Vowel Gradation


Senior Member
UK English
I looked it up in some ordinary Japanese dictionaries. They simply introduce two opinions about the derivation; [目門 ma(eye)+to(door/gateway)], [間戸 ma(space)+to(door/gateway)].
Komban wa, Flaminius San to Shiremono San.
So this etymology has already been contemplated by Japanese scholars, and the only problem is about the meaning of each component.

By the way, I have found another Yamato compound in which -e> -a: kaze "wind" + kuruma "wheel" > kazaguruma "windmill", so me > ma- "eye" is not impossible.

I suppose there are many more compounds of this type.

Moderation Note:
This thread has been branched from an etymology discussion that supposedly involves vowel gradation. The topic of the current thread is Japanese vowel gradation.
  • shiremono

    It is said that ma is the old form of me, and kaza of kaze.
    These changes are called "母音交替 boin kotai (vowel gradation)".
    I don't have the slightest idea as to how they occurred.

    Shown below are some Yamato ma- compounds related to "目 me (eye)"

    まばゆい mabayui (dazzling/glaring)
    まぶた mabuta (eyelid)
    まみえる mamieru (to have an audience /to confront)
    まなじり manajiri (corner of the eye) = めじり mejiri
    まなこ manako (eye)
    まなざし manazashi (one's eyes/look at somebody)
    まつげ matsuge (eyelash)
    まゆげ mayuge (eyebrow)


    Senior Member
    UK English
    It is said that ma is the old form of me, and kaza of kaze. These changes are called "母音交替 boin kotai (vowel gradation)".
    Are there other Yamato stems that undergo the same vowel gradation?
    Is the a / e vowel gradation the only one in Japanese?
    As you know English has plenty, e.g. sing, sang, sung, a song.


    Are there other Yamato stems that undergo the same vowel gradation?
    Is the a / e vowel gradation the only one in Japanese?
    As you know English has plenty, e.g. sing, sang, sung, a song.
    There are. Though I can show only four examples below, there should be much more.

    ama- related to 雨 ame (rain)
    雨だれ amadare (raindrops), etc.

    huna- [funa-] related to 船 hune [fune] (boat/ship)
    船酔い hunayoi [funayoi] (seasickness), etc.

    -ka (-ga) related to 毛 ke (hair)
    白髪 shiraga (white [grey] hair).

    saka- related to 酒 sake (sake/liquor)
    酒屋 sakaya (sake brewery /liquor store), etc.

    I've managed to find a few examples of other-vowel gradation, too.

    kamu- related to kami (gods/God)
    神無月 kamunazuki (October in the old calender) = Kaminazuki, kannazuki, etc.

    related to 木 ki (tree)
    木の葉 konoha (a leaf /leaves), etc.

    shira- related to 白 shiro (white/raw)
    白百合 sirayuri (white lily), etc.

    - related to 月 tsuki (moon)
    月夜 tsukuyo (moonlit night) = tsukiyo.

    As to the "sing, sang, sung, a song" type vowel gradation, Japanese verbs conjugate (change vowels) at the ending, as you know well. There are derivative relations between word classes, too. I am not sure which derived from which.

    頼む tanomu (to rely on /to ask, request, order)
    頼もしい tanomo-shii (dependable)
    頼み tanomi (reliance/request) 


    Senior Member
    UK English
    I am extremely grateful for this list, Shiremono San.
    So far you have found:
    i/u, e.g. kami > kamu- "god"
    i/o, e.g. ki > ko- "tree"
    e/a, e.g. ame > ama- "rain"
    o/a, e;g. shiro > shira- "white; raw"

    So /i/ shifts to the back of the mouth and becomes /u/ or /o/.
    /e/ and /o/, which are half open, are "centralized" and lowered to /a/.
    It would be interesting to know what happens when the vowel is /u/. Does it become /i/. The verbal paradigm gestures toward it, e.g. tanomu > tanomi, but a nominal compound is necessary better.


    Qcumber san,

    Note that it is said; our familiar nouns (such as kami) are derivations from the components of the compounds (such as kamu- of kamunazuki). Those components are considered remnants of the old form of the words.

