More from the VLI

As promised, here are some things that we can learn from the Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam even if we don't really speak Portuguese.

Let me note before I begin that this is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of 17th-century Japanese, or even of all the implications of the issues raised in this post. Although I provide some context and supporting information from other sources, what I want to do here is to show what the orthography of the VLI shows, or at least suggests, in and of itself. It's all an excuse to type up some early 17th-century Portuguese as faithfully as possible, is what I'm saying.

1. Word-initial <f>

This is probably the most obvious point of interest in the VLI. First, here's some background:

KanaPre-reform kanaNJMeaningOJMan'yōgana (example)
はなはなhanaflowerpana波奈 (MYS 0816)
ひとひとhitopersonpito比等 (MYS 0808)
あわあはawamilletapa安波 (MYS 3451)
かいかひkaishell(fish)kapi可比 (MYS 3709)

(NJ = "Contemporary Japanese", the Japanese of today as opposed to the "Modern Japanese" that stretches back for centuries. OJ = "Old Japanese" as usual.)

Comparing the NJ to the OJ forms, we see that:

  • Intervocalic /p/ became /w/ before /a/, and disappeared before all other vowels.
  • Word-initial /p/ became /h/.

So what do those words look like in the VLI?

  • Fana. Nariz. (78)
  • Fito. Homem, ou molher. (96)
  • Aua. Painço, ou milho, húa das cincº ſementes, ou legues chamados. (15. This actually appears capitalized as AVA because it is the first entry in its section; I took the liberty of normalizing to lower-case.)
  • Cai. Ameijoa, ou outro mariſco do mar ſeme lhante. (33)

OJ intervocalic /p/ has already vanished, except where it has become /w/ before /a/. This is exactly the same as the contemporary Japanese we speak today. But word-initial /p/ hasn't become /h/. It's written <f>, and there are arguments over how it is to be pronounced. The simplest explanation is that it is an unvoiced bilabial fricative (i.e. a "weakening" of the original unvoiced bilabial plosive), but there is contemporary evidence against this — for example, Diego Collado's 1632 Ars Grammaticae Iaponicae Lingvae notoriously says:

Litera, f, in aliquibus Iaponiæ prouincijs pronunciatur sicut in lingua Latina; in alijs autem ac si esset, h, non perfectum: sed quodam medium inter, f, &, h, os & labia plicando, & claudendo, sed non integrum, quod vsu facilè compertum erit: v.g. fito.

The letter f is pronounced in various regions of Japan as it is in Latin. In others it is pronounced as if it were an imperfect h. For both pronunciations the lips and the mouth should be nearly, but not completely, closed. (Richard L. Spear's translation)

Since Latin <f> is supposed to have been labiodental, not bilabial (here I would insert a reference to Allen's Vox Latina if I had my copy handy), many interpret Collado's "sicut in lingua Latina" as evidence that <f> may not in fact have been unambiguously bilabial. Or, of course, Collado may have been misunderstanding something, writing as he was in that benighted age before even the first edition of Ladefoged's A Course in Phonetics had been published.

Whatever <f> was, it must have evolved into NJ /h/ after this dictionary was written. The whole story is rather more complicated and obviously can't be deduced from a single 1603 dictionary. Moving on!

2. Y before E

Some more background:

KanaPre-reform kanaNJMeaningOJMan'yōgana (example)
まえまへmaefrontmapye麻敝 (MYS 4129)
えだえだedabranchyeda延太 (MYS 3603)
えてえてeteget(ting)ete愛弖 (MYS 806)
えみゑみemismilewemi恵美 (MYS 4106)

And then look how they appear in the VLI:

  • Maye. Diante, ou em preſença, ou dantes. (154)
  • Yeda. Ramo. (320)
  • Yete. He como aduerbio, modo de fazer algũa couſa bem, ou por cuſtume, &c. (322. This also appears as <Ye, yuru, yeta> on 319, but I wanted a form that matched the MYS citation; and yes, <yuru> instead of <vru> is odd; see Doi et al 814-815 for more on this.)
  • Yemi. Alegria, ou ſorriſo. (320)

In fact, as far as I can tell there are no instances of a mora consisting solely of /e/, with no initial consonant, in the dictionary. There are no words written starting with <e>, for example.

One interpretation of this would be that when the OJ distinction between /ye/ and /e/ was lost, the survivor was /ye/, and this didn't become /e/ until very recently — recently enough for the beer brand "Yebisu" (pronounced /ebisu/) to retain that initial <y> in its official English spelling, for example.

