Making Yi and Ye


Japanese language changes over time. No surprise there: pretty much every language changes over time.

Were beth they biforen us weren,

Houndes ladden and hauekes beren

And hadden feld and wode?

You might not recognize that as English because it was written about 700 years ago. We don’t have to go that far back to expose shifts in English, but I have a flair for the extreme.

The Japanese syllables are commonly ranged in a table with five rows. The first column contains the sounds a, i, u, e, o (あいうえお) and the second ka, ki, ku, ke, ko (かきくけこ). One column has two conspicuous empty spaces: ya, yu, yo (やゆよ) being the only three characters. Reasonable people are perfectly happy to just let that go and accept that there are only three characters in that column.

I, however, am far from being a reasonable person, so long ago I tracked down the missing yi and ye (ゐ、ゑ). If you ask a Japanese person today about these characters they will simply tell you they make the i and e sounds. This comes from the fact that these characters fell out of use about one hundred years ago and today there are few people who can make the original sounds.

Good dictionaries will list older words with the new sounds, but also indicate the old sounds. This helps explain why the Japanese monetary unit is called en (えん) in Japan and yen (ゑん) in America. English still uses the name from when Perry pried Japan open to the world, but Japanese uses the current language.

The katakana set also contains these deprecated characters. They look like: ヰ and ヱ. The most prominent place we can see this ye is on Yebisu Beer (ヱビス), which is often mistakenly written as エビす.

So my real reason for writing this post is to answer the questions: “How do I enter the characters yi and ye on a computer?” and “How do I enter the characters yi and ye into my cell phone?” (パソコン・携帯電話で「ゐ・ヰ・ゑ・ヱ」を入力したいんですが、どうすればいいんですか?)

For most input method editors on computers you can enter ‘wyi’ and ‘wye’ respectively. For cell phones in Japan, you can use the kuten code entry method. Hiragana yi and ye use the codes 0480 and 0481 respectively. Katakana yi and ye use the codes 0580 and 0581 respectively.

パソコンで「ゐ・ヰ・ゑ・ヱ」の入力はwyiかwyeで出来ます。携帯電話で「ゐ・ヰ・ゑ・ヱ」を入力するのは区点「0480, 0580, 0481, 0581」で出来ます。


15 Responses to “Making Yi and Ye”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    I’m curious: How much of a pain is it to write in Japanese characters on a computer?

  2. びっくり Says:

    Not so difficult. You need to have an input method editor (IME) installed. I usually run Ubuntu for my OS, and Anthy for my IME (but it has some bugs). If you are running Windows for your OS, you can probably just install Asian language support and the IME will magically appear. Older versions required a manual installation procedure. If you have a Japanese OS and a Japanese keyboard, you can just push one key to switch modes.

    To enter hiragana or katakana, just type the roman letters for the desired sound. For ka (か), type ‘k’ and ‘a’. To enter kanji, first enter the sound and then hit the space bar to pull up choices of characters.

    Activating the IME varies by flavor. Mine can be customized, so I am turning it on with Ctrl-down arrow now.

  3. verbivore Says:

    I just tried and my IME doesn’t accept the wyi/wye. Good on you for hunting down old characters. Do you know why they vanished?

    Do you know how hard it is to find Yebisu beer outside of Japan? Not a major tragedy but disappointing enough when I make ぎょうざ and steam up some えだまめ to start.

  4. びっくり Says:

    Bummer. What OS and IME are you using? I’m not sure why the sounds disappeared. My first guess is euphony, which might be a polite way to say ‘laziness’. Much like how ‘weather’ and ‘whether’ or ‘witch’ and ‘which’ no longer have separate pronunciations.

    Sorry to hear about your Yebisu hunting problems. I have no trouble getting it here, but we usually go with Asahi Super Dry with our gyoza and edamame. Tomorrow night some teachers will be practicing shuji here… maybe we need to have gyoza with dinner…

  5. Sylvia Says:

    Sounds like the hiragana/katakana IME method would be almost as fast as English, but kanji would be slower. There is still the extra step of mentally romanizing the words. Does anyone ever dare to suggest giving up on the characters and going all-roman?