    Now your question is far beyond my Japanese books and dictionaries. I might go to the library today. Let's take time. I intended to learn English at this forum (I'm learning from you and everybody), hadn't expected to study Japanese, which is so hard.


    Senior Member
    UK English
    Now your question is far beyond my Japanese books and dictionaries. I might go to the library today. Let's take time. I intended to learn English at this forum (I'm learning from you and everybody), hadn't expected to study Japanese, which is so hard.
    All the same, you have already provided the forum with a lot of useful data. I am looking forward to reading your next posts. :)


    Below is about 上代語 jyodai-go, the ancient Japanese.

    It is said that there used to be more than five vowels in Japanese around 8th century (don't ask me why only five vowels remained). In Japanese study this period is called 上代 jyodai, including 奈良時代 Nara jidai, Nara period (710-784AD), and some years before and after. The oldest Japanese mythology/history books, 古事記 Kojiki, 日本書紀 Nihon-shoki, and the oldest waka anthology, 万葉集 Manyo-shu, are edited under the centralized tenno dynasty in this period. The ancient form of Japanese is observed from the three books and some other records.

    The inscriptions in 万葉仮名 manyo-gana (kana), ancient Japanese syllabary written only with Chinese charactors, indicate that Japanese vowels at this time were eight ; {a, i, ï, u, e, ë, o, ö}. This eight vowels pattern of the inscriptions could be interpreted differently. Existence of seven, six or five vowels are also claimed in other opinons, yet to be widely accepted. The basic fact is ; nineteen (or twenty) phonemes {ki, hi [fi], mi}, {ke, he [fe], me}, {ko, so, to, no, (mo), yo, ro}, {gi, bi}, {ge, be}, {go, zo, do} of classical and modern Japanese had two types of orthography at this time. They were distinguished in each word.

    The vowels {ï, ë, ö} must have sounded similar to {i,e,o} (some opinion claims "the same"), but there is no established opinion as to how {ï, ë, ö} were precisely pronounced. These umlaut signs are circulated but only provisional. Opinions vary; 中舌母音 central vowels, umlauts, 二重母音 diphthongs or 合拗音 labialized contracted sounds.

    It is observed that /o/ and /ö/ never coexist in the same root (stem), so do only a few /u/ and /ö/, /a/ and /ö/. Gradations between /a/-/ë/, /a/-/ö/, /u/-/ï/ are said to be conspicuous. Some affirm that the formers changed into the latters (/a/ > /ë/, etc.), as I've noted before, but actually it hasn't been proved yet (or maybe unprovable).

    Other characteristics of the 上代語 jyodai-go, ancient Japanese, are :
    Vowels hated to be connected to each other. If that happened, either two vowels fused together to bring a different vowel or one of the vowels dropped off.
    Vowel syllables (especially あ a and お o, with a few exceptions of い i and う u) were usually used only at the the beginning of a word. The consonant /r/ and 濁音 daku-on, so-called Japanese "voiced consonants", didn't come at the beginning of a word.
    撥音 hatsu-on, /n[/m]/ syllable, 促音 soku-on, double consonant, 拗音 yo-on, constracted sound, and 長音 cho-on, long vowel, weren't used systematically yet.

    According to a rather well accepted opinion, {ï, ë, ö} are products of vowel fusion. In this opinion, they are considered to be secondary vowels.

    My sole point is of necessity of the terms of 上代 (特殊) 仮名遣い Jyodai (tokushu) kana-zukai, ancient (special) kana-orthography, in the study of old Japanese vowel gradation or Yamato derivations.

    I have added distinctions between [i/ï], [e/ë] and [o/ö] on the previous list below, for a firmer foothold. More examples of gradation could wait a bit.

    ma- related to 目 me [më] (eye)
    kaza- related to 風 kaze [(ぜ ze had no variant)] (wind)

    ama- related to 雨 ame [amë] (rain)
    funa- related to 舟 fune [(ね ne had no variant)] (boat/ship)
    -ka (-ga) related to 毛 ke [kë] (hair)
    saka- related to 酒 sake [sakë] (sake/liquor)

    kamu- related to kami [kamï] (gods/God)
    ko- [kö] related to 木 ki [kï] (tree)
    shira- related to 白 shiro [shiro] (white/raw)  
    tsuku- related to 月 tsuki [tsukï] (moon)

    tanomu[tanömu] (to rely on /to ask, request, order)
    tanomo-shi [(も mo variant was very limited)] (dependable)
    tanomi [tanömi] (reliance/request) 

    I'm sorry if it's not intelligible. Ask me about obscure details.