Frellesvig, however, rejects this interpretation. He argues that the /ye/ - /e/ distinction collapsed to /e/, and that what we see in the VLI is an additional rule that inserted an "on-glide" whenever /e/ appeared in a mora with no initial consonant. This sounds a bit fiddlesome, but it is in fact more parsimonious in many ways than the hypothesis of long-lived /ye/. For example, Frellesvig's explanation frees us from the need to devise a spaghetti of historical rules explaining how /pye/, /ye/, /e/, and /we/ all ended up as something spelled <ye>; instead, we can simply hypothesize that they all eroded down to phonemic /e/ which was then expressed with an on-glide (Frellesvig 208-210).

3. W before O

Similarly, there are no words starting with <o> in the dictionary. All the ones you might expect to start with <o> start with <uo> instead, and the same goes for word-internal moraic /o/:

otootosoundVoto. Som, ou ſoido. (285)
wotokwootokomanVotoco. Homē varão, ou macho. (285)
awoaoblue/greenAuoi. Couſa de cor azul eſcuro. Itē, de Verde. Item, Verde. i. Que não he maduro. (16)
kapokaofaceCauo. Roſto. (44)

(Note that <V> here is simply a capital <u>. Also note that I'm using the entry <auoi> instead of <auo> solely because the only definition given for the latter is a color that horses can be. Same morpheme, though.)

Frellesvig considers this basically the same phenomenon as the <ye> issue: a range of morae eroding down to /o/, which is then expressed with an on-glide.

However, one important difference from <ye> is that there is a loophole. The best example is probably:

  • Vô (modern /oː/ "big", OJ /opo/)

Here, the second /o/ (the result of the intervocalic /p/ disappearing as discussed in point 1 of this post) has merged with the first one, producing a single long vowel. The two morae now form one syllable, and, logically enough, there is no need to interrupt the syllable halfway through to add an extra on-glide.

4. An extra vowel

Speaking of <Vô>, check these dictionary entries out. All of them, in modern Japanese, would be pronounced /koː/.

  • . Obediencia de filho pera o pay, ou mãy. (52) [孝]
  • . Adu. Aſsi, deſta maneira. (340) [斯う]
  • . Hum certo paſsaro grande. (52) [鴻]
  • . Exercicio, ou habito. (52) [功]

There's a systematic distinction being made between <ǒ> and <ô>. How it works becomes clearer when you look at the original (pre-reform) kana spellings of these words:

  • 孝, 斯う = かう
  • 鴻, 功 = こう

/au/ becomes <ǒ>, /ou/ becomes <ô>. What about words with the NJ pronunciation /Cyoː/?

  • Qiǒ. Miyako. Cidade principal, ou corte. (198) [京, きやう]
  • Qiǒ. Liuro. (198) [経, きやう]
  • Qeô. [ve]l, qiô. Oje. (193) [今日, けふ]
  • Qeô. l, qiô. Prazer, graça, &c. (193) [興, けう]

The rules appear to be:

  • /au/ → <ǒ>
  • /ou/ → <ô>
  • /eu/ → <:iô>

Or we could skip the science and just read the VLI's front matter:

Nos vocabulos que tem acento longo como, Fiǒrǒ, Meǒji, &c. Eſcreuemos a primeira ſylaba ora por, E, ora por, I: & da meſma maneira os que tem o acento breue como Fiô, Qiô, &c. Por que poſto que na letra Cana, ſe eſcreuão huns, Fiau, & outros Feu: todauia na pronunciação não pedem mais, E, que I [...](ii)

In the words which have a long accent like "Fiǒrǒ", "Meǒji", &c., we write the first syllable now as "E", now as "I": & in the same manner those [words] which have a short accent like "Fiô", "Qiô", &c. This is because in the kana letters, [the former] ones are written "Fiau", & the others "Feu": however, the pronunciations do not call more for "E" than "I" [...] (My translation, after Doi et al 5)

That is, the acento longo of <iǒ> comes from kana spellings corresponding to /yau/, while the acento breve of <eô> comes from spellings corresponding to /eu/. Note the denial of any difference in pronunciation between <i> or <e> — it all comes down to <iǒ> vs <eô>.

The current thinking, by the way, is that <ô> was pronounced [oː] (you could see this as simple extension of the original /o/, at least in the cases where there was one), while <ǒ> was [ɔː].


  • Collado, Diego. Ars Grammaticae Iaponicae Linguae. Rome, 1632. Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 March 2012. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17713>
  • Doi, Tadao 土井忠生, Morita Takeshi 森田武, and Chōnan Minoru 長南実. Hōyaku Nippo Jisho 邦訳日葡辞書. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten 岩波書店, 1980. Print.
  • Frellesvig, Bjarke. A History of the Japanese Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
  • Man'yōshū Kensaku Sisutemu Ver 2.2.0 万葉集検索システム. Web. 12 March 2012. <http://infux03.inf.edu.yamaguchi-u.ac.jp/~manyou/ver2_2/manyou.php>
  • Spear, Richard L. Diego Collado's Grammar of the Japanese Language. University of Kansas, Center for East Asian Studies: 1975. Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 March 2012. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21197>
  • Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam. Nagasaki, 1603. Tokyo: Benseisha 勉誠社, 1978. Print.

