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「ゆう」 is neither the kun'yomi nor on'yomi of 「昨」 and 「べ」 is not a pronunciation of 「夜」 either. The same can be said about the pronunciation 「きょう」 for 「今日」.

So how come the pronunciations of the two words are like those? If they are special, what was the origin of such pronunciations?

EDIT:

To respond to Mark Hosang answer on ゆうべ, from my dictionary software:

yuube

p/s: yup, the "sakuya" pronunciation is also there :)

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It'd be nice to know origins of the other irregular relative time-based words as well (昨日, 一昨日, 明後日, etc.). –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 1 '11 at 9:01
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Reading the comments below, I came to have a feeling that somehow, the word 義訓, which is rarely used among Japanese, is popular among English-speaking Japanese learners, and is understood in a wrong way. The official term for these reading is 熟字訓読み. You can find more of this type of readings here: ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%86%9F%E5%AD%97%E8%A8%93 –  user458 Aug 4 '11 at 22:51

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The reading ゆうべ comes from the still-in-use word 夕べ(ゆうべ), which apparently came from an old reading for 夕方(ゆうへ)(today usually read ゆうがた). The kanji are just "gikun" (義訓), that is, they're used for their meaning only and their reading is ignored.

The word 今日 was originally read けふ, which anybody who has read the iroha-uta probably knows. You can also still hear the old け today in the word 今朝(けさ). It probably turned into けう and then into きょう into the various kana reading changes over the years.

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This is not a case of ateji. Ateji means using a kanji for its sound instead of its meaning. This is using a kanji for its meaning instead of its sound. –  Kef Schecter Jun 8 '11 at 6:04
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@Kef: Yes, the strictly official term would be 義訓 (using kanji for their meaning instead of their reading) but most normal people just call both ways 当て字. –  Matti Virkkunen Jun 8 '11 at 11:51
    
@Kef_Schecter This is most normally and officially called 熟字訓読み. 義訓 is a less popular way of saying 当て字, which means assigning a reading temporarily. I saw that the dictionary linked mentions 義訓, and probably Matti just believed that, but it is wrong. –  user458 Aug 4 '11 at 22:44

The real pronunciation of 昨夜 is sakuya 「さくや」. ゆうべ is supposed to be written as 夕べ, but since they have same meaning, people just use the same.

今日 is read as きょう for normal everyday usage, but it could be read as こんにち or こんじつ when writing, and could sometimes mean "this days" or "on this era".

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This is one of a few words that use kanji chosen purely for their meaning, rather than sound. Unfortunately, you just have to know about these words and not pronounce them as written. Fortunately, such words are rare.

Other examples:

  • 煙草: タバコ, cigarettes
  • 二十: はたち, twenty (years old)
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They are like the opposite of 当て字, right? Is there a special term for them? –  Lukman Jun 29 '11 at 18:20
    
@Lukman: Yep: 義訓 (gikun). (See Matti Virkkunen's comment to his own answer). –  SuperElectric Jun 29 '11 at 18:24
    
@Lukman This is most normally and officially called 熟字訓読み. 義訓 is a less popular way of saying 当て字, which means assigning a reading temporarily. I saw that the dictionary linked mentions 義訓, and probably Matti just believed that, but it is wrong. –  user458 Aug 4 '11 at 22:45

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