Today, I was in English class, and I learned about language families and then writing systems. Of course, there is kanji, and ideographic system, but hiragana and katakana are both syllabary systems.

How did this idea to make a syllabary writing system come about in Japanese/Chinese history? Why did someone want to do it? Was the idea taken over from people who had already done it?

Also, where to the syllabary sounds come from? For example, why is "yo" a syllable in the system but "ye" or "yi" isn't?

  • 2
    This might be a good place to start looking: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_language#History
    – ssb
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 1:36
  • For the Chinese history aspect, Old Chinese was a monosyllabic language so it made sense to associate one graph = one word = one syllable. This influenced the Japanese syllabaries, which were based off of Chinese characters
    – HAL
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 15:55

3 Answers 3


In about 2000 years ago, people in Japan were still using clay vessels and had no characters at all, while China had developed a large civilization and their own writing system, kanji. In those days, Japanese and Chinese used completely different languages, with completely different vocabulary, syllables, and grammar.

In around the 1st to 4th century, kanji were gradually imported to Japan. At first, kanji were only used as a part of Chinese language, by selected Japanese people who want to study Chinese culture and religion (Buddhism). There was still no way to write Japanese, spoken by Japanese people. Again, Japanese is different from Chinese.

In around the 6th to 7th century, Japanese people developed "manyo-gana" (万葉仮名). In this system, people used kanji as syllabary characters, totally ignoring their meanings. For example, they used kanji 以 to represent the Japanese vowel "i" (い). At last, Japanese people learned how to write Japanese as it is pronounced. But unfortunately, manyo-gana were too complicated to serve as syllabary characters, so they needed something better.

In around the 7th to 8th century, Japanese Buddhist monks started to simplify manyo-gana, and developed purely phonetic characters, katakana. At first, katakana were symbols rather than characters, used to instruct how to read difficult scriptures from China. But they turned out to be useful to write ordinary Japanese, so katakana were adopted everywhere. This was when people started to mix kanji and katakana.

Almost at the same time, noble people developed hiragana, which is another simplification of manyo-gana.

In summary, Japanese needed to develop syllabary characters (hiragana and katakana) because kanji were only borrowed from Chinese, and only using kanji was not enough to express Japanese language well. Chinese people did not need such things because kanji were their native characters, optimized for writing their own language.

I think Japanese people could have stopped using kanji altogether somewhere in the history, but that never happened. Kanji have thier own strength as ideographic characters. On the other hand, Korea used Chinese kanji until several hundred years ago, and then stopped using them, in favor of their own syllabary characters called Hangul.

I'm sorry I don't know where Japanese "sounds" come from.


Please note that kana is not a true syllabic script anymore. The reason for this is due to /n/. For example, take the word /sinbun/ "newspaper". If you break it into its syllables, it is sin.bun. While accents are determined by syllables in some dialects, kana--as well as Japanese speakers--segment this as si.n.bu.n. The appropriate term for this mora.

How did this idea to make a syllabary writing system come about in Japanese/Chinese history?

Kana are simplified forms of Chinese characters. Before the development of kana, Japan borrowed Chinese characters to phonetically write Japanese words. This is known as man'yoogana. Chinese of course is a different language with a different phonology, so there was considerable differences in pronunciation of the same characters. After doing this long enough, a short hand form of the same characters developed into the two forms of kana: hiragana and katakana.

Why did someone want to do it?

Until man'yoogana came around, Japan did not have a way to write their language. Hopefully we can agree that being able to write and record words is a useful thing.

Was the idea taken over from people who had already done it?

Quite likely. Records indicate that it was the Koreans who initially taught Japan about Chinese characters. Recent research has also indicated that katakana has its origins in the Korean peninsula (more precisely Silla). If you're interested in knowing more, search for the work done by 小林芳規, in particular regarding the text 大法広仏華厳経.

Also, where to the syllabary sounds come from?

The phonology of the language. Initially, the sounds were of the form ((C)V)+, so quite simply characters were applied to each of these fully formed sounds. A little later long vowels, palatalized consonants, and /n/ developed resulting in several innovations: doubling of vowels, small kana, and a new /n/. As the language continued to develop, several sounds naturally fell out of use and are no longer used.

For example, why is "yo" a syllable in the system but "ye" or "yi" isn't?