    日本語文法大辞典 Nihongo Bunpo Dai-jiten 2001 明治書院 Meiji Shoin
    岩波古語辞典 Iwanami Kogo-jiten 1990 岩波書店 Iwanami Shoten
    国語学大辞典 Kokugo-gaku Dai-jiten 1980 東京堂出版 Tokyo-do Shuppan
    国語学研究事典 Kokugo-gaku Kenkyu-jiten 1977 明治書院 Meiji Shoin


    Senior Member
    UK English
    Shiremono, your post, like the previous one, is so important that I have printed it to keep it in my archives.
    Arigatou gozai masu.


    Hi こんにちは

    I think I should define the term of Vowel Gradation, Boin Kotai (母音交替). For although I have brought it up, I was not certain of its meaning. I would like to limit its use to the most suitable and convenient way.

    This term should be separated from the vowel changes as part of the diachronic Phonetic Change, On-in Henka (音韻変化), which may be a kind of vowel gradation in the general meaning, though.
    For example: The hypothetical eight vowels in Jyodai (上代) period were gradually integrated into five vowels , which (especially /e/ and /o/) may have been different from the vowels of Modern Japanese, in the early Heian (平安) period. Then the /h/ consonant (except as the initial consonant in a base morpheme) basically turned into /w/ sound, Ha-gyo Tenko On (ハ行転呼音). This is why こんにち sounds kon’nichiwa. With this sound change, many syllables were diphthongized. Also the Euphonic Changes, On-bin (音便), appeared, for example; kahi-te (買ひて, te-form, “to buy”) became katte (買って) or kaute [kaute > ko:te] (買うて). As seen in the sound change of kaute [kaute > ko:te], many diphthongs were lengthened later.
    These vowel changes, along with other changes in sound, orthography, grammar and vocabulary, made up the Modern Japanese. But if they didn’t change the meaning or the function of the words, I would like to exclude them from the limited use of the term of Vowel Gradation, such as in the derivation of mado [mado] ()/me [më]().

    Also there were synchronic variations of words, like asoko/asuko (/, “there”) of Modern Japanese. They could have been colloquial, dialectal differences or early signs of phonetic change, etc, and phonetic rules may be found in such vowel variations. But I would like to exclude them as well, so long as they didn’t change the meaning or the function of the words.

    So I suggest that the term of Vowel Gradation be limited to the narrow meaning; the alternation of vowels in the base morpheme of a word that indicates grammatical (derivational) information.

    It is somewhat close to the definition of "(Vowel) Apophony" by Wikipedia. This "Apophony" is also translated as Boin Kotai (母音交替) in Japanese. The difference between "Gradation" and "Apophony" or "Ablaut" is not clear yet.

    I hope this attempt makes any sense.


    Senior Member
    UK English
    I agree with you, Shiremono.
    This is how I use these terms myself.
    Vowel gradation: kaka, kaki, kaku, kake, kako
    Vowel alternation: kaze, kazaguruma
    Vowel mutation: from the Old Japanese system to the Modern Japanese system


    Hello everybody and thank you again, Qcumber. Your definition of the terms is lucid. I would gladly follow your style.
    In the meantime I got a linguistic textbook secondhand. It is “Morphology” (2nd ed. 1991) by Peter Hugoe Matthews. I figure it will take at least a month or two to read it through. I have also found articles in Wikipedia / Archaic Japanese language” category (especially “Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai” and “Old Japanese”) useful. Now I skip the basic explanation written in Wikipedia and just introduce some more examples (which are上代語 Jōdai-go, “archaic words” in “万葉集 Man’yoshu”, unless noted otherwise) and a derivation theory about them.

