I learned recently that two mora Sino-Japanese words using one character always end in /ki/, /ku/, /i/, /u/, /chi/, /tsu/, or /n/. However, I was also told that 馬【うま】 and 梅【うめ】 are Sino-Japanese. What explains this difference from the trend? They are older words, but I also realized that, 馬 for instance, only has one mora in Chinese. (Although 梅 has two...) Did they just change over time?

  • 2
    They're technically loans from Chinese, but they aren't 漢語. They were borrowed from earlier Chinese into earlier Japanese. IIRC these are used as evidence for the theory that Old Chinese was 'sesquisyllabic' (i.e. it allowed two-syllable words with very light first syllables), but I'm not sure I'm remembering right.
    – Sjiveru
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 21:16
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    Discussion of 馬 and 梅 on gogen-allguide: gogen-allguide.com/u/uma.html
    – user1478
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 8:10

1 Answer 1


As Snailboat mentioned in her comment, gogen-allguide.com has a good explanation for said etymologies.

Although, I should caution against analyzing Chinese moraically; Chinese is a syllabic language.

While 馬{うま} and 梅{うめ} are etymologically borrowings from Chinese, they predate any of the three major 音読み classifications (ie, 呉音、漢音、唐音), and are thus functionally nativized as indigenous Japanese lexemes.

The understanding is, at the time, Japanese had used a nasalized variant of /u/ (ie, /ũ/), which for /ũma/ and /ũme/ surfaced as [mma] and [mme]. Over time, this nasalization was lost, and thus, only the vowel quality /u/ surfaced, resulting in our modern /uma/ and /ume/.

(By the by, this nasalized /ũ/ also accounts for Chinese coda /ŋ/ ("ng") resulting in 音読み /u/, such as:

【京】 /*kjiaŋ/ → /ki.ya.ũ/ → /kyou/

  • Wait so was it /umma/ or /mma/?
    – user3457
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 0:52
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    It was technically /ũma/, which phonetically surfaced as [mma]. when う denasalized, /ũma/(=[mma]) became /uma/. I'll revise my answer to make that clearer. ^^;
    – Seralt
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 3:26

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