Classical Japanese language

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The Classical Japanese language (文語 Bungo?) (also called 古文 (Kobun?)) is the literary form of the Japanese language that was the standard until the early Shōwa period (1926–89). It is based on Early Middle Japanese, the language as spoken during the Heian period (794–1185), but exhibits some later influences. Its use started to decline during the late Meiji period (1868–1912) when novelists started writing their works in the spoken form. Eventually, the spoken style came into widespread use, including in major newspapers, but many official documents were still written in the old style. After the end of World War II because of the Surrender of Japan, most documents switched to the spoken style, although the classical style continues to be used in traditional genres, such as haiku and waka. Old laws are also left in the classical style unless fully revised.


Classical Japanese is written in an orthography that differs from modern Japanese in two major ways. These are the usage of old character forms (旧字体 Kyūjitai) and historical kana usage (歴史的仮名遣 Rekishi-teki kana-zukai).

Old character forms (旧字体 Kyūjitai)[edit]

Old character forms are the forms of Chinese characters (漢字 Kanji) used in Japan prior to the post-WWII spelling reforms in that country. The modern, simplified characters are called new character forms (新字体 Shinjitai).

A few examples follow, with the old characters on the left and the new characters on the right (pronunciations are the most common Japanese pronunciation of the character in isolation, and translations are glosses for that pronunciation):

體 → 体 (karada "body")
舊 → 旧 (kyū "old times")

當 → 当 (tō- "this-")
與 → 与 (ata-eru "give something")

變 → 変 (hen "strange")
靜 → 静 (sizuka "peaceful")

爲 → 為 (tame "reason")
眞 → 真 (makoto "truth")

In cases like that of the first two, the entire original character has essentially been replaced by a new one, independent of the original's etymology. This type, however, is relatively rare. Another approach is to essentially replace the character with a piece of it, sometimes slightly altered, as in the third and fourth characters. Finally, probably the most common type of simplification is to change one component of the character to reduce the number of strokes and/or make it easier to write, a strategy exemplified by the fifth and sixth examples. Note that, as in the case of the sixth character, the simplification my be very subtle.

In general, old character forms are identical to their traditional Chinese counterparts, but there are some exceptions. For the seventh example character, the traditional and simplified Japanese versions coexisted as different forms of the same traditional character in China, while in Japan, what is now the new character form was at that time considered a variant and rarely used. And in a few cases, like that of the eighth character, the old character form has always been considered a rare variant in China.

Historical kana usage (歴史的仮名遣 Rekishi-teki kana-zukai)[edit]

This section uses Nihon-shiki romanization for , , , , , , and .

Historical kana usage is the system of kana (i.e., phonetic character) writing used in Japan prior to the post-war reforms. More specifically, it is the version of kana orthography standardized in the Meiji Period (since before that time kana usage was not standardized). It is, broadly speaking, based on the pronunciation of Japanese in the Heian Period, the time-frame in which Early Middle Japanese (on which the grammar of classical Japanese is based) was spoken. There are several differences between historical kana usage — which is also referred to as "old kana usage" (旧仮名遣 Kyū kana-zukai) — and the modern kana orthography, called "modern kana usage" (現代仮名遣 Gendai kana-zukai) or "new kana usage" (新仮名遣 Shin kana-zukai). Some of these differences apply primarily to Sino-Japanese readings of Chinese characters, while others apply primarily to native Japanese words, and still others apply equally to both groups of words.

Broadly speaking, the differences are:

  • Some word-medial sounds currently written as わ/ワ, い/イ, う/ウ, え/エ, お/オ (wa, i, u, e, o) were written は/ハ, ひ/ヒ, ふ/フ, へ/ヘ, ほ/ホ (ha, hi, fu, he, ho), respectively. This is because sounds represented by the latter five kana originally had initial consonant /p/ in Old Japanese, which then changed to /ɸ/ in Early Middle Japanese, then either /h/ (before /a/, /e/, and /o/); /ç/ (before /i/); or /ɸ/ (before /u/), if word-initial, or either /w/ (before /a/, /i/, /e/, or /o/) or /∅/ (before /u/) if word-medial, in Late Middle Japanese. Then, the initial /w/ was lost before /i/, /e/, and /o/ (note that */wu/ never existed), leaving the current pronunciations of /wa/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/, but the spellings of /ha/, /hi/, /fu/, /he/, /ho/ (which, is this context, are probably better thought of as /pa/, /pi/, /pu/, /pe/, /po/ or /fa/, /fi/, /fu/, /fe/, fo/). This rule primarily applies to native Japanese sounds, although it is crucial to the mechanics of another rule that applies primarily to Sino-Japanese words mentioned below. The usage of は (ha) and へ (he) to represent grammatical particles pronounced /wa/ and /e/, respectively, is a holdover from this rule.

