the case particle ni and the r-irregular verb ar- "is, be": ni + ar- > nar-. The tar- form was a contraction of the case particle to and the r-irregular verb ar- "is, be": to + ar- > tar-. Both derived their conjugations from the verb ar-.

Writing system

Early Middle Japanese was written in three different ways. It was first recorded in Man'y?gana, which is Chinese characters that were used as a phonetic transcription. That later produced the hiragana and the katakana syllabic scripts, which were derived from simplifications of the original Chinese characters.

See also


  1. ^ Martin (1987:77)
  2. ^ Yoshida, 2001: 64
  3. ^ a b Kond? (2005:67-71)
  4. ^ a b Yamaguchi (1997:43-45)
  5. ^ a b Frellesvig (1995:73)
  6. ^ Nakata (1972:26-29)
  7. ^ Vovin 2002, pp. 14-15
  8. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2003). A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon. pp. 169-170. ISBN 0-7007-1716-1.
  9. ^ A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. pp. 170-172.
  10. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. p. 223.
  11. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2008). A Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese, Part 2: Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Conjunctions, Particles, Postpositions. London: Global Oriental. pp. 596-598. ISBN 9781905246823.
  12. ^ Tranter, Nicolas (2012). The Languages of Japan and Korea. London & New York: Routledge. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-415-46287-7.
  13. ^ A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese. pp. 323-336.
  14. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. pp. 236-237.
  15. ^ a b A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese. pp. 271-323.
  16. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. pp. 230-233.
  17. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. pp. 234-235.
  18. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. p. 233.
  19. ^ A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese. pp. 242-261, 414-417.
  20. ^ The Languages of Japan and Korea. p. 240.


  • Katsuki-Pestemer, Noriko (2009). A Grammar of Classical Japanese. München: LINCOM. ISBN 978-3-929075-68-7.
  • Frellesvig, Bjarke (1995). A Case Study in Diachronic Phonology: The Japanese Onbin Sound Changes. Aarhus University Press. ISBN 87-7288-489-4.
  • Frellesvig, Bjarke (2010). A history of the Japanese language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-65320-6.
  • Kond?, Yasuhiro; Masayuki Tsukimoto; Katsumi Sugiura (2005). Nihongo no Rekishi. H?s? Daigaku Ky?iku Shink?kai. ISBN 4-595-30547-8.
  • ?no, Susumu (2000). Nihongo no Keisei. Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 4-00-001758-6.
  • Martin, Samuel E. (1987). The Japanese Language Through Time. Yale University. ISBN 0-300-03729-5.
  • Miyake, Marc Hideo (2003). Old Japanese : a phonetic reconstruction. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-415-30575-6.
  • Nakata, Norio (1972). K?za Kokugoshi: Dai 2 kan: On'inshi, Mojishi (in Japanese). Taish?kan Shoten.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36918-5.
  • Yamaguchi, Akiho; Hideo Suzuki; Ry?z? Sakanashi; Masayuki Tsukimoto (1997). Nihongo no Rekishi. T?ky? Daigaku Shuppankai. ISBN 4-13-082004-4.
  • Yoshida, Kanehiko; Hiroshi Tsukishima; Harumichi Ishizuka; Masayuki Tsukimoto (2001). Kuntengo Jiten (in Japanese). T?ky?: T?ky?d? Shuppan. ISBN 4-490-10570-3.
  • Vovin, Alexander (2002). A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1716-1.

External links

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