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I've always been puzzled over why 大きい isn't 大い and 小さい is not 小い. Is there some etymological reason? (I'm suspecting historical conjugations that changed the き and さ too, just like why 食べる has the べ since it used to alternate with ぶ; is this true?)

Similar weird okurigana are か in 静か, か in 暖かい. Is there some historical reason that caused しず and あたた to be seen as more central to the word than the か following it (which does not conjugate)?

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Not sure why someone downvoted this. Sjiveru's comment is good too. –  jogloran Jul 3 '13 at 5:34
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

For 静か and 暖かい, the か is a fossilised grammatical element (cf. 静まる and 暖まる, which don't have it).

As for 大きい, it's written with き to differentiate it from 大い, which is a 形容動詞 (albeit with a similar meaning). 小さい's case is a little less clear, since while there is a word that's written 小い, it's a very informal word (ちっこい) typically written with kana. It may be out of a desire to match up with 大きい. There's a few other adjectives that have extra okurigana for differentiation purposes as well (eg. 危ない and 危うい from each other, or 少ない's archaic 終止形 少なし from 少し).

The fact that both of these adjectives (大きい and 小さい) have irregular 連体形s (大きな, 小さな) may also contribute to their unusual spelling. Certainly 大きい has an odd history - it started off as *əpəsi, 連体形 *əpəki, just like any other adjective; but in the Heian-jidai it started being used as a 形容動詞 as well (of the form *owoki (nari)). This in turn led to its root being reinterpreted from owo- to owoki- in the Muromachi-jidai, and the -(k/ɕ)i just ɡot stuck back on the end to form owokiɕi (> modern 大きい, via the 連体形>終止形 shift).

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Could you explain exactly how the か came about? What is the conjugation of 静まる? I'm presuming it is irregular or something, otherwise why not put ま inside the kanji reading too? –  user54609 Jul 3 '13 at 10:19
    
@EricDong See this answer for some discussion of か. –  snailboat Jul 3 '13 at 10:27
    
@EricDong The reason 静まる leaves the ま out is because it's also part of a grammatical affix -まる, meaning 'to grow ADJECTIVE' (eg. 高まる, 'to get taller'). The root for both 静か and 静まる is just しず (which is what you'll find in places that use bare roots, such as names). 静まる is a totally regular godan verb, though. –  Sjiveru Jul 3 '13 at 15:30
    
@EricDong More practically, まる helps to distinguish 静まる from 静める. Don't necessarily expect regularity with the morpheme rule, though. There are also kun readings, like 陥る, that span multiple morphemes. –  dainichi Jul 4 '13 at 0:13
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