Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, your ever-expanding personal library of Japanese language and culture resources. We hope that you’ll continue to learn along with this constantly updating and ever-growing content! There is always something more to learn, and if you’ve kept up with our previous lessons, you may have noticed that we’ll sometimes sprinkle in some quick facts that may be a bit more advanced within the essential lessons. And, we do that to hopefully get your interest piqued, preparing you for future lessons that will bring all of these concepts into light. If there’s a concept related to Japanese language and culture, we, your guides, Kiki and Koko, will be there, creating hopefully understandable, absorbable content that gives you the perspective and concepts you need to delve even further! As a beginner or even intermediate Japanese language learner, you’re most likely already familiar with the concept of kana and kanji. However, this system that we use today was not always this way. And, whilst there are many steps in between, there is a concept related to 当て字, ateji, that may cause this concept to make a bit more sense along with the very basics of Japanese itself such as 伊呂波, iroha, and why these ABC’s don’t exactly follow the いろは we know in this day, but also the reason why so many 当て字, ateji, can be so consistently inconsistant with what we know and learn today.
The purpose of this quick lesson will not be to give an extremely detailed history of Japanese writing as a whole, but rather, to give you some quick notes which we hope will make the concept of 万葉仮名, man’yougana, as we mention it in future lessons, make more sense. Though this concept is, again, a bit of an exception to the rules, it can be helpful to get those sorts of ideas into your mind to realise early on that even though there’s a convenient and generally organised system in place, that there’s also times that there will be a bit of a fuss to suss out over some words due to historical reasons. But, perhaps, you have no idea what kanji is or how the whole concept of Japanese writing even functions? Well, no worries, though you’ll get the best experience by going through most of the previous lessons, you can at least get a basic and quick understanding by having a read of these previous lessons.
Simplify, Man! | 平易にさせてよ君!
Believe it or not, in a way, Japanese has actually become simpler to pronounce over time, and as for writing, objectively, it’s become more understandable. A long time ago, in 上代日本語, joudai nihongo, otherwise known as Old Japanese, from the 8th century, though the exact sounds are debated, there was a larger array of sounds that have been condensed into the much fewer morae we use today. Before the proper existence of kana as we know it, there were even sounds that would fill in more of the current 五十音, gojuuon, like ye and yi.
It’s said that there were around 90 sounds in Old Japanese. However, in the Wild
West East of writing in ancient Japanese, as we mentioned in the 当て字, ateji, introductory lesson, there was no rhyme nor reason to the characters borrowed from China in order to transcribe. Whichever character they fancied would be plugged into whichever word they cared to put it in, only focusing on its sound rather than anything to do with its meaning. Think of it as using random alphabet characters for their sound without a proper set spellingーwhich oddly enough, is how it had formed before proper dictionaries came into place in the English speaking world. However, some order came into the picture with today’s magical set of characters known as 万葉仮名, manyougana.
Rather than choosing from 50,000 Chinese characters, the then around 90 sounds were represented by a set of 970 characters. So, certainly this was a step in a more simplified direction. Though, even still, these characters had nothing to do with meaning, only functioning as a complex alphabet. But, where did these particular characters even originate?
Leaf Collection to Leaf Writing|葉のコレクションから葉の書きまで
In order to understand the concept of 万葉仮名, manyougana, one has to understand the origin. After knowing about 当て字, ateji, the concept of 仮名, kana, begins to make a bit more sense, as kana itself stand as meaningless phonetic symbols meant only for pronunciation. Be sure to keep this in mind as you continue so your mind doesn’t explode from the parallel you’ll discover.
Now, the reason why it’s called 万葉仮名, manyougana, is due to its origin, 万葉集, manyoushuu, otherwise known as the 10,000 leaves collection, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves. Basically, this is considered one of, if not the most, important collection of texts especially considering its contribution to Japanese language and culture as a whole. It is basically these kanji found in the 万葉集, manyoushuu, that gave a bit of regulation to which characters were to be used in future. So, again, it’s still quite a vast amount of characters, around 970, but when narrowing it down from thousands, it certainly does seem like more of a legitimate reform. Each character, though there were still many that stood for the same sound, would represent one to two sounds, however the meaning of each character was still pointless, unlike today, where beginners can suss out the general meaning of a word based on the characters contained in it, even if they may not know the reading.
These characters still can be found to this day in words like 伊呂波, iroha, or even many country names. Even the word for English, 英語, eigo, stems from the abbreviation of England’s 当て字, ateji, spelling: 英吉利, igirisu. In fact, that’s why if you’ll see such consistency through many country and continent names like 亜細亜, ajia, 亜米利加, amerika, but also the same reason you’ll see the strange inconsistency like in 阿弗利加, afurika. However, as you look at characters like 亜 and 加, you may start to see some similarities in another phonetic writing system.
The Unmasking | 暴露
After just examining a few characters, it’s time to take off 亜 and 加’s masks to see who they REALLY are・・・ あ and か!? Oh yes, 仮名, kana,’s origins began with none other than 万葉仮名, manyougana. In a writing system that relies so heavily, now, on meaning and kanji context, it may have been a wonder how the simpler characters with no meaning came to be. And, with a simple explanation, hopefully the parallels are clearer. Of course, now, there are not only fewer sounds, but fewer characters which are kana that function for the pure purpose of phonetics, but equally, we hope that this may show an appreciation for kanji and the way it functions in most modern text. Without it, it would be like only reading hiragana with no way of knowing the difference between homophones that have either always existed or formed over time with the simplification of pronunciation. And even when you do ever stumble upon words that don’t follow the rules, you’ll at least know why these renegade kanji exist, and that maybeーjust maybeーthey’re not all that wild after all.
We hope we were able to give you a simple and absorbable explanation of man’yougana along with some fun historical facts that may have helped you understand why things function the ways that they do. Though, of course, you could simply just take in the ideas and not question them, we think it’s important to at least give a bit of background about why the language is in its current state and how, even what may seem like a bundle of strokes and ink, there’s actually quite an organised way about it. Over thousands of years, languages are bound to change, and often, they’ll change to make things simpler or more absorbable in a positive way like in this case. Of course, we miss a lot of the recent characters that have become obsolete, but at least as a language learner, you’ll have rhyme and reason for how poetry somehow begat an entire part of the Japanese writing system as we know it. And, now, when we mention man’yougana, you’ll hopefully have an understanding of it and actually be able to follow along, knowing you’re in the know.
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