Hiragana (平仮名 or 平假名) has its cursive form originated from the Chinese cursive form 草書. You can read from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%B9%B3%E4%BB%AE%E5%90%8D. Also https://www.hana300.com/aakana.html. My question is about the following*

波 → は

比 → ひ

不 → ふ

部 → へ

保 → ほ

which pronuncitation in Chinese Madanrin and Japanese (listed from Duolingo) are:

波 (Bo: 1st tone) → は [ha], although pronounced like [ɰa] or "wa" as a particle

比 (Bi: 3rd tone) → ひ [çi], like the h in human

不 (Bu: 2nd or 4th tone) → ふ [ɸɯ], roughly between a short "hoo" and "foo"

部 (Bu: 4th tone) → へ [he], although pronounced like [e] or "eh" as a particle

保 (Bao: 3rd tone) → ほ [ho]

My question: Are there evolutions or relations of why and how the Chinese sounds (Mandarin or old Chinese)

B sounds

evolved to the Japanese

h or f sounds for these Hiragana?

p.s. For example,

安 → あ both pronounced with A sound, as 安 ("An" 1st tone in Chinese) or あ ("A" in Japanese). So there are indeed relations. Many other Hiragana can be found in direct or implicit relations between the two pronunciations: Chinese (Mandarin or some old Chinese) to Hiragana.

1 Answer 1


On'yomi and Chinese: how sounds correlate

In almost* any discussion of kanji usage in Japanese, do not use the Mandarin pronunciations as any kind of guide to the Japanese pronunciations.

(* The exception is any discussion of recent borrowings from Mandarin, like [你好]{ニーハオ}.)

Much as Japanese has changed a lot in the last 1500+ years, so too has Chinese changed. When exploring Japanese on'yomi pronunciations of kanji, you'll want to look at the Middle Chinese readings, not the modern Mandarin, and you'll need to be aware of the Old Japanese pronunciations as well.

Here's an exploration of the five kanji you listed. The Middle Chinese are the Zhengzhang reconstructions, as shown in the English Wikipedia entries for each kanji (as linked).

Kanji Middle Chinese Old Japanese Middle Japanese Modern Japanese
/puɑ/ pa fa ha
/piɪX/ pi fi hi
/pɨu/, /pɨuX/, /pɨut̚/ pu fu fu, bu*
/buoX/, /bəuX/ bu, pu* bu, fu* bu, fu*
/pɑuX/ po fo ho

The items marked with * show readings classed as kan'yōon, which may be the result of influence from different regional or dialectal variations within Chinese.

The initial consonants in Middle Chinese and Old Japanese are a match. The vowels are mostly a match, provided that we make certain allowances for diphthongs (two-vowel sounds) in Chinese flattening into monophthongs (one-vowel sounds) in Old Japanese.

Sound shifts from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese

Historically, all of the はひふへほ kana in modern Japanese were pronounced more like //pa//, //pi//, //pu//, //pe//, //po// in Old Japanese. See this post for a fuller explanation of the details.

Your question

Now that we have the background in place, we can look at your question more fully.

Are there evolutions or relations of why and how the Chinese sounds (Mandarin or old Chinese) B sounds evolved to the Japanese h or f sounds for these Hiragana?

  • The modern Mandarin intial //b-// was formerly //p-// for four of these characters.
  • The modern Japanese "h or f sounds" were formerly also //p-//.

The one outlier is 部, which is reconstructed with initial //b-// in Middle Chinese. I note that modern Min Nan has initial //p-//, and subjectively, I've noticed that the on'yomi for many characters seem to correlate most closely with this variety of Chinese. I suspect that proto-Min Nan may likewise be the source of the unvoiced //pu// reading in Old Japanese.


Above, I was looking at on'yomi and I didn't address 部 used as the source for the kana へ.

Chinese of any dialect or historical stage is irrelevant in this case. へ is not a Chinese-derived on'yomi for 部, and is instead kun'yomi, from the native Old Japanese word that happened to have roughly the same meaning as 部. This is why you won't find any clear correlation between any Chinese pronunciation for 部 and the Japanese kana へ, even though the glyphs (character shapes) are historically related.

Please comment if the above does not address your question and I can edit to update.

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    @EddieKal: As the prestige dialect of the region, wherein China was the eminent political power, influence from other languages is less likely. The odd word might be borrowed, but otherwise I don't expect that there would be much impact into Chinese. The exceptions there might be Mongolian -- the Mongols were the Yuan Dynasty -- and the Manchus -- who were the Qing Dynasty. Commented May 14, 2021 at 22:14
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    @EddieKal: However, both Mongolian and Manchu are synthetic (agglutinating, with prefixes and suffixes tacking onto a word root) and polysyllabic, while Chinese is analytic (word roots generally stand alone) and monosyllabic (although this is shifting in modern usage to a disyllabic structure for many words). These radically different structures impede borrowing into Chinese. Japanese is structurally closer to Mongolian/Manchu, and borrowings from Japanese into Chinese have (I think) all been of terms coined along Chinese lines, like 自転車 or 会社, etc. Commented May 14, 2021 at 22:28
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    Chinese doesn’t use the words 自轉車 and 會社. We say 自行車 for the closest equivalent for bike, and if you see 會社 it is mainly used as a orthographic borrowing for some Japanese or Korean company name.
    – dROOOze
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 23:32
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    @dROOOze, re: 自転車, brain fart on my part, was initially thinking of 自動車. Re: 会社, I'm just on a roll today, that should be 社会 (or 社會 for proper-Chinese traditional script). Thanks for the pointers! Commented May 14, 2021 at 23:34
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    A small note, the modern Mandarin initial written "b" in Pinyin is still standardly transcribed as a voiceless unaspirated plosive /p/ [p]. It's just spelled with the letter "b" in Pinyin because that makes it easier to mark the distinction from the voiceless aspirated plosive. (Actually, I've read Mandarin /p/ can be voiced to [b] sometimes when it comes between vowels, but that's supposed to be optional and isn't considered the main pronunciation.)
    – solute
    Commented May 15, 2021 at 22:32

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