    The theory about the connection between vowel-suffixation and word-formation of Old Japanese is mainly from “語構成の研究 Go-kōsei no Kenkyū ”, “A Study of Word-formation” or “A Research in Morphology” by 阪倉篤義 Skakura, Atsuyoshi, 1966.
    This is a basic study about the topic which is always refered to in the dictionaries of Japanese Linguistics.
    I have not read the latest studies and arguments yet, but there seem to be no other thorough studies on the historical morphology as of 2001 (“日本語文法大辞典 Nihongo Bunpō Dai-jiten”, “A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar”, 2001, Meiji-shoin).

    In the theory: the vowels at the ending of nouns and verbs are morphemes having either lexical or inflectional function.

    All the verbs in the conclusive form (終止形 Shūshi-kei ) have the morpheme –u except the verb あり ari and its group (ラ変 r–irregular verbs). The –u is the suffix which makes verbs.
    There are also nouns which have –u ending. They are not many in “万葉集 Man’yoshu” but mostly fundamental nouns. They are names of seasons, times, living necessities, animals and plants such as haru, 今日 kefu, yoru, midu, fitu, 蜻蛉 akidu, ugufisu, matu, 海松 miru, etc. Verbs and nouns could be undifferentiated in the primitive Japanese, both with the suffix –u. Later (which means in 上代 Jōdai period) this suffix is limited to verb-making, but you can find the relic of this type of word-formation in some male names such as Hiraku, Hiromu, Manabu, Masaru, Minoru, Noboru, Satoru, Susumu, Tōru, Tsutomu, Wataru, Yuzuru, etc. and in the elements of names such as ­haru, katsu, mitsu, nobu, tsugu, etc. These are names derived from verbs.

    The distribution of the ending vowels of yamato nouns in “万葉集 Man’yoshu” (992 words in total, compounds and dialects are excluded) shows a significant pattern as below.
    i : 425 (with {-ki, -fi, -mi} : 180, {-, -, - } : 22)
    a : 224
    e : 157 ( {-ke, -fe, -me} : 16, {-, -, -} : 66 )
    o : 110 ( {-ko, -so, -to, -no, -yo, -ro} : 34, {-ko, -so, -to, -no, -yo, -ro} : 44 )
    u : 76
    About two thirds of the nouns end with either –i or –a.

    Many of the nouns with the –i ending are closely related to the adverbial form (連用形 Ren'yō-kei) of the verbs.
    For example :
    tukї is related to 尽き tukї / 尽くtuku,“to wane < to drain/run out”.
    尽く tuku is also the origin of 疲れ tukarë / 疲る tukaru, “tiredness < to get tired”.
    tuku is used only in compounds or as a dialect. Although seemingly it is the older form of the noun with the –u ending, tuku is but a “bound form” (or “被覆形 Hifuku-kei” by Arisaka, 1931) of tukї in the Jōdai period.

    Note that if the verb is Lower Bigrade (下二段 Shimo-nidan), the derived noun has –ë ending such as 答へ kötafë, “answer” < kötafu, “to answer”.

    Some of the nouns with the –a ending are also related to verbs.
    For example :
    / mura and 群る muru, “to gather”
    nafa and 綯う nafu, “to strand (rope)”
    fara and 墾る faru, “to clear (land)” or 晴る faru, “to clear up”
    wosa and 治す wosu,“to govern”, etc.

    There are nouns with the –a ending which appear only in compounds as the "bound form".
    For example : ("free form" of the noun in the bracket)
    / ama (amë), isa (isi), ka (), ka (), ka (/ ), kaga (kagë), kana (kane), kaza (kaze), kura ( kuro/ 暮れ kure), ma (), funa (fune), saka (sakë), sira (siro), ta (te), taka (takë), taka (/ takë), tana (tanë), ufa (ufë), yona (yone), etc.
    Some are –a/e and others are –a/ë alternation. Actually, ne, re, te, ze have no differentiations of , , , (which don't exist). So the alternation pattern is simple enough. isi, kuro and siro are the irregularity. has isu and iso forms, too. Kuro and siro may not be the "free form" but another "bound form" which make adjectives (Arisaka, 1931).   

    Note that some compounds and alternations are made in later periods by analogy, such as 雨合羽 ama-gappa and köwa (köwe) .

    [I should add some more points and put them together, as soon as possible.]


    [Continued from the previous posting]

    Nouns with the –u, –i, –a ending account for 60% of all the nouns in “万葉集 Man’yōshu”. These three vowels are the nominal suffix (Sakakura, 1966 ).

