Wiktionary:About Japanese/Etymology

link={{{imglink}}} This is a Wiktionary policy, guideline or common practices page. Specifically it is a policy think tank, working to develop a formal policy.
Policies – Entries: CFI - EL - NORM - NPOV - QUOTE - REDIR - DELETE. Languages: LT - AXX. Others: BLOCK - BOTS - VOTES.


Basic tasks in the etymology of a Japanese entry include:

  • Breaking up compounds.
  • Tracing word change: pronunciation, spelling, and meaning;
  • Giving ultimate word origins: often other language, a coinage, or sound symbolism.

Breaking up compoundsEdit

Show which terms combine to create the compound:

  • use {{compound|lang=ja|sort=(hiragana for compound)|term1|tr1=(romaji for term1)|t1=(gloss for term1)|term2|tr2=(romaji for term2)...}};

Indicate regular or irregular sound changes in the compound:

  • indicate rendaku, by using {{rendaku|(hiragana for headword)}};
  • indicate irregular sound combinations, such as the following for 春雨 (harusame, spring rain):
Compound of (haru, spring) +‎ (ame, rain). The irregular same reading for (ame) is thought to be a likely holdover from an Old Japanese pronunciation, or possibly an example of epenthesis.

For example, here is the etymology section for the 篠笛 (shinobue) entry:

Compound of {{compound|lang=ja|sort=しのぶえ|篠|tr1=shino|t1=a type of bamboo|笛|tr2=fue|t2=flute}}.
The ''fue'' changes to ''bue'' due to {{rendaku|しのぶえ}}.

Word changeEdit

In detail, etymology traces where words come from, and how they change. In Japanese this is somewhat complicated by the use of kanji – thus firstly, old pronunciations are not transparent from the writing, and secondly, the kanji may change.

Phonetic changes
Many sound changes in Japanese are quite regular, hence older forms of words can be deduced from knowing sound changes over time:
  • initial /h-/: [p] > [ɸ] > [h]; medial /-h/: [p] > [ɸ] > [w] (see topic case )
  • /w/ becomes zero before -i, -e, and -o; (see accusative case )
  • /i, wi/ and /e, ye/ merge into /i/, /e/ respectively
  • /au/ elides into [ɔː] > [oː], while /ou/ and /eu/ elide into [oː] and [yoː], respectively
  • /zi, di/ and /zu, du/ merge into /zi/ and /zu/, respectively
  • voiced obstruents were initially prenasalized: /g/ [ng], /z/ [nz], /d/ [nd], /b/ [mb]
  • like /si/, /se/ was initially palatalized [ɕe]
This is often called “historical readings” of kanji, though properly, the sound changes occurred independent of any writing of them. Note that Japanese dictionaries often anachronistically give historical readings of modern terms; these may be included, but should be flagged as such, to not give the impression that these were an actual older form of the word.
Change in spelling
The kanji used to write a word may change: 漫才 (まんざい, manzai, a form of stand-up comedy) is a good example. Further, Japanese spelling was reformed in 1946: for kana, historical kana orthography with Gendai Kanazukai, while for kanji, kyūjitai was replaced with shinjitai.
Change in meaning (Semantic change): This is as in other languages.


The modern verbal conjugation classes are a direct result of their historical ones.

All modern adjectives ending in -i derive from an early form ending in -ki where the medial -k- drops out. This is the attributive base which overtook the conclusive. For example:


Japanese words that originate in another or older language fall into three main classes: words from Old Japanese (and Proto-Japonic before that), old Chinese borrowings, and modern borrowings. In detail:

  • 大和言葉 (やまとことば, yamato kotoba): (Old) Japanese words – historically Japanese words
    Yamato kotoba, also known as 和語 (わご, wago); these originate in Old Japanese ({{ojp}}).
    Please indicate these with {{etyl|ojp|ja}}.
    Note that there have been some sound mergers since Old Japanese, so two words that are pronounced identically today may have been different words in Old Japanese, and thus warrant separate etymologies; a good example is かみ, where was kami2 and was kami1, though these are both now kami.
  • 漢語 (かんご, kango): Chinese words – Chinese borrowings, from several stages through history.
    Kango (Sino-Japanese vocabulary); these are generally written in kanji.
    Please indicate these with {{etyl|zho|ja}}, or {{etyl|lzh|ja}} (for “Chinese” and “Literary Chinese”, respectively); the ISO codes for various stages of Chinese are not very finely divided, and there is as yet no Wiktionary standard on how to classify borrowings from various points in time (呉音漢音唐音). Please do not use zh, as that is used to indicate modern Mandarin Chinese, which is incorrect – Mandarin did not exist when historical borrowings from Chinese occurred, and modern Mandarin borrowings are generally considered gairaigo and written in katakana, like other foreign languages, not kanji; see below.
    The term ‘kango’ is also used for Japanese coinages from Chinese roots, more specifically called 和製漢語 (わせいかんご, wasei kango) or "Japanese-coined Chinese words". As these are Japanese coinages, they should be indicated as follows:
    Compound of {{compound|lang=ja|sort=hiragana|part1|tr1=romaji1|t1=translation1|part2|tr2=romaji2|t2=translation2}}.
  • 外来語 (がいらいご, gairaigo) – (Modern) Foreign borrowings, mostly European
    These are written in katakana. Words were imported from Portuguese in the 15th and 16th century, then from Dutch from 1609 to 1854, then from French and German during the early Meiji Period, and now primarily from English. Modern Chinese borrowings are considered gairaigo, and written in katakana.
    Please indicate these with {{etyl|xx|ja}}, where xx is the ISO 639 code for the originating language. For example, use pt for borrowings from Portuguese, nl for borrowings from Dutch, en for borrowings from English, and zh for borrowings from modern Mandarin Chinese.
    Note that due to similarities between European languages, particularly English and Dutch, it is easy to mistake which European language a word came from. For instance, コーヒー (kōhii, coffee) comes from Dutch, not English.

Word formationEdit

See: Word formation

Japanese produces words in a number of ways.


Rarer coinages include 女房言葉 (にょうぼうことば, nyōbō kotoba) (also written 女房詞), such as お腹 (おなか, onaka, stomach).

Conversely, many Japanese words are formed by abbreviating or contracting other words, such as リモコン (rimokon, remote control) from リモートコントロール (rimōto kontorōru). See:

Sound symbolismEdit

See: Sound symbolism and Japanese sound symbolism

Japanese is unlike English in widely using many types of sound symbolism. These are often incorrectly all called “onomatopoeia” in English, but come instead in several varieties.



See: Japanese diaspora

Japanese words have been borrowed into other languages in a number of ways.


Useful templates include:

  • {{etyl}}
  • {{ja-kanjitab}}
  • {{rendaku}}
  • {{wasei eigo}}
  • {{l}}
    Ideal use of this takes the format:
    • {{l|ja|term in kanji|tr=[[term in kana]], ''[[term in romaji]]''|gloss=[[gloss]]}}
    For example:
    • {{l|ja|春雨|tr=[[はるさめ]], ''[[harusame]]''|gloss=spring rain}}
    Which produces:
    Using the {{l}} template with the ja language code links explicitly to the Japanese entry, thereby avoiding confusion with any entries under the same headword for Chinese, Korean, and sometimes Vietnamese or the Ryukyuan languages.
    The kana and romaji transcriptions are very useful to learners and English readers; ideally they should be linked, as non-lemma forms are included within the scope of Wiktionary.
  • Category:Japanese templates