Some examples (old spelling on the left, new spelling on the right; kana in parenthesis represent character pronunciation):

  • 幸(しあ)せ → 幸(しあ)せ (shiahaseshiawase "happiness")
  • 小(ち)さし → 小(ち)さし (chihisa-shithiisa-shi "small") (note that this is the classical form of 小(ちひ)さい chihisa-i; 小(ちい)さい chiisa-i)
  • 言(い) → 言(い) (ih-ui-u "speak") (note that every quadrigrade verb that currently ends in う u once ended in ふ fu)
  • 前(ま) → 前(ま) (mahemae "front")
  • 炎(ほの) → 炎(ほの) (honohohonō "blaze")

There are some exceptions to this sound change, although they are rare. They include 母(は) (haha "mother," expected form は hawa), 頬(ほ) (hoho "cheek," expected form ほ hō), 家鴨(ある)(ahiru "domestic duck," expected form あairu), and 溢(あ)れる (afure-ru "overflow," expected form あれる aore-ru or おれる ōre-ru; the reasons for this different result will be explained by another rule below). Sometimes, as in the case of the first two exceptions, the sound change form exists, usually with a slightly different meaning (はわ hawa is a hyper-formal and very respectful term for mother) or is used in different contexts (ほお is generally used in isolation, while ほほ hoho is generally used in compounds). Other times, as in the case of the second two exceptions, the unchanged form is the only one that exists. In addition to these exceptions, some dialects may preserve the difference.

  • The obsolete characters ゐ/ヰ (wi) and ゑ/ヱ (we) are used, and the character を/ヲ (wo) is used in other places besides as the topic marker. This relates to the above rule, in that it reflects a pronunciation with initial /w/ before /i/, /e/, and /o/ that is no longer present in the modern language. This rule applies equally to native and Sino-Japanese words. The use of を (wo) to write the aforementioned grammatical particle, which is pronounced お (o) in almost all cases in modern Japanese (unless preceded by ん n or sometimes in song, although all instances of /o/ tend to become /wo/ in that context), is a holdover from this rule.

Some examples:

Native Japanese words

  • 居()る → 居()る (wi-rui-ru "to be [animate objects]")
  • 聲(こ) → 声(こ) (kowekoe "voice") (notice that an old character is also involved in this example)
  • 男(とこ) → 男(とこ) (wotokootoko "male")

Sino-Japanese words

  • 役員(やくん) → 役員(やくん) (yakuwinyakuin "officer")
  • 圓(ん) → 円(ん) (wenen "Yen") (again, there is an old character used here)
  • 家屋(かく) → 家屋(かく) (kawokukaoku "house")

There are no known exceptions (besides the aforementioned ones regarding /wo/) in standard Japanese, although some dialects may preserve the distinction between /wi/ and /i/, /we/ and /e/, and /wo/ and/or /o/ in speech if not in writing.

  • The characters ぢ/ヂ (di) and づ/ヅ (du) are used in places other than changes caused by sequential voicing (連濁 rendaku), where in modern kana じ (zi) and ず (zu), respectively, would be used. Again, this represents a former phonetic distinction, namely between a sound /z/ (in じ zi and ず zu) and a sound /d/ (in ぢ di and づ du). This rule applies equally to native and Sino-Japanese words, as well as a few loanwords (外来語 Gairaigo).

Some examples:

Native words

  • 紫陽花(あさゐ) → 紫陽花(あさい) (adisawiazisai "hydrangea") (notice that this example also contains a change from ゐ wi to い i)
  • 水(み) → 水(み) (midumizu "water")

Sino-Japanese words

  • 解除(かいぢよ) → 解除(かいじょ) (kaidiyokaizyo "release") (the use of the large kana よ yo instead of the small kana ょ in this example will be explained in another rule below)
  • 地圖(ち) → 地図(ち) (chiduchizu "map") (notice again that a kyūjitai character is involved)


  • オ → ラオ (radiorazio "radio") (this one is especially notable because it is an exceedingly rare example of a sound change that occurs in a loanword from English)

There are no known exceptions in standard Japanese pronunciation, although there are many dialects that preserve the distinction between historical /z/ and /d/ in speech. In writing, the distinction is preserved in single words in cases where a sequence ちぢ (chidi) or つづ (tsudu) was historically produced by rendaku (such as in 縮(ち)む chidim-u, "shorten," and 続(つ)く tsuduk-u, "continue", pronounced as if ちchizim-u and つtsuzuk-u, respectively), or in compounds where a phonemic /chi/ or /tsu/ has been voiced to /zi/ or /zu/ (such as in 身近(みか) mi-dika "one's surroundings" and 仮名遣(かなかい)kana-dukai "kana usage," pronounced as if みmi-zika and かなかい kana-zukai, respectively). This usage is a holdover from this rule.


