There is a company which sells tea in teabags that have a haiku printed on one of the sides (of the teabag). Recently I came upon the following haiku:


What does をり in the last line mean? I have a feeling that it is intentionally written in this way and not as おり (which comes from 居る)

Thanks a lot!

2 Answers 2


What does をり in the last line mean? I have a feeling that it is intentionally written in this way and not as おり (which comes from 居る)

There are two parts to this question, though it seems you probably didn't realize that when you wrote it. :)

Part 1: What is this word をり?

This is 居【を】り. It is indeed intentionally written this way, but it is actually from 居【を】る.

Part 2: Why is をり written with を instead of the expected お?

This has to do with [歴史的]{れきしてき}[仮名]{かな}[遣い]{づかい}, or historical kana spellings.

English has been notoriously conservative in its spellings, keeping old spellings long after the pronunciation has shifted and the spelling and the pronunciation no longer have so much to do with each other. Consider a word like knight. In Middle English and earlier (think Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales), the word was pronounced more or less as it's spelled -- you pronounced the "K" at the front and the "GH" in the middle, producing a sound more like //knixt// (where that //x// indicates a hard "H" sound like in Scots loch or och, aye!). But nowadays? English has tons of odd letter combinations that are left unpronounced.

In many (most?) other phonically written languages in the world (think alphabets or syllabaries, as opposed to ideographs as in Chinese, Mayan, or ancient Egyptian), the spellings are updated when the pronunciation drifts too far from the way things are written. The Korean word for "to do" is pronounced something like //hada//, and thus the spelling is 하다 (hada) instead of the older ᄒᆞ다 (hoda), which was the way this word was pronounced and spelled during the Middle Korean stage of the language. French spells the word for "hotel" as hôtel, pretty much as pronounced, instead of the older hostel as it was pronounced and spelled in the Middle French years. But English? We just keep the old spellings.

Japanese mostly follows the trend of other languages around the world. Pronunciations shift -- this is one constant among all languages, so no surprise there. And as the pronunciations become more removed from the spellings, eventually some authority -- be it individual writers making their own decisions in group, or be it some centralized authority like the Ministry of Education; in modern Japan, the Ministry -- will start using spellings that are closer to the pronunciation.

Sound shifts

Broadly speaking, the biggest shifts in Japanese pronunciation have had to do with the labial consonants: //p//, //f// (strictly speaking, the bilabial fricative [[ɸ]], which we don't have in English), //b//, //m//, and //w//. For this post, let's just look at //w//.

As we've come down through history, most of the //w// sounds in Japanese have vanished. We still have //wa//! But pretty much all of the others have flattened out to just the vowel value: //wi// became //i//, //we// became //e//, and //wo// is almost always just //o// (unless someone is deliberately speaking very carefully). //wu//, so far as we can tell, never existed -- probably due to simple biomechanics, and the way the Japanese //u// vowel is pronounced, it's actually difficult to say //wu//.

(For a little bit more about the //w// sound shifts, see also this other post.)

Kana spellings and how they are shown in dictionaries

Since //wo// changed to plain //o//, there are various words that have historical kana spellings that used を, but in modern Japanese, they're spelled with お. Historical spellings can often help show how words are derived or related (the etymologies), and they are also important for understanding Classical Japanese, so monolingual Japanese dictionaries will often show the historical kana spellings alongside the modern kana spellings. For example, here is the Weblio page for 居る. The top entry is from the Daijisen dictionary, with the following headline:


In order, this is the modern kana spelling お・る, with the interpunct or 中黒【なかぐろ】 showing where the kanji portion stops and the okurigana begin. Then we have the historical kana spelling 〔をる〕 in the brackets. Finally, we have the kanji spelling 【▽居る】, with that ▽ triangle icon used to indicate where this reading for this kanji is not included in the 常用【じょうよう】 kanji charts.

So now we can come back to your unstated question:

Why is をり written with を instead of the expected お?

The を is used here either because 1) this poem was written some time ago in Classical Japanese, and thus uses the older kana spellings, or 2) this poem was written more recently, but the author still wanted to give it a Classical Japanese sense.

  • 2
    Wow, thanks a lot for this thorough answer. (I know that the comments are not for thanking, but I think just an upvote is simply insufficient)
    – Quit007
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 22:28
  • 1
    Regarding "Knight", so this is historically accurate?
    – Ken Y-N
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 4:58
  • 1
    @Ken: I would guess so, though it might have been "slightly" exaggerated by Monty Python ;-) -> From etymonline.com/word/knight: Old English cniht "boy, youth; servant, attendant," a word common to the nearby Germanic languages (Old Frisian kniucht, Dutch knecht, Middle High German kneht "boy, youth, lad," German Knecht "servant, bondman, vassal"), of unknown origin. For pronunciation, see kn-. The plural in Middle English sometimes was knighten. I don't know about Old English "cniht", but I know that the modern German "Knecht" is pronounced quite closely to what Eirikr hinted at.
    – Quit007
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 8:51
  • @KenY-N, ya, as Quit007 states. I'd started first-year German in high school the same year we read Chaucer, and I realized that reading Chaucer with German sound rules made it better -- the rhyme and meter work. If you try to read Chaucer with modern English pronunciation, it doesn't quite hang together. Later in life, I learned about linguistic phenomena like the Great Vowel Shift and related consonantal changes in English during roughly 1400–1700, which caused things like //kniːxt// to become //naɪt// instead. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 17:35
  • 1
    Great answer, but a small nitpicking: considering haiku is mostly written in Classical Japanese (not only Classical "spelling"), it is probably the very 終止形 of the verb をり. Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 6:11

Yes, you are right. “をり”means “居る”.

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