Princess Himiko
and the case of the
lost p- intial and -p endings

where have Hakka and Cantonese -p endings gone in Modern Japanese?

I am indebted to Thomas Chan of Cornell University for aiding in the creation of this page. He has given me the information on the changes in the consonant 'p' in Japanese, and kindly offered his correction and suggestion in a series of emails over January 1998.


My japanese dictionary gives the following brief note about the events in 238AD when YAMATAI State's female ruler HIMIKO sends envoy to WEI.

Yamatai (ya ma ta i) koku no jo-ou Himiko (hi mi ko) Gi ni shisetsu haken.

The Princess and the P
The name "Himiko" is interesting from the phonology point of view.

In some books, you will find it variously spelt as Himiko, Pimiko, Pimiku, Pimeko etc. The modern rendering is Himiko, but the p- names hold if the ancient Japanese borrowings are taken into account.

Notice that the intial h- is linked to p-. At some stage in Japanese, the early p- mutated into a h-. This can be shown by looking at the original kanji form of the kana that represented the sounds at the time of their borrowings.

In the pages about Japanese Kana Orthography, Part I dealt with the modern kana ( ) set which were derived from the Kanji or Chinese character forms, and Part II deals with the romanisations of the kana sets and also the multiple kana compounds like shou in hiragana, and in katakana . Most of the kana derive from On readings, that is, the sounds of Chinese at the time of their borrowings. There are a few kana, however, which have kun readings, which quite often are the meaning in Japanese of the Kanji themselves.

There is also mentioned in Part II , voicing by the use of by addition of the nigori and handaku marks.

The initials, k-, s-, t-, and p- are voiceless sounds. By addition of the nigori-ten ( ) , we can represent the voiced compliments to this set, i.e. g-, z-, d-, and b-. But we notice that p- syllables

takes the handaku mark on all five of the h- syllables

whilst all the other unvoiced sounds are plain kana representations. But the b- syllables

are as one would expect. There is definitely something strange here.

To p- or not to p-? That is the question!

Why did the nigori-less modern h- kana symbols become the voiced b- when p- should have been used?

The answer is simple. In ancient borrowings, p- intial words at the time of the orginal Kanji form of the Kana set were used. At some time in history, the p sound has weakened to the extent that it became the h- sound. Later, the p-sound came back into use, but the kana sets became inadequate as the once p- kana now represented the h- kana. It is said that, with the arrival of missionaries to Japan, the handakuten ( ) was introduced to make the distinction possible.

We need only to look at the Kanji forms that originated the kana (both hiragana and katakana) to see that the above reason for the change of p- to h- has some factual basis.

Let us look at the original Kanji Kana and their modern equivalents :

They are, "ha, hi, hu, he, ho" in the Kunrei-Siki Romanisation. (See also the Hepburn Romanisation in Part II of Japanese Kana Orthography, where 'hu' is spelt and actually nearly sounds more like 'fu'.)

In modern Chinese dialects, with the top set of Kanji are pronounced as

           HiraGana Set                   Romanisation

Japanese   ha   hi   hu/fu he   ho        Kunrei/Hepburn

Hakka      bo   bi   but   fan  bao       (SaTdiuGok)

Cantonese  bo   bei  bat   faan bou       (Yale)

Mandarin   bo   bi   bu    fan  bao       (PinYin)

           KataKana Set

Japanese   ha   hi   hu/fu he   ho        Kunrei/Hepburn

Hakka      bat  bi   but   pu   bao       (SaTdiuGok)

Cantonese  baat bei  bat   bou  bou       (Yale)

Mandarin   ba   bi   bu    bu   bao       (PinYin)

[Please note the romanisations used.] With the exception of the fourth kana syllable in the hiragana set, the majority of the Kanji characters have b- initials for the pronunciation of the sounds. We see an example of p- being retained in Hakka in the Kanji katakana syllable for /he/, which in Hakka is, 'pu', meaning a division or department.

Both /he/ kana are from kun readings. The /he/ hiragana has the Hakka sound /fan/. A rare example of a Kanji compound still using this Kanji for /he/ is "hedo" meaning "vomit". The /he/ katakana having a Hakka reading /pu/ is used in the Japanese kun compound, /heya/ meaning 'room'.

We can say that the Chinese b- sounds reflecting p- initials more than would a h- initial since the sounds of a b- is created in the same part of the mouth as the p. So, the borrowing the Japanese too, must have been initially for the p- sound, which as we have said, weakened to h- with time.

Hakka words with p- and b- to f- duel readings
whilst in Cantonese and Mandarin the change to f- has completed

The phenonmenon is no means confined to Japanese. If we look at the middle kana of the h- syllables, we notice it is -fu. The sound p and f are pronounced in the same area of the mouth, corncerning the lips mainly. The Japanese fu is pronounced with the teeth away from the bottom lip. The sound produced has the air passing the top front teeth. Both p and h are voiceless, which means while this sound is made, the vocal cords do not vibrate. Similarly, f is also voiceless. I'll demonstrate this in the sound clip of the Japanese word 'futatsu' meaning "two", and Hakka 'lao4 fu3' meaning "tiger".

