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Early Modern Japanese

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Title: Early Modern Japanese  
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Subject: Japanese language, Late Middle Japanese, Tokyo dialect, Japanese irregular verbs, Classical Japanese language
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Early Modern Japanese

Early Modern Japanese
Region Japan
Extinct Evolved into Modern Japanese in the mid-19th century
Early forms
Hiragana, Katakana, and Han
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Early Modern Japanese (近世日本語 kinsei nihongo) is a stage of the Japanese language following Middle Japanese and preceding Modern Japanese.[1] It is a period of transition in which the language sheds many of its medieval characteristics and becomes closer to its modern form.

The period spanned roughly 250 years extending from the 17th century through half of the 19th century. Politically, this generally corresponds with the Edo period.


  • Background 1
  • Phonology 2
    • Vowels 2.1
      • Long vowels 2.1.1
    • Consonants 2.2
    • Labialization 2.3
    • Palatalization 2.4
    • Prenasalization 2.5
  • Grammar 3
    • Verbs 3.1
    • Adjectives 3.2
  • Notes 4
  • References 5


At the beginning of the 17th century, the center of government moved to Edo from Kamigata under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate. Until the early Edo period, the Kamigata dialect, the ancestor of the modern Kansai dialect, was the most influential dialect. However, since the late Edo period, the Edo dialect, the ancestor of the modern Tokyo dialect, became the most influential dialect, during the time in which the country closed its borders to foreigners. Compared to the previous centuries, the Tokugawa rule brought about much stability. The newfound stability made the importance of the warrior class gradually fell, to be replaced by the merchant class. There was much economic growth, and new forms of artistic developments appeared such as Ukiyo-e, Kabuki, and Bunraku. This included new literary genres such as Ukiyozōshi, Sharebon (pleasure districts), Kokkeibon (commoners), and Ninjōbon developed. Major authors included Ihara Saikaku, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Matsuo Bashō, Shikitei Sanba, and Santō Kyōden.



There were five vowels: /i, e, a, o, u/.

  • /i/: [i]
  • /e/: [e]
  • /a/: [a]
  • /o/: [o]
  • /u/: [ɯ]

During Middle Japanese, word-initial /e/ and /o/ were realized with the semivowels [j] and [w] preceding the vowel, respectively . Both are realized as simple vowels by the middle of the 18th century.[2]

The high vowels /i, u/ become voiceless [i̥, ɯ̥] between voiceless consonants or the end of the word. This is noted in a number of foreign texts:[3]

  • Diego Collado Ars Grammaticae Iaponicae Lingvae (1632) gives word final examples: gozàru > gozàr, fitòtçu > fitòtç, and àxi no fàra > àx no fàra.
  • E. Kæmpfel's "Geschichte und Beschreibung Von Japan" (1777-1779) and C. P. Thunberg's "Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia" (1788-1793) list word-medial examples: kurosaki > krosaki, atsuka > atska.

Long vowels

Middle Japanese had two types of long o: [ɔː] and [oː]. During this period, both of these merged into [oː] by first half of the 17th century.[4] During the transition, instances of ɔː temporarily had a tendency to become short in Kamigata dialect[5][6]

  • nomɔː > nomo "drink"
  • hayɔː > hayo "quickly"

In addition, each of the other vowels could be lengthened because of various contractions in Edo dialect.[7][8] Most continue to be used in Modern Japanese of both Tokyo and the rest of the Kanto region but are not part of Standard Japanese.

  • /ai/ > [eː]: sekai > sekeː "world", saigo > seːgo "last"
  • /ae/ > [eː]: kaeru > keːru "frog", namae > nameː "name"
  • /oi/ > [eː]: omoɕiroi > omoɕireː
  • /ie/ > [eː]: oɕieru > oɕeːru "teach"
  • /ui/ > [iː]: warui > wariː
  • /i wa/ > [jaː]: kiki wa > kikjaː "listening"
  • /o wa/ > [aː]: nanzo wa > nanzaː (grammar)

The long /uː/ was developed during Middle Japanese and remains unchanged.


Middle Japanese had the following consonant inventory:

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stop p  b t  d     k  ɡ    
Affricate   t͡s  d͡z t͡ʃ  d͡ʒ        
Nasal m n       ɴ  
Fricative ɸ s  z ɕ ç     h
Flap     ɺ        
Approximant       j ɰ    

/t, s, z, h/ each have a number of allophones found before the high vowels [i, ɯ]:

  • t → t͡ʃ / __i
  • t → t͡s / __ɯ
  • z → d͡ʒ / __i
  • z → d͡z / __ɯ
  • h → ç / __i
  • h → ɸ / __ɯ

Several major developments occurred:

  • /zi, di/ and /zu, du/, respectively, no longer contrast
  • /h/ partially develops from [ɸ] into [h, ç]
  • /se/ loses its palatalization and becomes [se]

Middle Japanese had a syllable final -t. This is gradually replaced with the open syllable /tu/.


The labial /kwa, gwa/ merge with their non-labial counterparts into [ka, ga].[9]


The consonants /s, z/, /t/, /n/, /h, b/, /p/, /m/, and /r/ could be palatalized.

Depalatalization may also be seen in the Edo dialect:

  • hyakunin issyu > hyakunisi
  • /teisyu/ > /teisi/ "lord"
  • /zyumyoː/ > /zimyoː/ "life"


Middle Japanese had a series of prenasalized voiced plosives and fricatives: [ŋɡ, nz, nd, mb]. During this stage they lose their prenasalization resulting in ɡ, z, d, b.



Early Modern Japanese has five verbal conjugations:

Verb Class Irrealis
Quadrigrade (四段) -a -i -u -u -e -e
Upper Monograde(上一段) -i -i -iru -iru -ire -i(yo, ro)
Lower Monograde (下一段) -e -e -eru -eru -ere -e(yo, ro)
K-irregular (カ変) -o -i -uru -uru -ure -oi
S-irregular (サ変) -e, -a, -i -i -uru -uru -ure -ei, -iro

As already had already begun during Middle Japanese, the verbal morphology system continues to evolve. The total number of verb classes is reduced from nine to five. Specifically, the r-irregular and n-irregular regularize as quadrigrade, and the upper and lower bigrade classes merge with their respective monograde. This leaves the quadrigrade, upper monograde, lower monograde, k-irregular, s-irregular.[10]


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

Historically the adjective was sub-classified into two types: those where the adverbial form ends in -ku and those that end in –siku. That distinction is lost during this stage.

-kara -ku -i -i -kere -kare

Historically the adjectival noun was sub-classified into two categories: -nar and -tar. During this stage, -tar vanishes leaving only -na.

-dara -ni
-na -nare


  1. ^ Shibatani (1990: 119)
  2. ^ Nakata (1972: 238-239)
  3. ^ Nakata (1972: 239-241)
  4. ^ Nakata (1972: 256)
  5. ^ Nakata (1972: 262-263)
  6. ^ Yamaguchi (1997:116-117)
  7. ^ Nakata (1972: 260-262)
  8. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 150-151)
  9. ^ Yamamoto (1997: 147-148)
  10. ^ Yamaguchi (1997:129)


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