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Given that もの has a rather similar usage as a generic modifier for turning a property into a thing with that property (as 物) or turning a property into a person with that property (as 者) -- it seems plausible that before the introduction of Kanji the word もの referred generically to people and things.

Is there any concrete evidence in favor of that theory? Any details which I have overlooked which make it implausible?

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By "concrete evidence", I assume you mean written records, but what written records existed before Kanji? There are a lot of homophones in japanese. – yadokari Dec 5 '12 at 20:54
@yadokari ...hiragana? Or was just made at the same time as Japanese Kanji? – dotnetN00b Dec 5 '12 at 21:24
@dotnetN00b, kana comes after Man'yōgana which comes after introduction of chinese writing. see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Japanese – yadokari Dec 5 '12 at 21:36
@mmdanziger, Your main question on top does not make sense. 者 and 物 did not exist before the introduction of chinese characters. the word もの might have existed but i think there is no way to know – yadokari Dec 5 '12 at 22:01
Concrete evidence could include early writings that "confuse" the kanji, using them in ways that indicate that the distinction between person and thing is new/unnatural. Perhaps one character was initially used for person and thing and only later the other character was introduced. I am not an expert (otherwise I would not have asked) but I would imagine there have been studies done on cases such as this. Regarding the name of the question I couldn't think of anything more fitting that would fit on a single line. Feel free to edit if you can think of a better title. – mmdanziger Dec 5 '12 at 23:08
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Before answering the question, I would like to clarify one thing: for most purposes, [物]{もの} and [者]{もの} are not two separate words, but a single word もの which has two kanji notations depending on its meaning. This is clearer when we consider compound words such as にせもの. When someone uses the word にせもの, it is not always clear even to the speaker whether it is 偽物 or 偽者. This is because we treat にせもの as a single word, not the common pronunciation of two distinct words.

But this is just an analysis of the modern usage of the word. Is it reasonable to consider that もの was historically a single word from the beginning? I think that it is, and the best explanation might come from Occam’s razor. Assuming that we did not have a distinction between animate and inanimate things is simpler than assuming that we had two separate words for animate and inanimate things which happened to have the same pronunciation (or which used to have distinct pronunciations but were later merged). Therefore it is reasonable to assume the former unless we have evidence for the latter possibility.

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