Late Middle Japanese

Late Middle Japanese
Late Middle Japanese
Spoken in Japan
Extinct Evolved into Modern Japanese in the 17th century
Language family
  • Late Middle Japanese
Writing system Hiragana, Katakana, and Han
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Late Middle Japanese (中世日本語 chūsei nihongo?) is a stage of the Japanese language following Early Middle Japanese and preceding Modern Japanese.[1] It is a period of transition in which the language sheds many of its archaic features and becomes closer to its modern form.

The period spanned roughly 500 years extending from the 12th century through the 16th century. It is customarily split into an Early and Late division.[2] Politically, the first half of Late Middle Japanese consists of the end of the Heian period known as Insei and the Kamakura period; the second half of Late Middle Japanese consists of the Muromachi period.



The end of the 12th century was a time of transition from the aristocratic society of the nobles into the Heian period to the feudalistic society of the warrior class. Accompanying this change, the political center moved with establishment of various shogunates in the east.

Various new Buddhist movements began and literacy increased due their spread.[3]

In the middle of 16th century, Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan. While introducing western concepts and technology, they also shared their language. Various Portuguese loanwords entered the language.[4]

In an attempt to spread their religion, the Portuguese missionaries studied and learned Japanese. They created a number of linguistic grammars, dictionaries, and even translated some of their literature. These resources have proven extremely valuable in Late Middle Japanese studies.



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

  • /i/: [i]
  • /e/: [je], [e]?
  • /a/: [a]
  • /o/: [wo], [o]?
  • /u/: [u]

Initially, /e/ and /o/ were realized as semivowels [j] and [w], respectively. This is a result of earlier mergers inherited from Early Middle Japanese. However, it is unclear and a matter of debate to how they were realized when preceded by a consonant.[5]

In addition, there were two types of long o: [ɔː] and [oː]. The vowel sequence /au/ contracted into [ɔː], while /ou/ and /eu/ contracted into [oː] and [joː], respectively.[6] Several examples include:

  • /hayaku/ "quickly" > /hayau/: [ɸajaku] > [ɸajau] > [ɸajɔː]
  • /omou/ "think": [womou] > [womoː]


Late Middle Japanese had the following consonant inventory:

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular
Stop p  b t  d     k  ɡ  
Affricate   t͡s  d͡z t͡ɕ  d͡ʑ      
Nasal m n       ɴ
Fricative ɸ s  z ɕ  ʑ      
Flap     ɺ      
Approximant       j ɰ  

In addition, there are two phonemes /N/ and /Q/. "Before a pause, /N/ is a uvular [ɴ]; it assimilates to the place of articulation of a following stop, affricate, or nasal". "/Q/ becomes a phonetic copy of a following obstruent".[7]

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

Labialized consonants /kw, gw/ appeared during Early Middle Japanese. During this period, labialized consonants preceding -i and -e merged with their non-labial counterparts.[8] Specifically:

  • /kwi/ > /ki/
  • /gwi/ > /gi/
  • /kwe/ > /ke/
  • /gwe/ > /ge/

The distinction between /ka/ and /kwa/ remained.

The sibilants /s, z/ were palatalized before /i/ and /e/. They have the following distribution:[9]

  • /sa, za/: [sa, za]
  • /si, zi/: [ɕi, ʑi]
  • /su, zu/: [su, zu]
  • /se, ze/: [ɕe, ʑe]
  • /so, zo/: [so, zo]

João Rodrigues notes in Arte da Lingoa de Japam that the eastern dialects are famous for realizing /se/ as [se] rather than [ɕe].[10][11] Note that /se, ze/ has become [se, ze] in Modern Japanese, while retaining [ɕi, ʑi] for /si, zi/.