    Also, they are primary vowels of the phonemes of Old Japanese.
    大野晋 Ōno, Susumu counted the syllables of all the words in “Man’yōshu” (more precisely, its seven books out of twenty, which are written only with ‘万葉仮名 Man’yō-gana’ or the ancient phonographic writing system. The frequency of the vowels makes a significant pattern again. Below is the frequency of the each syllable (boldfaces for '上代特殊仮名遣い Jyōdai Tokushu Kanazukai ').

    Subtotal of syllables with -a vowel : 12,120
    /a/1,058, /ka/1,649, /s/763, /ta/1129, /na/1,398, /ha/1,288, /ma/1,248, /ya/620, /ra/974, /wa/438, /ga/765, /za/82, /da/152, /ba/556

    Subtotal of syllables with -ivowel : 9,633
    /i/809, /ki/1,159, //84, /si/1,908, /ti/432, /ni/1,854, /fi/715, //109, /mi/900, //88, /ri/902, /wi/48, /gi/217, //60, /zi/72, /di/78, /bi/169, //29

    Subtotal of syllables with -u vowel : 6,415
    /u/384, /ku/1,036, /su/567, /tu/1,047, /nu/316, /fu/551, /mu/625, /yu/422, /ru/776, /gu/155, /zu/197, /du/247, /bu/92

    Subtotal of syllables with -e vowel : 3,838
    /e/10, /ke/288, //200, /se/299, /te/656, /ne/337, /fe/230, //186, /me/74, //300, /ye/128, /re/590, /we/74, /ge/5, //104, /ze/29, /de/176, /be/89, //63

    Subtotal of syllables with -o vowel : 9,941
    /ö/457, /ko/397, //695, /so/124, //293, /to/114, //1,344, /no/92, //2,093, /fo/441, /mo/1,792*, /yo/178, //257, /ro/40, //256, /wo/919, /go/24, //98, /zo/4, //7, /do/57, //237, /bo/22

    Total number of the syllables : 41,947

    Note* : This opinion suggests that /mo/ and // used to be separated as seen in “古事記 Kojiki ” the oldest book. The high frequency of /mo/ can be explained accordingly in the theory of four original vowels below.

    I skip the details and just introduce Ōno ’s basic hypothesis with which Sakakura also agrees.

    The four {a, u, ö, i } are the original vowels of Japanese Language in the Ancient times (i.e, pre-Jōdai period).
    The other four {ї, e, ë, o } are the products of vowel fusion emerged later (cannot explain all the words with these vowels only with the vowel fusion though), for the Old Japanese doesn’t allow diphthongs.

    /ai/ > /ë/
    /ia/ > /e/
    /öi/ > /ї/
    /ui/ > /ї/
    /ua/ > /o/

    For example :
    “long”, naga + “breath" > "sigh”, iki = 嘆き “grief”, nagaiki > nagëki
    ‘bound-form’ of “red”, aka + 'nominal-suffix' –i = / ‘free-form’, akai > akë
    ‘bound-form’ of “eye”, ma + 'nominal-suffix' –i = ‘free-form’, mai > më
    “to come”, ki + あり “to be”, ari = けり auxiliary-verb of “awareness”, kiari > keri
    ‘bound-form’ of “tree“, kö + 'nominal-suffix' –i = ‘free-form’, köi > kї
    ‘bound-form’ of “moon”, tuku + 'nominal-suffix' –i = ‘free-form’, tukui > tukї
    “number”, kazu + 合へ “to put together”, afë = 数へ “to count”, kazuafë > kazofë

    The two elemental vowels of a diphthong often don’t merge but one of them drops out as in the following example :
    / “base”, tökö + / “rock”, ifa = 常盤 “permanency”, tököifa > tökifa

    Also, /a/ and /ö/ could switch to make the basically-same meaning words** (e.g.; ana/önö, fadara/födörö, kata/kötö, 'adnominal-particle' na/nö, namu/nömu, sa/sö, 'onomatopoeia' saya/söyö, etc).
    Sometimes /a/ and /ö/ switch to differentiate the meanings especially of pronouns (e.g.; are / öre, ka / kö, etc).

