9th century pottery offers new clues for origins of hiragana

November 29, 2012

By JIRO TSUTSUI/ Staff Writer

KYOTO--Researchers have identified one of the oldest examples of hiragana characters ever found, a discovery that could help language historians determine how complex kanji characters became modified as the simplified syllabary used today.

The writing, on ninth-century pottery shards, appears to be an early form of hiragana, whose characters are believed to have stabilized in their current form in the 10th century.

Hiragana coexists with other forms, including kanji, in Japanese writing today.

Researchers at the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute identified letters on pottery shards unearthed at a site that was once the home of Fujiwara no Yoshimi (813-867), a high-ranking official of the Heian Period (794-1185).

Ink script on about 20 of the 90 pieces found contained either hiragana or characters known as "sogana," modified kanji characters on their way to becoming hiragana.

Announcing their findings Nov. 28, the researchers said they had identified on the rear side of one piece about 40 characters—including those for syllables "to" and "ha" in the form used today.

Although some pieces were never found and the entire text contains gaps, it is possible to guess at its meaning. One possible translation is "not being thought of in a good light by others."

Until now, the oldest known example of hiragana writing was a document written in 867 by a deputy governor of Sanuki, which is now Kagawa Prefecture.

By JIRO TSUTSUI/ Staff Writer
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Shards of pottery with some of the oldest hiragana characters (Masanori Takahashi)

Shards of pottery with some of the oldest hiragana characters (Masanori Takahashi)

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  • Shards of pottery with some of the oldest hiragana characters (Masanori Takahashi)
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