Verbs (動詞 Doushi)[edit]

Conjugation table[edit]

Classical Japanese has the following verb classes and stem forms:

活用 (Katsuyou "Conjugation class") 未然形 (Mizenkei "Irrealis form") 連用形 (Ren'youkei "Continuitive form") 終止形 (Shūshikei "Conclusive form") 連体形 (Rentaikei "Attributive form") 已然形 (Izenkei "Realis form") 命令形 (Meireikei "Imperative form")
四段 (Yodan "Quadrigrade") ~あ (-a) ~い (-i) ~う (-u) ~う (-u) ~え (-e) ~え (-e)
上二段 (Kami nidan "Upper bigrade") い~ (i-) い~ (i-) ~う (-u) ~うる (-uru) ~うれ (-ure) い~(よ)(i-[yo]) 
下二段 (Shimo nidan "Lower bigrade") え~ (e-) え~ (e-) ~う (-u) ~うる (-uru) ~うれ (-ure) え~(よ)(e-[yo])
上一段 (Kami ichidan "Upper monograde") い~ (i-) い~ (i-) い~る (i-ru) い~る (i-ru) い~れ (i-re) い~(よ)(i-[yo])
下一段 (Shimo ichidan "Lower monograde") え~ (e-) え~ (e-) え~る (e-ru) え~る (e-ru) え~れ (e-re) え~(よ)(e-[yo])
カ行変格 (Ka-gyō henkaku "K-irregular") ~お (-o) ~い (-i) ~う (-u) ~うる (-uru) ~うれ (-ure) ~お~(よ)(-o[-yo])
サ行変格 (Sa-gyō henkaku "S-irregular") ~え (-e) ~い (-i) ~う (-u) ~うる (-uru) ~うれ (-ure) ~え~(よ)(-e[-yo])
ナ行変格 (Na-gyō henkaku "N-irregular") ~あ (-a) ~い (-i) ~う (-u) ~うる (-uru) ~うれ (-ure) ~え (-e)
ラ行変格 (Ra-gyō henkaku "R-irregular") ~あ (-a) ~い (-i) ~い (-i) ~う (-u) ~え (-e) ~え (-e)
Table notes[edit]

The placement of the "-" (or "~" in the Japanese text) indicates where the stem of the vowel is. In other words, for a consonant-stem verb (i.e., the quadrigrade and N- and R-irregular classes), the final vowel is not considered part of the verb's root, so it is separated. However, for vowel-stem verbs (i.e., the upper and lower monograde and bigrade and K- ad S-irregular), the final vowel is considered part of the stem, except in the forms beginning in う (u), because these reflect an ancient contraction of the final vowel of the verb with that ending. The K- and S-irregular classes are also special in this regard, because they are believed to be derived from vowel-stem verbs originally, but were subject to ancient contractions that caused the to lose their final vowel in all forms, and so their final vowels are no longer considered part of their roots (and are thus separated from them), even though they are considered vowel-stem verbs.

The よ (yo) at the end of the imperative forms of upper and lower monograde and bigrade verbs and of K- and S-irregular verbs is optional in classical Japanese, although exceedingly common.

Verb class distribution[edit]

While the many conjugation classes may seem overwhelming, most of them contain few verbs. The quadrigrade and lower bigrade classes are the primary, containing about 75% and 20% of the verbs in the language, respectively. The upper bigrade class is small (about 56 non-compound verbs), but sizable enough to make an exhaustive list difficult. The other 6 classes all together contain between 22 and 28 verbs, depending on whether basic compound verbs are included or not. An exhaustive list of these follows, which verbs in the conclusive form, as is the most-common standard. Chinese character pronunciations are indicated by hiragana in parentheses following the given character. The first spelling listed for a given verb is the most common, and those that follow are alternate spellings. Some of these spellings are generally used for slightly different connotations of the same verb, while others are simple alternatives. In later reference, only the first spelling (in pre-WWII orthography) will be used, and the transcription will be based on the historical spelling. A black cell in one (or both) of the "modern" columns indicates that the modern spelling and/or transcription is the same as the pre-WWII version.

