It is thought that the moraic post-vocalic consonant [N], spelt with ん, appeared in Japanese under the Chinese influence, with the influx of borrowings. Are there any kun-readings in Japanese that have the final ん? And with what processes could they have emerged?

  • 2
    Did you try asking this on Japanese SE? Jan 8, 2018 at 9:22
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    I'm not sure about what counts as "language-specific grammar and usage questions"; this is language-specific, but is not a grammar or usage question. It's rather about historical phonology. Jan 8, 2018 at 15:56
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    @WiccanKarnak how is this about "grammar and usage"? It's about phonotactics in different strata of the Japanese lexicon, and their historical development Jan 8, 2018 at 15:57
  • P.S. I am just an yearling here and don't know how thin the line is on that one. But, I do see if the question is not edited to be more Linguistics-in-general specific, it can be transferred to Japanese SE with leobiko's answer. I was planning on a more carefully edited re-opening of the question after editing, but if there is a consensus I will most definitely retract my vote on this otherwise amazingly thought/ brought out question Jan 8, 2018 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


Kun-readings are an orthographic notation for the native lexical stratum (Yamato-kotoba). So the underlying question is, are there native morphemes with closed syllables (that is, with a consonant at the end)? Originally, no; Old Japanese was a CV language (syllables started with a consonant and ended in a vowel). However, what are currently voiced consonants used to be prenasalized (as they still are in certain dialects, e.g. in Tōhoku); so that ざ was /ⁿza/, ば was /ᵐba/ etc. Modern tanabata used to be pronounced tanambada.

Around Heian times, this worked in tandem with the new Chinese layer to introduce the moraic, syllable-final N-consonant. Consider for example the onbin sound changes:

  • A verb like hanasu inflected to the i-form to get the suffix -te, generating hanasite.
  • A verb like hanatu, likewise, was hanatite; but elision of the vowel rendered it hanatte – a new geminated form that was only possible after CCV syllables became part of the system, along with Chinese consonant-final loans.
  • A verb like asobu > asobite also underwent elision – but recall that the Old pronunciation was asombite; the pre-nasal survived elision while the voicing assimilated to the -te, generating asonde.

So Yamato morphemes got syllable-final N due to internal processes, at the same time that the Chinese wave brought another syllable-final nasal (and not just the nasal; syllable-final /p/, /k/, /t/ survived in on loans—the last two for many centuries). One way of explaining this is, multiple pressures changed the syllable structure from a simple CV to a moraic system, and once the language was moraic, syllable-final nasals could be generated even in the Yamato stratum (along with other moraic structures: geminated consonants and diphthongs).

However, the above aren't kun-readings proper, since verb inflections aren't normally written as kanji readings. Still, there are kun readings with ん in them:

  • Some are the result of simple elision, like 何 nan < nani, 神 kan < kami, 懇ろ nengoro < nemogoro, or 女 onna < womina.
  • Some are readings resulting from the morphophonological processes described above, like 冠 kanmuri < kauburi *[kãw̃ᵐburi], or 芳しい kambasii < かぐはしい *kangubasii.
  • Some are ultimately Chinese morphemes that ended up counting as kun in the orthography, like 鞄 kaban < ?Ch. 夾板 *keap-paen; or the don of 丼 donburi (etymology unclear but probably Chinese don- + Japanese -furi; standard view traces don to 貪 *thom "covet" in 慳貪 *kʰˠɛn thom > J. kendon, "greed, gluttony", since kendon-ya is attested for donburi sellers; alternatively from 緞子 donsu, "damask").


  • Frellesvig, A History of the Japanese Language.
  • The Kokugo Daijiten.
  • gogen.all-guide
  • Baxter-Sargat Middle Chinese reconstruction.
  • The Jōyō Kanji table and the Kanjidic file for kun-readings.

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