There are a number of Hakka words which have duel readings, some b- initials and p- initial words have f- initial counterparts. (Numbers represent the tones.)

bui 1 fui 1fei 1fei 1fly, billow
bun 4 fun 3fan 3fen 4fertiliser, nightsoil
pui 2 fui 2fei 4fei 2fat, fatty
pui 4fui 4fai 3fei 4the lungs

From the above table, both forms of the Hakka readings are commonly used in colloquial speech. The use of modern dialects here serves to show that some of these changes have not taken place, as in the case of Hakka /pu/, or in the above two examples where there are two readings in which it represents a current intermediate stage in the sound mutation process. Thus, the likelihood of the Japanese pu evolving to fu having taken place, is real.

P as and ending in early borrowings

By the same token, all originally Chinese -p endings in the borrowings have similarly undergone a process of change in Japanese, but they have not come back as "-pa", "-pi", "-pu", "-pe", or "-po" type endings. In Japanese, they use their own kana syllabaries to mimic the sounds of foreign words. Today, it has been standardised so that the majority of new non-Japanese words are transcribed into the katakana form. They do this by a process of singling out the individual syllables of the foreign word and assigning them the closest Japanese syllable there is. For example, the word "aspect" is transcribed as a-su-pe-ku-to ( ).

Notice that in the english, -u and -o do not appear in the word "aspect". These are necessary in Japanese because of the consonant sounds they represent, but they are in fact near silent in the case of -u. Any superfluous vowels that we see in a romanisation is redundant. It is merely due to the way Japanese transcribes sounds.

In modern Japanese Kanji dictionaries, Kanji which have -p endings in Hakka and Cantonese (and any other Chinese dialect which still retains these stops) have popular abberant -t- or -tsu endings for the Chinese characters. If we take a sound that has this ending in Hakka such as /ngip/ ( ) (Cantonese /yap/) meaning to enter, the Japanese Kanji dictionary gives a number of readings as is normal. (G = Go-On, K = Kan-On and A = popular but abberant readings) (A) nit-; (G) nyuu, nifu; (K) jyuu, jifu.

We should mention, at this point, that there has been widespread reform of the writing system since the Second World War. Amongst these changes were the change in the -hu (-fu) endings. The -fu endings are the old forms and are still known in living memory, that is why they appear in the double readings given for the Kan-On and Go-On borrowings in modern dictionaries. Texts printed up into the 1960's still retains some of these forms in everyday literature.

They are important to us as they also serve to link the characters to their lost past -p endings. (Noting that -u is a redundant vowel, a side effect of the transcription methods used.).

We can demonstrate the proceedure whereby p is gradually lost and then replaced by -u endings. The words with * next to them indicate probable sounds, because I do not have the data for them. They are derived from the -fu endings I have in my dictionary. The method is as follows:

Character ending
Japanised Chinese at the time of borrowing -p*nip*jip*nap*kop*zap*ship*sepip
Subsequent Japanisation of the ending -pu*nipu*jipu*napu*kopu*zapu*shipu*sepu*ipu
Weakening of pu into fu -funifujifunafukofuzafushifusefuifu
Further attrition where f is lost, but fu kana is retained -u niujiunaukauzaushiuseuiu
Modern Langauge reforms forces u into the role of extending the character sound, and as Thomas puts it, all trace of p is gone! -u nyuujyuunoukouzoushuushouyou
Abberant but popular endings found in the Kanji dictionaries mainly occur in Kanji compounds where they are the lead Kanji with Sino Japanese On readings. -t-

With the popular abberant endings mostly in use today, the real forms based on the original Chinese pronunciations are still used. We can be forgiven then, for assuming that either there are no p- endings ever taken, or that p endings have naturally mutated to -t- or -tsu endings. From the above, we can surmise that where there are -fu (= -hu) sounds in the pre-war dictionary readings, the substitution of -pu would agree with Hakka and Cantonese Chinese -p endings.

For instance the sound of the word was written either as hiragana or katakana . By this time, (around the Second World War) the -f- sound had been lost, and the 'fu' kana came to be represented by the -u vowel. The reading for this word using this obselete kana representation is therefore 'kiu'. With the language reform changes, it became and respectively, or in romanised form, 'kyuu'. Incidently, the word has a KanOn borrowing which we now read as kyuu (kifu). By tracing back along the probable changes we arrive at *kipu or *kip for the ancient borrowing. In Hakka, it is pronounced, /kip5/, Cantonese /kap9/, and in Mandarin /ji2/.

So from Yamatai's Princess Pimeko, we now know her as Princess Himiko; under all those layers of changes, Modern Japanese still knows where the -p is.

Japanese Orthography Part I : Japanese Orthography Part II
Hakka Links : Go to Dylan's homepage
This page was first created on Saturday 24th January and updated on Saturday 31st January 1998.

© Dylan W.H.S. 1996-1998
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