    Note** : Ōno uses the term ‘ 母音交替 Boin-kōtai , “Vowel Change” ’ including this sense and excluding the vowel fusion ('母音転化' Boin-tenka) above. But I use the term “vowel alternation” as defined by Qcumber.
    Vowel gradation: kaka, kaki, kaku, kake, kako
    Vowel alternation: kaze, kazaguruma
    Vowel mutation: from the Old Japanese system to the Modern Japanese system
    [To be continued]


    [Continued from the previous posting]
    Summing Up of the Old Yamato Compounds and Vowel Alternation.

    There are several kinds of derivation in the old Japanese; Conversion, Vowel Suffixation (above are classified as 内的派生 Naiteki-Hasei or ‘Internal Derivation’ by Sakakura), Suffixation, Prefixation and Compounding (外的派生 Gaiteki-Hasei or ‘External Derivation’, above). Let’s focus on the Compounding.
    There are several types of compounding; Compound Noun, Verb, Adjective, and so on. Let’s focus on the Compound Noun.
    Compound Noun can be classified by the type of the base elements [or lexemes] ; [Noun + Noun], [Base ('語基 Goki ') or Adjective Stem ('体言 Taigen ') + Noun], [Verb Adverbial + Noun], [Noun + Possessive Particle + Noun], and so on.
    Let’s focus on the compoundings of [Noun + Noun] and [Noun + Possessive Particle + Noun].
    Some compoundings are obvious (e.g. matuge < ma-tu-kë) and some are not (e.g. mado < ma-to ). The core vocabulary of the original Japanese were limited and was expanded by compounding and derivation. Most of the basic words [simple lexemes] and morphemes have only one or two syllables. Very few words with more than three syllables should be simple lexemes. In other words, they are derivatives or compounds.

    The basic mechanism of the compounding is just putting the words together. The accent change aside, there are four reasons (or so) of the seeming irregularity.

    1. Sequential Voicing (連濁 Ren-daku ); The unvoiced consonant at the beginning of an element is often voiced when added to another element;
    kë> ge [ë] in matuge 目(ま)つ毛(け) > 睫毛(まつげ)
    to > do in mado 目(ま)+戸 [or, 処] (と) > 窓(まど)

    2. Dissolution of Vowel Sequence; If a vowel sequence is caused by the compounding, sound change follows.
    (1) Vowel Drop Out; kure-nö-awi > kurenöawi > kurenawi 呉の藍 > 紅(くれなゐ)
    (2) Vowel Fusion
    (3) Consonant “s” Insertion; faru-amë > farua > farusa 春雨 (はるさめ)

    3. Old Form of Noun; There are old [‘bound’] forms of nouns used only as the compound elements in Jodai period. These variations of nouns are related to Vowel Suffixation mentioned above;
    ma > me in mado 目(ま)+戸 [or , 処] > 窓(まど)

    4. Analogy; The old [‘bound’] forms are used in compounding after the Jodai period until even today by analogy;
    kaza > kaze in kazaguruma 風(かざ)+車

    I think that’s it for now. Any questions are welcome. Note that this summary is mainly based on the studies of Sakakura, Atsuyoshi and Ōno, Susumu. There could be more recent different opinions.

    Sakakura, Atsuyoshi 阪倉篤義 (1966). Go-Kousei no Kenkyu 『語構成の研究』. (Kadokawa Shoten 角川書店)
    Sakakura (1978). Nihon-go no Go-gen 『日本語の語源』. Kodansha gendai-shinsho 講談社現代新書)
    Ōno, Susumu 大野晋 (1977). On-in no Hensen (1 ) 「音韻の変遷」(1). (Iwanami Kouza Nihon-go 5 ; On-in 『岩波講座日本語5; 音韻』. Iwanami Shoten 岩波書店)
    Ōno (1978). Nihon-go no Bunpou o Kangaeru 『日本語の文法を考える』. Iwanami shinsho 岩波新書)
    Ōno (1980). Nihon-go no Seiritsu 『日本語の成立』. Nihon-go no Sekai 1 「日本語の世界1」. Chuo Koronsha 中央公論社)
    Ōno, et al. (1990). Iwanami Ko-go Jiten 『岩波古語辞典』. Iwanami shoten 岩波書店)
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