It may help to brush up on phonetics, particularly glides. Glides form a pair with vowels: the glide is non-syllabic while the vowel is syllabic. These sounds are phonetically quite similar and the lack of distinguishing is not an odd thing in human speech. You could try the linguistics forum for more details.

That said, /ye/ existed and was distinguished from /e/ in man'yoogana, the pre-cursor to kana. The distinction was lost by the time that the kana scripts developed, so no need for a character.

There is morphological evidence of /yi/ and /wu/. For example, /yi/ can be seen in the conjugation of the following verbs:

  • kuy- (悔ゆ to regret): kuy-i, kuy-i, kuy-u, kuy-uru, kuy-ure, kuy-i
  • mukuy- (報ゆ to repay): mukuy-i, mukuy-i, mukuy-u, mukuy-uru, mukuy-ure, mukuy-i
  • oy- (老ゆ to age): oy-i, oy-i, oy-u, oy-uru, oy-ure, oy-i

And /wu/ can be seen in the following verbs:

  • suw- (据う plant): suw-e, suw-e, suw-u, suw-uru, suw-ure, suw-e(yo)
  • uw- (植う plant): uw-e, uw-e, uw-u, uw-uru, uw-ure, uw-e(yo)
  • uw- (飢う starve): uw-e, uw-e, uw-u, uw-uru, uw-ure, uw-e(yo)

While they are apparent in the morphology, there is no evidence that they ever existed phonologically. You can handle this as a natural result of phonetics, or you could posit phonological rules such as /y/ --> ∅ / _ [i] and /w/ --> ∅ / _ [ɯ].


You've got two distinct questions here, I'll answer them in turn.

Japanese wasn't really 'influenced' by any other syllabic phonetic writing systems; instead, it turns out a syllabary is the most natural kind of phonetic writing system to create out of nothing (or out of a semantically-based system like Chinese). Of the various examples we have of people creating a phonetic writing system without already knowing one, exactly one instance is anything other than a syllabary, and that's Egyptian (or 'hieroglyphics'). (I'm discounting the semantic parts of Egyptian, since you could write 100% phonetically in Egyptian; it just had too much ambiguity to be practical.) Egyptian was a somewhat unique case, since the structure of spoken Egyptian encouraged the script's inventors to write only consonants and totally disregard vowels. The Phoenicians stripped out all of the semantic parts of Egyptian but still didn't add vowels, since they didn't need them any more than the Egyptians. Later, the Greeks borrowed Phoenician and the Indians borrowed a descendent of Phoenician (Aramaic), and the structure of Greek and Sanskrit forced them to come up with ways to mark vowels. The Greeks invented the alphabet, and the Indians invented the abugida.

All the other cases have been syllabaries. Japanese is a good example. Mayan is another - it's totally a syllabary, and has some interesting conventions regarding how to write syllable-final consonants. The Sumerians, Hittites and Persians all adapted Sumerian cuneiform into syllabaries (though the Persian version has some alphabetic traits). There are some other cases as well of people being exposed to the idea of writing without learning a particular system, and they made syllabaries too - Cherokee is a good example. Of the cases where people have invented straight-up alphabets (or abugidas, like Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics), the inventors have either learned or learned a fair amount about a system that already worked the way theirs would. (Hangeul is probably an example of this - there's good reason to believe that it was inspired a good deal by 'Phags-pa, which is ultimately descended from Phoenician/Egyptian.)

So it's not surprising that the Japanese created a syllabary rather than an alphabet, as an alphabet is a bit less obvious of an option. Further impetus comes from the fact that Chinese characters each represent a single syllable (so you could, if you wanted to, treat Chinese like a syllabary with a huge amount of semantically-conditioned variation) - though this is more due to the structure of the language than any conscious attempt to create a one-letter/one-syllable correspondence. When the Japanese first started writing Japanese, they used Chinese characters that sounded like whole Japanese syllables, since there wasn't anything smaller they could use. Kana are ultmately just a graphical simplification of those Chinese characters, although they've since been totally dissociated from their original forms.

As for why the system is missing certain combinations, it's mostly due to what combinations spoken Japanese allows. /ji/, for example, is missing because spoken Japanese doesn't allow /j/ and /i/ to combine like that - /ji/ is not a valid Japanese syllable. The language used to allow /wi/ and /we/, and so there were kana for those syllables (ゐ and ゑ, respectively); but it no longer does, and so those kana have been removed as there is no more need for them.

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