Other works cited

  • Allen, W. Sidney. Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
  • Ladefoged, Peter. A Course in Phonetics. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1975.

Popularity factor: 10

Leonardo Boiko:

thanks for this! you’re good at preserving the charm of missionary Portuguese in translation.

aren’t かひ and かい switched in the first table?

I like that he lists auoi as _dark_ blue (as well as green). mentally filing this datum for that thing about changes in the meaning of color-names.


First table fixed, thanks!

Re the translation: Thanks! What I'm really trying to convey there is the sheer pleasure of reading material like this, wonky printing and all.


Can we say with absolute certainty that は (and ひ etc..) was "pa", before it was "fa"? While some sources do speak with finality, other experts in the field (speaking here of 国語学) give it a (strong) "probably", citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

Thanks for the detailed analyses.


Ah, the bit about the pronunciation of きやう vs. けふ is interesting to me because of this haiku by Bashō:

京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

I was wondering if maybe there was a punning of 京 and 今日, but it appears not.

Tim May:

Is there a reason why, in the first two sections, the <i>VLI</i> entries aren't in the same order as the tables?


Very interestink. I have to admit, I always suspected that the lack of some o or e beginning words that you'd expect to find had something to do with a different vowel space in the Portuegese and Japanese of the times. (The Japanese /i/ being higher than the English /i/--or "eeeeeeeeeeeeee" to be less slapdash IPA about it.)

But that was musings of a phonetics geek who knows little of Portguese of the time. Until we can find the Jesuits' field recordings, it might be unrecoverable.


Tim: Sheer lack of attention to detail! I'll fix that when I get a chance.

Carl: There's still hope! You just have to prove that the distinction vanished within 50 years or so. (Yeah, there's no hope.)

MMS: A lot of things would become clearer if we had those field recordings...

Tintin: True, we have no slamdunk proof. We also have dating issues: even if we had proof that it was [p] in Proto-Japanese/-Japonic, it might have weakened to [φ] by the time we arrive at the official Old Japanese period. IIRC (book not handy), Frellesvig thinks it was realized both ways in OJ depending on how carefully/formally the speaker was speaking. (I use "p" because the various arguments that it was something like that have convinced me personally, but I wouldn't consider it cranky to hold a different opinion based on different interpretation of the evidence.)


If Old Dirty Bastard can make "youth" and "shoot" rhyme, there's always hope.

Leonardo Boiko:

Tintin: I agree, we can never be 100% sure of this kind of past phonetics. I think the /p/ is one of the things that are most certain, though; at least my readings so far (biased for Western scholars) gave me the impression that everyone believes current /h/ must have been /p/ at _some_ point, if not in Old Japanese, then earlier.

Also, Hamano and Unger believe the lenition path wasn’t [p] → [ɸ] → [w,∅] but instead [b] → [β] → [w,∅]: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4141293

(It might feel strange that /p/ could be realized as [b], but one of the hypothesis with most evidence supporting it is that current /b/ used to be [mb], so that the nasal distinguished it. Frellesvig thinks that in OJ all stops were voiced when word-medial, i.e. /p/ would always be [b] in the middle of a word.)

For those who can’t trespass JSTOR’s paywall, an interesting thing about Unger’s paper above is that it leverages the different phonetic nature of the distinct sections of Japanese vocabulary. Native words (yamato-kotoba), Sino-Japanese (kango), mimetic/phonosemantic words (giseigo/gitaigo) and modern loans (gairaigo) all combine phonemes differently; e.g. no original native word started with /r/ (like SJ “ringo”). Now the curious thing is that the native and SJ strata lost the /p/, but gitaigo like “pikapika” or “parapara” preserved it all the while.


<i>gitaigo like “pikapika” or “parapara” preserved it all the while</i>

Ah, but did they?

"Ficaficato. Adu. Modo de reluzir, ou reſplandecer algũa couſa dando lhe a claridade." (VLI 348)

The description fits modern /pikapika/, but it uses the <p> that corresponds to /h/ in modern Japanese (e.g. <Ficari> = NJ /hikari/ is in there too). There's also a <Farafarato> that seems to correspond to modern /parapara/.

On the other hand, there ARE some words starting with <p> in the VLI, all mimetic in some way, like <Pappato>, <Pinpin>, <Pararito> (this one also appears as <Fararito>; there's a <Fappato> but it doesn't seem to have the same meaning. No <Finpin>).

Even Frellesvig admits that it's hard to say for sure what all this means, but what seems likeliest to me is that there was a /p/, it lenited to an /f/ (taking mimetic and non-mimetic words alike along with it), but even after that it was still possible (a) for mimetic words to start with /p/, and (b) for existing mimetic words now in /f/ to be reborn in (the new) /p/.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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