Japanese (Pre-WWII orthography) Japanese (Modern orthography) English (Pre-WWII orthography) English (Modern orthography) Translation
上一段活用動詞 (Kami ichidan katsuyou doushi "Upper monograde conjugation class verbs")
着(き)る Ki-ru To wear
似(に)る Ni-ru To resemble
煮(に)る Ni-ru To boil
嚏(ひ)る Hi-ru To sneeze
干(ひ)る、乾(ひ)る Hi-ru To dry
簸(ひ)る Hi-ru To winnow
廻(み)る、回(み)る Mi-ru To go around
見(み)る、視(み)る、觀(み)る identical, identical, 観(み)る Mi-ru To see
鑑(かゞ)みる 鑑(かが)みる Kagami-ru To learn from
顧(かへり)みる、省(かへり)みる 顧(かえり)みる、省(かえり)みる Kaherimi-ru Kaerimi-ru To reflect upon
試(こゝろ)みる 試(こころ)みる Kokoromi-ru To try
射(い)る I-ru To shoot (an arrow)
沃(い)る I-ru To douse (with water)
鑄(い)る 鋳(い)る I-ru To cast (metal)
居(ゐ)る 居(い)る Wi-ru I-ru To sit
率る(ゐ)、將(ゐ)る 率(い)る、将(い)る Wi-ru I-ru To carry (constantly)
率(ひき)ゐる 率(ひき)いる Hikiwi-ru Hikii-ru To lead (an army)
用(もち)ゐる 用(もち)いる Mochiwi-ru Mochii-ru To use
下一段活用動詞 (Shimo ichidan katsuyou doushi "Lower monograde conjugation class verbs")
蹴(け)る Ke-ru To kick
カ行変格活用動詞 (Ka-gyō henkaku doushi "K-irregular verbs")
來(く) 来(く) K-u To come
サ行変格活用動詞 (Sa-gyō henkaku katsuyou doushi "S-irregular conjugation class verbs")
爲(す) 為(す) S-u To do
御(お)座(は)す 御(お)座(わ)す Ohas-u Owas-u To be/go/come (honorific form)
ナ行変格活用動詞 (Na-gyō henkaku katsuyou doushi "N-irregular conjugation class verbs")
往(い)ぬ、去(い)ぬ In-u To go away
死(し)ぬ Shin-u To die
ラ行変格活用動詞 (Ra-gyō henkaku katsuyou doushi "R-irregular conjugation class verbs")
有(あ)り、在(あ)り Ar-i To exist
在(いま)すかり、坐(いま)すかり Imasukar-i To exist (honorific form)
侍(はべ)り Haber-i To serve (humble form)
居(を)り 居(お)り Wor-i Or-i To be
Table notes[edit]

Note that these translations are glosses, and may not reflect certain nuances or rare alternative meanings.

In addition, the translations are for the classical meaning of the verb, which may differ from the modern meaning of the verb if it has survived into modern Japanese either slightly (e.g., 着(き)る ki-ru, which meant "to wear [in general]" in classical Japanese, but means "to wear [from the waist up]" in modern Japanese), or significantly (e.g., 居(ゐ)る wi-ru, which meant "to sit" in classical Japanese, but primarily means "to be" (for animate objects) in modern Japanese). Some may have the same meaning, but a different pronunciation (e.g., 鑑(かゞ)みる kagami-ru "to learn from," which is generally pronounced and written 鑑(かんが)みる kangami-ru in modern Japanese). Also, even for those verbs which have survived with the same meaning and form, many are archaic and rarely used in modern Japanese (e.g., 嚏(ひ)る hi-ru "to sneeze," with the same modern meaning and form, but almost never used). On the other hand, some have kept the same meaning, form, and prominence into the modern language (e.g., 見(み)る mi-ru "to see," one of the oldest surviving verbs in the language and also one of the most common, both in classical and modern texts).

在すかり (imasukar-i "to exist" (honorific form) has three pronunciation variants, each of which can use either Chinese character: 在(いま)すがり/坐(いま)すがり (imasugar-i), 在そかり/坐そかり (imasokar-i), and 在そがり/坐そがり (imasogar-i).

Finally, the "modern" transcriptions are purely orthographic. For example, the modern version conclusive form of the classical verb 來(く)(k-u "to come") is 来(く)る (k-uru), but the modern form is given in the table as 来(く)(k-u), which is the way that a modern Japanese writer would write the classical Japanese word, rather than the way they would write the modern Japanese word.

