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In the Japanese radiotelephony alphabet, all kana are assigned a mnemonic code word in the form Nippon no ni (日本のニ)... except one.

ヱ (we) alone stands out with kagi no aru we (かぎのあるヱ). Why is this used instead of eg. ゑびすのヱ, and what does "we that has the key" mean?

Note that ゐどのヰ is used for ヰ, another obsolete kana with a homophone, so I presume there's more to it that just avoiding potential confusion between エ and ヱ.

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I think it means "the e with the hook". If you compare エ with ヱ, ヱ has a hook in the first horizontal.

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    To support this statement from EDICT: 鉤; 鈎 【かぎ】 (n) (1) hook; (2) (abbr) (See 鉤括弧) hook bracket (Japanese quotation mark) – Nayuki Oct 15 '16 at 13:43
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Am I right to rephrase your question as: why かぎのあるヱ transcribes the character by the shape, while ゐどのヰ, along with all the other ones, transcribes the character by the sound?

Today, standard Japanese doesn't distinguish ゐ/い ゑ/え を/お by their sounds. This means that virtually any contemporary Japanese would write "い" when requested to write "ゐどのヰ" in their daily conversations.

Historically, Japan joined Convention on International Civil Aviation, which required standardization of radiotelephony alphabet, in 1953.

This suggests that ゐ was pronounced still differently than い in daily (or even official) conversations around 1950's, while ゑ was already pronounced the same way as え.

("現代かなづかい", which ordered "ゑ" be written as "え" etc. in public, was enacted in 1946.)

I didn't notice that my four grandparents, all born around 1930s in Kyushu, distinguished ゐど from いど or ゑびす from えびす. But I cannot tell for sure, because their pronunciation was always shifted somewhat from our Tokyo dialect.

However I found this from twitter: ‏@hirohito_bot 【昭和天皇逸話集】日常会話においても「い」と「ゐ」、「え」と「ゑ」の発音を区別していた。

Emperor Hirohito was born in 1901 in Tokyo, and perhaps would represent the pronunciation of then Japanese upper class speech at the time. However, his son, Emperor Akihito, never distinguishes them in public speech. He was born in 1933.

So I think you are right in saying that "there's more to it", because all this indicates that Showa was a subtle but major phonological transition period. But this may require a serious linguist to analyse, and I refrain from talking about it other than from my personal experience.

(In kindergarten I used to believe the "correct" pronunciation of を was "wo", and was not the same as お, because they are spelled differently. Some comic books even used them in proper names, as in アキヲ. But since my friends and teachers never spoken that way I gave up the idea.)

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    Considering that ゐ and い (and ひ when intervocalic) started to get mixed up in writings as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries, this doesn’t seem likely. Missionary documents from the late Muromachi period, written in various Latin-based transcription styles, did not distinguish the two, either (at least not that I know of). Bjarke Frellesvig’s A History of the Japanese Language (p. 310) dates the copmletion of the loss of initial /w/ in /(K)wo, (K)we, (K)wi/ to around the beginning of the 13th century. If Hirohito made such a distinction, it was probably acquired, not natural. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 16 '16 at 14:33

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