Early Middle Japanese

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Early Middle Japanese
EraEvolved into Late Middle Japanese at the end of the 12th century
Early form
Hiragana, Katakana, and Han
Language codes
ISO 639-3ojp (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.

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: kana scripts 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 were characteristic of this period.

The most prominent difference was the loss of the 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 in Early Middle Japanese. The final distinction to be lost was /ko1, go1/ vs. /ko2, go2/.[2]

During the 10th century, /e/ and /je/ merged into /je/, while /o/ and /wo/ 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 ɡ
Fricative ɸ s z
Liquid r
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]


Syntactically, Early Middle Japanese is an SOV (subject-object-verb) language with topic-comment structure. Morphologically it is agglutinative. Major word classes are nouns and pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and various grammatical particles. Nouns may be followed by particles to indicate case, but also occur without a following particle. Verbs are obligatorily marked with affixes, many of which are inflected as verbs in their own right, allowing the build-up of complex strings of suffixes. Adjectives are largely inflected for the same categories as verbs, and so are often referred to as 'stative verbs'.

Nouns and Pronouns[edit]

Nouns occur with postpositive case particles. The major case particles are:

  • -ga and -no (genitive.)
  • -wo (accusative). Optional.
  • -ni (dative/locative).-ni has 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 is optional.
  • -yori (ablative).
  • -made (terminative: 'until'; 'as far as').
  • -to (comitative: 'with'; essive 'as').
  • -fe (allative: 'to'). -fe is derived from the noun fe (邊 [辺] or 方) 'vicinity; direction', which is 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 is marked by the absence of a particle in main clauses, and by the genitive particles in subordinate clauses. The dative/locative particle -ni is homophonous with the simple infinitive form of the copula -ni, which 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 provide other case functions, e.g. -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 are derived from genitive particle + Location Noun + appropriate case particle (typically locative -ni) and are used particularly to express spatial and temporal relations. Major Location Nouns are mafe 'front' (Noun-no mafe-ni 'in front of Noun'), ufe 'top' (Noun-no ufe-ni 'on top of Noun' ~ 'above Noun'), sita 'underneath' (Noun-no sita-ni 'under Noun), saki 'ahead' (Noun-no saki-ni 'ahead of Noun)', etc.


Early Middle Japanese verb inflection is agglutinative. All verbs are conjugated in a small number of 'stems', and may be combined with grammaticalized verbs that express tense, aspect, mood, voice, and polarity. Several of these grammaticalized verbs may combine in a string, and each component determines the choice of stem of the preceding component. A small number of other grammatical endings are not verbs, but carry various coordinating or subordinating functions.

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


Traditionally verbs are divided into five regular conjugations: quadrigrade (yodan 四段), upper monograde (kami ichidan 上一段), lower monograde (shimo ichidan 下一段), upper bigrade (kami nidan 上二段), lower bigrade (shimo nidan 下二段). There are also four 'irregular' conjugations: K-irregular (kahen カ変), S-irregular (sahen サ変), N-irregular (nahen ナ変), R-irregular (rahen ラ変). The conjugation of each is divided into six stems: irrealis (mizenkei 未然形), infinitive (ren'yōkei 連用形), conclusive (shūshikei 終止形), attributive (rentaikei 連体形), realis (izenkei 已然形) and imperative (meireikei 命令形). The English names for the irrealis and the realis differ from author to author, including negative and evidential, or imperfective and perfective, or irrealis and realis.

Verb Class Irrealis Infinitive 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

The system of nine conjugation classes appears 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 consist of the quadrigrade, N-irregular and R-irregular verbs. The irregularity of N-irregular verbs occurs only in the conclusive and the attributive, and as there are no quadrigrade verbs with an n-root we can treat quadrigrade and N-irregular verb patterns 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 is i or e. There is only one 'lower' monograde verb, ke- 'kick', which was a 'lower' bigrade verb kuwe- in Old Japanese, and which changed classes again in later Japanese to become quadrigrade (Modern Japanese ker-). The difference between bigrade and monograde is whether, in the conclusive, attributive and realis, the initial u of the ending elides the vowel of the root or the vowel of the roots elides the initial u of the ending.

There are problems with this arrangement of stems. (1.) The irrealis does not occur by itself, but instead always with another ending. There is good evidence that it actually consists of a fusion of the root of the verb with the a-sound that begins the following ending, e.g. quadrigrade yom- 'recite' + -azu Negative has been interpreted as a stem yoma- + -zu.[10] (2.) The infinitive has two functions, namely a linking function with another verb or with a verb ending and a nominal function as a verb-noun, and these two functions were distinguished in having different pitch patterns. (3.) The conclusive occurs as it is in the above table only at the end of a sentence (including before a quotative particle to), whereas before tomo 'even if' monograde verbs use the infinitive instead (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 (e.g. ari 'is' at the end of a sentence, but aru-besi 'has to be'). The likelihood is that the monograde verb form used before tomo is the earlier true conclusive form, and in Old Japanese this is 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 of the form -ubesi, and that a fusion of the root of the verb with the u-sound of the ending, e.g. quadrigrade yom- 'recite' + -ubesi, has been interpreted as conclusive yomu + -besi. This means that the apparently anomalous u in aru-besi is part of the ending, not of the verb stem.[12] In Old Japanese, the root of the ending -ubesi, ube, is 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[edit]

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

Verb-like endings[edit]

Verb-like endings behave like verbs, in that they exhibit all or most of the stems that a lexical verb exhibits. The commonest forms are listed below, and the way in which they are attached to the preceding verb follows the revised system of stems above. A verb may 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][edit]

  • Infinitive + -te: 'and (then/so), when, because'. It usually expresses a close sequential link between the verbs that it connects. The subjects of the two verbs connected by -te are usually but not always the same.
  • Realis + -ba: 'and (then/so), when, because'. It usually expresses a looser sequential link between the verbs that it connects. The subject of the two verbs connected by -ba are usually but not alway different.
  • -ade: negative 'and', 'without ... ing', 'rather than ... ', functionally an alternative to -azu-te.
  • Realis + -do or -do-mo: 'although, but'. The longer form involves 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 take the conclusive stem, bigrade verbs take the infinitive in earlier texts, and R-irregular verbs take the attributive stem.
  • Infinitive + -nagara: 'while, while still' or 'despite'.


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

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. ^ 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.

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]