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I'm learning a bit of Classical Japanese recently, and of course the spelling of words is pretty different, due to sound changes over the centuries. For example, きょう was spelled けふ. That I can understand, since no language has static sounds.

I then went to YouTube and listened to a Japanese guy explain Classical Japanese. In the first lesson what he did was explain "historical kana orthography" and gave a whole bunch of ridiculous pronunciation rules. Yes, I understand that was how Japanese pronunciation changed over the centuries, but why should we emulate the sound shifts into Modern Japanese when we are reading Classical Japanese? What bad is there in reading いろはにほへと、ちりぬるを as "i ro fa ni fo fe to, ti ri nu ru wo" as it used to be pronounced?

  • Sorry, I'm not qualified to answer, but I have a guess: because it's easier? Also, sometimes bits of 文語 show up in Modern Japanese, right? Wouldn't it be confusing to learn those with two different pronunciations and switch back and forth? – snailcar Dec 3 '12 at 19:37
  • I actually thought it would be harder since you'd need to remember a huge bunch of spelling rules and sound shifts. The 文語 used in Modern Japanese is usually written with modern orthography, so that shouldn't be an issue. – ithisa Dec 3 '12 at 21:38
  • Also CJ could be read according to modern spelling without, say pronouncing the ha-line as f-*. Even は could go as wa when used as particle. That would still be much closer to the original pronunciation than retracing all the sound shifts. – ithisa Dec 3 '12 at 21:42
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    One could ask the same question about classical Chinese (why read it in Mandarin!?) or Latin (which is not just a funny way of spelling Italian words)... – Zhen Lin Dec 3 '12 at 23:39
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    The sound change rules for Japanese are almost trivial in comparison to other languages I know about. I can give a complete list without thinking too hard. Also, Chinese is largely phonetic. How do you think they managed to reconstruct Old Chinese, if not by analysing the use of phonetic components in characters? Let me play devil's advocate: from what we know of Middle Chinese phonology – and there are many sources – if there is a modern dialect that is closest to the old pronunciation, it is Cantonese, not Mandarin. So why don't we read it in Cantonese? – Zhen Lin Dec 4 '12 at 7:58
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As you pointed out, there is no single correct pronunciation of Classical Japanese. It would be more accurate to teach different pronunciations used in different periods, but it would be probably too complicated to teach at schools. The pronunciation of Classical Japanese taught at high schools is the newest one used in Meiji period and later. (I do not know if the same is true for the YouTube courses which you watched.)

I do not know why this choice was made at schools. My guess would be that it is more likely to encounter recent text in Classical Japanese than very old text in Classical Japanese.

It is not only the pronunciation that varies over time. The grammar of Classical Japanese is not static. I believe that the grammar taught at schools also follows the newest part of Classical Japanese, but I would like someone who knows better to give a more complete picture of the situation.

  • My question is as much relevant to Meiji-era schools and people too. The "logical" way, for say the Meiji period, in my point of view would be: 1. When old spelling are used in writing modern works as 歴史的仮名遣い, use the messy sound shift system so that it matches speech when read out. (i.e. けふ as "kyou") 2. When old spelling is used in pseudo-old CJ, read as per hiragana chart (i.e. けふ as "kefu") Pseudo-old CJ in laws etc are supposed to be mainly written anyway, so why invent messy pronunciation rules for CJ? – ithisa Dec 4 '12 at 6:42
  • This would be like why don't we read "thou" as "you" in modern English and "shouldst" as "should" by inventing rules about th and st. – ithisa Dec 4 '12 at 6:44
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    The problem with teaching the classical pronunciations instead of a system to turn them into modern Japanese is that you have to them a whole new vocabulary, because instead of teaching them a set of transformations that allows them to arrive at きょう from けふ, you have to teach them that けふ means きょう, which may be fine for just one word, but is way less efficient when you have to teach them all the words. – rintaun Dec 5 '12 at 3:31
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    I agree with that, since such a system would also help reading purely modern Japanese works written in rekishiteki kanadzukai, such as prewar novels. However, this brings up an interesting question. Why don't Japanese publishers "update" the kana to modern phonological equivalents, while not translating the old grammar and vocab? Classical Chinese books for students in China often include pinyin (i.e. modern) pronunciation guides for characters pronounced in a different "literary" way (i.e. bo1 rather than bai1 for 白) rather than true period pronunciation like the Japanese do with old kana. – ithisa Dec 5 '12 at 23:09
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    @Eric Dong: I do not think that there is a reason Japanese publishers cannot do that. They could do that if it were an acceptable practice. For whatever reason, publishers are not supposed to replace the historical kana orthography with the modern kana orthography when publishing the classical literature in Japanese. I guess that Chinese and Japanese publishers have different practices. – Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 5 '12 at 23:26

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