According to When is the katakana form of wo (ヲ) used?, を is almost always used only for the particle, and is usually pronounced o (お).

There are some dialects where を is pronounced with a "w", but the same is true for the obsolete kana ゐ and ゑ:

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. [emphasis added]

Why was を spared even though ゐ and ゑ have been deemed obsolete? Was changing the writing of the object marker particle seen as too radical a change? Or is を pronounced "wo" more widely than ゐ and ゑ are pronounced as "wi" and "we"?

  • Presumably the same reason why the particles は and へ have also been spared from spelling reform... (Also, there are lots of words which used to be spelt with を, not just the particle.) – Zhen Lin Dec 28 '11 at 3:02
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    @ZhenLin I though someone is going to say the first part of what you wrote, but they are different. And for your second part, you care too much about classical literature. In present Japanese, the use of other than as a case particle is practially ignorable. While helps to identify an accusative case particle, and actually make it difficult to locate these particles. For this reason, in Japanese braille, is written as , but the particles and are written as and respectively. – user458 Dec 28 '11 at 4:19
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    @sawa: See the quote here: しかし、助詞というもの、ことに「が」「の」「に」「を」「へ」「は」などは、最もたくさん出てくる。〔中略〕いちいち「これわ」「それわ」「わたくしわ」「それお」「これお」「わたくしお」「これえ」「それえ」「わたくしえ」というように書くようになると、あまりにも、今までと変りすぎて異様さが目だち、ちょっと実行の手がにぶる。 – Zhen Lin Dec 28 '11 at 5:21
  • @ZhenLin That source only mentions that the pressure to preserve them as is was stronger than the idea of realizing a one-to-one correlation between kana and pronunciation. That makes sense for and , which have two pronunciations, but for , there is only one pronunciation 'o', and is unambiguous. Therefore, that argument makes no difference for . The change from "wo" to "o" is due to a genaral phonological rule, just like "wi" to "i", "wu" to "u", and "we" to "e", and has nothing to do with one-to-one mapping, unlike with and . – user458 Dec 28 '11 at 5:46
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    @sawa: You seem to be intent on ignoring any historical input on the matter. The fact is that the modern orthography was only enacted in the 1940s, when a large proportion of the population was already literate. The pressures to preserve the spellings of common "words" would be correspondingly large. Or do you deny that there was once a genuine phoneme /wo/ in Japanese, and that を should have been spelled お from the beginning of time? – Zhen Lin Dec 28 '11 at 9:03

As @ZhenLin said in the comments, there are three particles left unchanged in the reform of the usage of kana: は へ を.

They are left unchanged because they are so widely used, and changing them would result in too much in the writing form. I quote from a book*(I don't know the book, so the contents are in fact from wiki):

The spirit of the modern Kana usage (an extract) (Japanese Language Series 8, By the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)




これわ それわ わたくしわ
それお これお わたくしお
これえ それえ わたくしえ



"There is exceptions that を in 本を読む would be written as を. This is a problem. Why the exceptions are permitted? Why not write this as お and elimination all exceptions? Often there are criticisms about this. There is the following reason for this. Of course exceptions should not be allowed unless it can be avoided. The committee is well aware of that. However, these exceptions are the ones that cannot be avoided.

"Reform, especially the reform of language that is used be everybody, unless it can be followed by everybody in a short time, it will only be an ideal plan on the desk, and cannot become true. As an ideal (plan), everybody wanted change the particle を to お. However, the particle, especially 「が」「の」「に」「を」「へ」「は」 are most widely used. If we change them all, and write as

これわ それわ わたくしわ
それお これお わたくしお
これえ それえ わたくしえ

there would be too much change from the original writing, and would be hard to be put into practice. If only these particles are written as the original, other changes will mostly be hidden when kanji is used. The new kana usage will not have too much change in actual writing. (...) Only the particles won't be written in kanji, and are always written in kana, so will certainly be affected (by the reform). Changing all of them will cause too much effort, and it will cause too much resistance from people who read it. This is the decisive comment from the big publishing companies. (...) some members of the committee also (think) that 「わ」「お」「え」will stand out in the text, and make the text not look like normal Japanese.

"This is a 'little thing' before a big reform. A plan that cannot be put into practice will be nothing however good it is. If it is not a practical plan, even it is forced into use, it maybe reversed as long as there are something (unreasonable).

"Thus, the committee has to use the plan that keeps all the particles."

You should see that を is only kept as a particle, its appearances in other words are all changed to お, just like ゐ and ゑ changed to い and え.

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    As I wrote in a comment, the real question is, why did and had to dissapear at all? By phonological rule in present Japanese, , and would be pronounced as "o", "i", and "e" anyway, just like , , , etc are pronounced "shi", "chi", "tsu" instead of "si", "ti", "tu". Realizing a mapping from kana to pronunciation is not a reason because it is already so for these characters. Therefore, the motivation for reforming them is questionable in the first place. – user458 Dec 28 '11 at 19:47
  • On the other hand, there is motivation for reforming and , and here, the pressure to preserve them becomes relevant. – user458 Dec 28 '11 at 19:47
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    @sawa: whether the reform is reasonable is not under discussion in this question, I think. – fefe Dec 29 '11 at 1:26
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    @sawa "Realizing a mapping from kana to pronunciation is not a reason". No, but realizing a mapping from pronunciation to kana is a reason. – dainichi Feb 9 '12 at 16:35
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    @sawa : I actually agree with you here. We should spell things like 会えない as 会ゑない (pre-reform 会へない), which respects the fact that the verb is aw-. – ithisa Oct 19 '13 at 15:35

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