Adjectives (形容詞 Keiyoushi)[edit]

Classical Japanese has the following classes of adjectives and stem forms:

活用 (Katsuyou "Conjugation class") Conjugation type 未然形 (Mizenkei "Irrealis form) 連用形 (Ren'youkei "Continuitive form") 終止形 (Shūshikei "Conclusive form") 連体形 (Rentaikei "Attributie form") 已然形 (Izenkei "Realis form") 命令形 (Meireikei "Imperative form")
ク活用 (Ku-katsuyou "Ku-conjugation class") Basic conjugations ~け (-ke) ~く(-ku) ~し (-shi) ~き (-ki) ~け(れ) (-ke[re])
Compound conjugations ~から (-kar-a) ~かり (-kar-i) ~かる (-kar-u) ~かれ (-kar-e) ~かれ (-kar-e)
シク活用 (Shiku-katsuyou "Shiku-conjugation class") Basic conjugations ~しけ (-shike) ~しく (-shiku) ~し (-shi) ~しき (-shiki) ~しけ(れ) (-sike[re])
Compound conjugations ~しから (-shikar-a) ~しかり (-shikar-i) ~しかる (-shikar-u) ~しかれ (-shikar-e) ~しかれ (-shikar-e)
Table notes[edit]

Some of these forms are very rare and used sparingly. In particular, the ~け (-ke) / ~しけ (-shike) are used almost exclusively in an ancient construction called ク語法 (Ku-gohō "Ku-grammr") which uses the irrealis for to form nouns from verbs and adjectives; e.g., 安(やす)し (Yasu-si "Peaceful") ⇒ 安(やす)け (Yasu-ke) + ~く (-ku) = 安(やす)けく (Yasukeku "Peace of mind"). The construction ~くば (-kuba) / ~しくば (-shikuba) appears to be an irrealis form ~く (-ku) / ~しく (-shiku) + particle ~ば (-ba) (since that particle usually attaches to the irrealis form), but is actually ~く (-ku) / ~しく (-shiku) + particle は (ha; modern pronunciation wa) with a sequential voicing sound change from は (ha) to ば (ba).

The compound forms are derived from continuitive form ~く (-ku) / ~しく (-shiku) + 有り (ar-i) = ~くあり (-kuar-i) / ~しくあり (-shikuar-i), which then became ~かり (-kar-i) / ~しかり (-shikar-i) by regular sound change rules from Old Japanese. The forms then follow the R-irregular conjugation type like 有り (ar-i), but lack the conclusive form.

Similarly, the basic conjugations have no imperative form. When it is used, therefore, the ~かれ (-kar-e) / ~しかれ (-shikar-e) forms are used. It is however, relatively rare, even in classical Japanese.

Adjectival verbs (形容動詞 Keiyou doushi)[edit]

There are the following classes for adjectival verbs:

Header text 未然形 (Mizenkei "Irrealis form") 連用形 (Ren'youkei "Continuitive form") 終止形 (Shūshikei "Conclsive form") 連体形 (Rentaikei "Attributive form) 已然形 (Izenkei "Realis form) 命令形 (Meireikei "Imperative form")
ナリ活用 (Nari-katsuyou "Nari-conjugation class") ~なら (-nar-a) ~に (-ni) / ~なり (-nar-i) ~なり (-nar-i) ~なる (-nar-u) ~なれ (-nar-e) ~なれ (-nar-e)
タリ活用 (Tari-katsuyou "Tari-conjugation class") ~たら (-tar-a) ~と (-to) / ~たり (-tar-i) ~たり (-tar-i) ~たる (-tar-u) ~たれ (-tar-e) ~たれ (-tar-e)
Table notes[edit]

Adjectival verbs are essentially nouns combined with a copula, either ~なり (-nar-i) or ~たり (-tar-i). Which copula is used is specific to the adjectival verb in question.

The copulas are derived from directional particles に (ni) + ~有り (-ar-i) and と (to) + ~有り (-ar-i), respectively, yielding にあり (niar-i) and とあり (toar-i), respectively, which then lead to なり (nar-i) and たり (tar-i), respectively, by regular sound change rules. They therefore follow the R-irregular conjugation like 有り (ar-i).

As with adjectives, the imperative form is rare, but is used.



Toudai moto kurashi
The particle は is omitted more often than in the spoken style.


Wonna wa sangai-ni ihe-nashi

See also[edit]

External links[edit]