/t/ and /d/ are distinguished from the sibilants in all positions. However, they undergo affrication before /i, u/:

  • /ti, di/: [t͡ɕi, d͡ʑi]
  • /tu, du/: [tsu, dzu]


Voiced plosives and fricatives were prenasalized[12]:

  • /g/: [ⁿɡ]
  • /z/: [ⁿz]
  • /d/: [ⁿd]
  • /b/: [ⁿb]

João Rodrigues makes this observation in Arte da Lingoa de Japam. In addition, the Korean text "Chephay sine spells [...] b, d, z, g with the Hangul letter sequences -mp-, -nt-, -nz-, -ngk-"[9] indicating prenasalization.

The effects of prenasalization may also be seen in the transcription of words such as muma < /uma/ "horse" and mube < /ube/ "truly".

/h/ and /p/

Although Proto-Japanese had a *[p], by Old Japanese it had already become [ɸ] and subsequently [h] during Early Modern Japanese where it remains today. Late Middle Japanese reintroduces [p]. [p] contrasts with [ɸ] and is thus treated as a new phoneme. It is found in mimetic words such as pinpin and patto as well as in Chinese loanwords such as sanpai and nippon.[13]

Medial /h/ becomes [w] when followed by /a/. Before all other vowels, it becomes zero.[14][15] Thus:

  • /-ha/: [wa]
  • /-hi/: [i]
  • /-hu/: [u]
  • /-he/: [je]
  • /-ho/: [wo]


/w/ has the following distribution:

  • /wa/: [wa]
  • /wi/: [i]
  • /we/: [je]
  • /wo/: [wo]

The prior merger between /o/ and /wo/ into [wo] during Early Middle Japanese continues into Late Middle Japanese with the addition of /e/ and /we/ merging into [je] by the 12th century.

/y/ has the following distribution:

  • /ya/: [ja]
  • /yu/: [ju]
  • /ye/: [je]
  • /yo/: [jo]

Due to various mergers, /e/, /we/ and /ye/ are all realized as [je] and thus indistinguishable.

Syllable structure

Traditionally syllables were of (C)V structure. As such, there was no need to distinguish between syllables and morae. However, Chinese loanwords introduced a new type of sound that could end in -m, -n, or -t[16][17][18]. This structure is (C)V(C) and is a syllable. The mora is based on the traditional (C)V structure.

During this period, syllable final -m and -n were initially distinguished; however, by the end of the Early period, both had merged into /N/.[19]

Medial gemination

Syllable final -m, -n, -t follow by a vowel or glide underwent gemination and become consonant clusters -mm-, -nn-, and -tt-.[8][20]

-m > -mm-:

  • samwi > sammi "third rank"

-n > -nn-:

-t > -tt-:

  • set'in > settin "toilet"
  • konnitwa > konnitta "as for today"
  • but'on > button "blessing of Buddha"


Onbin (音便?, "euphony") are a type of sporadic sound changes. They "were not automatic or exceptionless" [21] and their exact causes are still debated. While they also appear in earlier stages of the language, onbin is particularly prevalent throughout Late Middle Japanese in which it has a great effect on verbal and adjectival morphology.


  • yom- "read": /yomite/ > /yoNde/ [joɴde]
  • kuh- "eat": /kuhite/ > /kuute/ [kuːte] :: /kuQte/ [kutte]

In the kuh- example, there are two possible outcomes. The former is particular of the western dialects while the latter particular of the eastern dialects.[22]


  • /hayaku/ "quickly" > /hayau/: [ɸajaku] > [ɸajau] > [ɸajɔː]
  • /kataki/ "hard" > /katai/ [katai]

In both words the medial -k- drops out via velar elision.


A number of archaic grammatical forms are shed bringing the language closer to its modern form.

One of the most prominent developments is the replacement of the conclusive form with the attributive. [23] This has a number of effects:

  • It is instrumental in the change from bigrade to monograde verbs.[24]
  • It causes a chain of events in the two adjectival classes which eventually results in the two merging into one.
  • It weakens the Kakarimusubi system.
  • The verb ar- "be", which was once irregular, begins to regularize as a quadrigrade.


