Early Middle Japanese

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Early Middle Japanese
Region Japan
Era Evolved into Late Middle Japanese at the end of the 12th century
Early forms
Old Japanese
  • Early Middle Japanese
Hiragana, Katakana, and Han
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ojp (Old Japanese)
Linguist list
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).
Glottolog None
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Early Middle Japanese (中古日本語 chūko nihongo?)[1] is a stage of the Japanese language used between 794 and 1185, a time known as the Heian Period. It is the successor to Old Japanese. It is also known as Late Old Japanese, but the term "Early Middle Japanese" is preferred, as it is closer to Late Middle Japanese (after 1185) than to Old Japanese (before 794).


Whereas Old Japanese borrowed and adapted the Chinese script to write Japanese, during the Early Middle Japanese period two new scripts emerge: hiragana and katakana. This development simplified writing and brought about a new age in literature with such classics as Genji Monogatari, Taketori Monogatari, Ise Monogatari and many others.


Phonological developments[edit]

Major phonological changes are a characteristic of this period.

The most prominent difference is the loss of Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai, which distinguished between two types of -i, -e, and -o. While the beginnings of this loss can already be seen at the end of Old Japanese, it is completely lost early in Early Middle Japanese. The final phonemes to be lost are /ko1/ and /ko2/.[2]

During the 10th century, /e/ and /je/ merge into /e/ while /o/ and /wo/ merge into /o/ 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]

Other changes include:



  • /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 ɡ
Fricative ɸ s z
Flap ɾ
Approximant j w

Phonetic Realization[edit]

/s, z/[edit]

Theories for the realization of /s, z/ include [s, z], [ts, dz], and [ʃ, ʒ]. It may have varied depending on the following vowel, as it does with modern Japanese.[citation needed]


By the 11th century, intervocalic /ɸ/ had merged with /w/.[7]


/r/: [r][8]




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


Verb Class Irrealis Adverbial Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative
Quadrigrade -a -i -u -u -e -e
Upper Monograde -ru -ru -re -(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

Consonant / vowel stem[edit]

Verbs having a base that ends in a consonant are known as consonant-stem. These are exhibited by the following conjugation classes: Quadrigrade, Upper Bigrade, Lower Monograde, Lower Bigrade, S-irregular, R-irregular, K-irregular, and N-irregular.

Verbs with a base that ends in a vowel are known as vowel-stem. These are exhibited by the conjugation class Upper Monograde.

Irregular Verbs[edit]

There are several verbs with irregular conjugations.

  • K-irregular: k- "come"
  • S-irregular: s- "do"
  • N-irregular: sin- "die", in- "go, leave"
  • R-irregular: ar- "be, exist", wor- "be, exist"

The conjugation class for each is named after the final stem consonant.


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

The regular adjective is sub-classified into two types: those where the adverbial form ends in -ku and those that end in -siku. This creates 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 -kar- and -sikar- forms are derived from the verb ar- "be, exists". The adverbial conjugation (-ku or -siku) is suffixed with ar-. The conjugation yields to the R-irregular conjugation of ar-. The resulting -ua- elides into -a-.

The adjectival noun retains the original nar- conjugation and adds 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 share a common etymology. The nar- form is a contraction of case particle ni and r-irregular verb ar- "is, be": ni + ar- > nar-. The tar- form is a contraction of case particle to and r-irregular verb ar- "is, be": to + ar- > tar-. Both derive their conjugations from the verb ar-.

Writing system[edit]

Early Middle Japanese was written in three different ways. It was first recorded in Man'yōgana, Chinese characters used as a phonetic transcription as in Early Old Japanese. This usage later produced the hiragana and katakana syllabic scripts which were derived from simplifications of the original Chinese characters.


  1. ^ Martin (1987:77)
  2. ^ Yoshida, 2001: 64
  3. ^ a b Kondō (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. ^ Miyake 2003, pp. 176–177

See also[edit]


  • 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.
  • Kondō, Yasuhiro; Masayuki Tsukimoto; Katsumi Sugiura (2005). Nihongo no Rekishi. Hōsō Daigaku Kyōiku Shinkōkai. ISBN 4-595-30547-8. 
  • Ōno, 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). Kōza Kokugoshi: Dai 2 kan: On'inshi, Mojishi (in Japanese). Taishūkan Shoten. 
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36918-5. 
  • Yamaguchi, Akiho; Hideo Suzuki; Ryūzō Sakanashi; Masayuki Tsukimoto (1997). Nihongo no Rekishi. Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai. ISBN 4-13-082004-4. 
  • Yoshida, Kanehiko; Hiroshi Tsukishima; Harumichi Ishizuka; Masayuki Tsukimoto (2001). Kuntengo Jiten (in Japanese). Tōkyō: Tōkyōdō 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[edit]