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I looked up 釈迦 at goo辞書 and noticed that there were two alternate readings presented for this word: さか and しゃか. The さか reading is given as being 『「しゃか」の直音表記。』, so these two are clearly the same lexical item, just with different kana representations.

I then looked up 直音 and found that this term basically refers to any mora that can be written using a single kana - so it includes あ・き・す・て・の but excludes きゃ・しゅ・ちょ, as well as non-standard two-kana morae like グァ. One can respell 拗音 (i.e. non-直音) as 直音 by "removing" the middle phone, e.g. /sha/ → /sa/, /myu/ → /mu/, etc.

So I understand what 直音 are, but I do not know why one would choose to take a perfectly good word like しゃか and then rewrite it using only 直音 so that you get さか. When, historically, did people prefer 直音表記 and why? Are there some types of words where the use of 直音表記 is particularly common, e.g. Buddhist terminology?

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I can't find anything that really explains why. FWIW, I did find this Chiebukuro post where someone else wonders why しゃか becomes さか. –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jun 18 at 5:32
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There are other words, like 三味線, etc. I once researched this but what I have written down unfortunately doesn't appear to make sense. I read somewhere about a historical interplay between さ and しゃ… –  snailboat Jun 18 at 8:54
    
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There's also the phonetic similarities between さみせん・しゃみせん・じゃびせん, all strongly suggestive of diachronic dialect shift. じゃびせん is now spelled with different kanji, 蛇皮線, with what appears to be a retconned folk etymology explaining that it's because it uses snakeskin over the soundbox. –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jun 18 at 17:02
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I wonder if this is related to the adoption of the Chinese script and vocabulary which also introduced new complex onsets (拗音) - they may have sounded foreign to Japanese speakers; and we can observe a similar alternation today: ヴァニラ/バニラ, シット・ダウン/スィット・ダウン, コーヒー/コーフィー. –  blutorange Jun 18 at 22:24

1 Answer 1

Historically there were multiple way to write a word, and this wasn't standardized. For example, some very old documents contain both 直音表記 and ヤ行表記.

This was subsequently standardized as 歴史的仮名遣い and then 現代仮名遣い.

So, unless you are living in an ancient era you wouldn't use 直音表記.

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