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Sometime in the early 20th century, usage of the now-historical kana ゐ and ゑ (and their katakana equivalents) dropped off, being replaced with い and え in modern Japanese. What exactly happened here and why?

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up vote 21 down vote accepted

Because the pronunciation was lost. "Wi" and "we" are still in some dialects, but standard Japanese does not have those sounds. These characters were just spelling. Similarly in English, we pronounce "through" as "thru" because the "gh" sound is long gone.

After World War II there was a massive language overhaul, and they changed/standardized spelling and also made the Toyo (revised to Joyo) kanji list.

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As Nate said, it was because there was confusion with other characters which sounded similar. Wikipedia has more info for Wi and We –  Chris Gaunt May 31 '11 at 23:30
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I would be very interested to know in which dialects these sounds still appear. –  hippietrail Jun 1 '11 at 9:22
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@hippietrail: ask it as a new question :) –  Nicolas Raoul Jun 2 '11 at 0:57
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These are not used in any dialects, as long as you don't count Ryukyuan languages (such as Okinawan or Amami) as a dialect. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 3 '11 at 10:03
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Man, I wish we could have a Language overhaul for english and drop all the silent characters in our spelling conventions. –  Nathan Jun 7 '12 at 16:07
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