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Old Japanese (上代日本語)
Era: 8th century
Language family: Japonic
is the oldest attested stage of the Japanese language, recorded in documents from the Nara period (8th century). It became Early Middle Japanese in the succeeding Heian period, but the precise delimitation of the stages is controversial. Old Japanese was an early member of the Japonic language family. No conclusive links to other language families have been proven.
Old Japanese was written using Chinese characters by using an increasingly-standardized and phonetic form that eventually evolved into man’yōgana. As is typical of Japonic languages, Old Japanese was primarily an agglutinative language with a subject–object–verb word order. However, Old Japanese was marked by a few phonemic differences from later forms, such as a simpler syllable structure and distinctions between several pairs of syllables that have been pronounced identically since Early Middle Japanese. The phonetic realization of these distinctions is uncertain.
Old Japanese is usually defined as the language of the Nara period (710–794), when the capital was Heijō-kyō (now Nara). That is the period of the earliest connected texts in Japanese, the 112 songs included in the Kojiki (712). The other major literary sources of the period are the 128 songs included in the Nihon Shoki (720) and the Man’yōshū (c. 759), a compilation of over 4,500 poems. Shorter samples are 25 poems in the Fudoki (720) and the 21 poems of the Bussokuseki-kahi (c. 752). The latter has the virtue of being an original inscription, whereas the oldest surviving manuscripts of all the other texts are the results of centuries of copying, with the attendant risk of scribal errors. Prose texts are more limited but are thought to reflect the syntax of Old Japanese more accurately than verse texts do. The most important are the 27 Norito (liturgies) recorded in the Engishiki (compiled in 927) and the 62 Senmyō (imperial edicts) recorded in the Shoku Nihongi (797).
A limited number of Japanese words, mostly personal names and place names, are recorded phonetically in ancient Chinese texts, such as the “Wei Zhi” portion of the Records of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century AD), but the transcriptions by Chinese scholars are unreliable. The oldest surviving native inscriptions, dating from the 5th or early 6th centuries, include those on the Suda Hachiman Shrine Mirror, the Inariyama Sword, and the Eta Funayama Sword. Those inscriptions are written in Classical Chinese but contain several Japanese names that were transcribed phonetically using Chinese characters. Such inscriptions became more common from the Suiko period (592–628). Those fragments are usually considered a form of Old Japanese.
Of the 10,000 paper records kept at Shōsōin, only two, dating from about 762, are in Old Japanese. Over 150,000 wooden tablets (mokkan) dating from the late 7th and early 8th century have been unearthed. The tablets bear short texts, often in Old Japanese of a more colloquial style than the polished poems and liturgies of the primary corpus.
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