  6. びっくり Says:

    At the end of WWII, the occupation forces considered forcing Japan to give up their writing system. Thankfully we didn’t pursue that policy. First, it would amount to raping their culture. Second, Japanese is hard to read in kana and very hard in Roman letters.

    Kanji characters convey a lot of information quickly and in a small space. Standard writing uses the kana for conjugation and grammar marks. These stand out sharply from the kanji. When only kana are used, everything blurs together; kind of like writing English with no spaces or punctuation, but a little worse.

    Using IME tools is extremely fast for kana, and reasonably fast for kanji (if you know which characters you want.)

    Personally, I find it sad that more and more English loanwords get introduced every year; and fewer and fewer kanji are remembered. Usually the loanwords don’t get used properly, so it gets a little crazy.

  7. Sylvia Says:

    It’s odd that the asian languages, despite being so old, didn’t go through the same development as “Near East” languages, pictograms –> syllables –> letters. Not that it’s held them back any!

  8. ray Says:

    thanks for the YE! it works well on a mac…
    needed it for Geneology names. so this was perfect timing!

  9. びっくり Says:

    Ray, glad you found it helpful.

  10. Jenni Says:

    umm… ^^;
    the Rikaichan program i have on my computer read ゐ and ヰ as “Wi”
    and ゑヱ as “We”
    weren’t there “Wi” “Wu” and “We” in the past as well? what do they look like? ^^

  11. wtrmute Says:

    The first writing system used to write Japanese was the so-called Man’yougana, a system for using kanji to represent Japanese syllables. At that time, there were kanji to stand for “wi”, “we” and “ye” (there was never a man’yougana for “yi” or “wu”). By the time man’yougana was developing into hiragana and katakana, however, the changes in the Japanese language started to conflate “wi” and “i”, as well as “ye”, “we” and “e”. “wi” and “we” managed to survive to the inception of the current kana syllabaries, in the forms (ゐ/ヰ and ゑ/ヱ) you can see in Rikaichan and elsewhere.

    “ye”, however, apparently became confused very early with “e”, and thus it’s harder to find kana for that syllable. In fact, the hiragana for “e”, え, came from the kanji 衣, which in man’yougana stood for the sound “e”. The corresponding katakana エ, however, came from a different kanji 江, which in man’yougana actually stood for “ye”. Unicode 6.0, recently (2010.10.11) released, contains a “Kana supplement block” with two characters, “Hiragana letter archaic YE” derived from 江 and “Katakana letter archaic E”, which may very well be derived from 衣 (I have no idea, really).

    Finally, it seems some of the Meiji reformers looked at the gojuuon table and decided to fill in the blanks, at least for the katakana table, with three invented symbols for “yi”, “ye” and “wu”. “yi” looks like イ turned 180°, “ye” looks like イ underlined, and “wu” looks like 于. Those forms were obscure in the best of times, and most people even in Japan have never even heard of them; they are basically as obscure (and as obsolete) as the Claudian letters are to Latin alphabet users.

    Sorry about dumping all this info, but I hope it will be useful for people who stumble upon this post in the future. Cheers!

  12. Luis Says:

    以 <<< Yi in Hiragana

  13. びっくり Says:

    Luis, thank you for commenting. The character you have entered is not hiragana, but kanji. All of the hiragana characters come directly from the soushotai versions of kanji, but are now treated as a phonetic character set.

  14. Ku Says:

    Like others before me, I feel compelled to point out that these are the characters for “wi” and “we”, not “yi” and “ye”. To have semi-official kana for “yi”, “ye”, and “wu”, you need to backtrack to manyougana and hentaigana. They are very uncommon forms, and you are unlikely to find a font that includes them on an ordinary computer.

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