Late Middle Japanese inherits all nine verbal conjugations from Early Middle Japanese:

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

However, throughout the period bigrade verbs gradually change into monogrades. This process comes to a completion during Early Modern Japanese. This is in part a result of the merging of the conclusive and attributive forms.[24]


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

The regular adjective was traditionally sub-classified into two types: those whose adverbial form ends in -ku and those whose ends in –siku:[25]

Adjective Class Irrealis Adverbial Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative Notes
-ku   -ku -si -ki      
  -u -ki -i     Early
  -u -i -i     Late
-kara -kari   -karu -kere -kare  
-siku   -siku -si -siki      
  -siu -sisi -sii     Early
  -siu -sii -sii     Late
-sikara -sikari   -sikaru -sikere -sikare  

There were three notable changes that eventually collapse this two-way distinction into one:

  • In the Early period, the -siku conclusive develops a -sisi form.
  • The conclusive and attributive forms merge
  • In the Late period, adjectival suffix -ki is reduced to -i

There are two classes of adjectival nouns inherited from Early Middle Japanese: -nar and -tar.

Type Irrealis Adverbial Conclusive Attributive Realis Imperative Notes
Nar- -nara -nari
-nari -naru
-nare   Early
-nara -ni
-nare   Late
Tar-   -to -tari -taru     Early
  -to   -taru     Late

The most prominent development is the reduction of attributive -naru to -na.[26] When the conclusive and attributive merge, they both share the new -na. The tar- type becomes more archaic and is continually reduced in distribution.


The realis base develops into the hypothetical.[27] The realis base was used to describe something that has already occurred. This usage begins to fade and results in hypothetical usage that have not already occurred. Note that Modern Japanese only has a hypothetical, not a realis base anymore.


The imperative traditionally concluded without any suffix or with -yo. During this period, the suffix -i was attached to lower bigrade, k-irregular and s-irregular verbs:[28]

  • kure + i: kurei "give me"
  • ko + i: koi "come"
  • se + i: sei "do"

João Rodrigues notes in Arte da Lingoa de Japam that -yo could be replaced with -ro as in miyo > miro "look".[29]. Note that the eastern dialects of Old Japanese during the 8th century also contained this -ro imperative. It is also the standard imperative in Modern Japanese.

Tense and aspect

The tense and aspect systems undergo radical changes. The perfective n-, t-, and r- as well as the past tense k-/s- and ker- become obsolete. In their place tar- develops from perfective aspect into a common past tense. This eventually becomes ta, the modern past tense marker.[30]


A new case particle de is developed from ni te.[31]

The conjecture suffix -mu undergoes a number of phonological changes: mu > m > N > ũ. Combining with the vowel from the irrealis base to which it attaches, it would then become a long vowel sometimes with a preceding -y-.

See also


  1. ^ Shibatani (1990: 119)
  2. ^ Nakata (1972: 175)
  3. ^ Kondō (2005: 97)
  4. ^ Shibatani (1990: 121)
  5. ^ Nakata (1972: 181)
  6. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 86-87)
  7. ^ Miyake (2003: 76-77)
  8. ^ a b Kondō (2005: 103)
  9. ^ a b Miyake (2003: 75)
  10. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 87-88)
  11. ^ Doi (1955:613)
  12. ^ Ōno (2000: 53-54)
  13. ^ Nakata (1972: 197-198)
  14. ^ Kondō (2005: 71)
  15. ^ Miyake (2003: 74-75)
  16. ^ Nakata (1972:222-226)
  17. ^ Doi (1955:230-232)
  18. ^ Martin (1987:73-75)
  19. ^ Kondō (2005: 102)
  20. ^ Martin (1987:75)
  21. ^ Frellesvig (1995: 21)
  22. ^ Kondō (2005: 128)
  23. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 95-96)
  24. ^ a b Tsuboi (2007: 14-30)
  25. ^ Matsumura (1971: 961, 966-967)
  26. ^ Kondō (2005: 113)
  27. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 96)
  28. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 97)
  29. ^ Yamaguchi (1997: 97-98)
  30. ^ Shibatani (1990: 123)
  31. ^ Kondō (2005: 113-114)


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