Classical Japanese is essentially the language of the Heian Period (794-1185), a language which persisted thereafter as Japan's literary language, even as vernacular Japanese continued to evolve, until the Meiji period (1868-1912), when literature began to be written in contemporary Japanese. The Heian period was in many ways the defining era for Japanese culture. It was a time when the imperial court was at the peak of its cultural influence, laying the foundations for much of Japanese art and refined culture. It is thus of little surprise that the language of this period, technically classified as Early Middle Japanese, remained as the literary standard for the following millennium.
Lesson 1: Phonology
Classical Japanese, as a literary language, has the exact same phonology as contemporary Japanese. The characters of a text are pronounced according to their modern values. However, Early Middle Japanese had a phonology that differed somewhat from Modern Japanese. Certain peculiar vocalic features of Old Japanese had already been lost, but a number of differences remained. It's surprisingly difficult to find a concise outline of the phonology of Early Middle Japanese (or any pre-modern Japanese, for that matter),because almost every source focuses on the workings of spelling, making the issue seem more complex than it is. So here is what I believe to be the phonology of Early Middle Japanese:
Early Middle Japanese has the same five vowels as Modern Japanese, though from what I can /u/ may have a different value (or my sources are using a broader transcription)
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i iː u uː e eː o oː a aː
Also I'm not 100% clear on whether /aː/ and /iː/ are actually attested in Early Middle Japanese or not, and whether /eː/ is actually /ei/ or not, but I am including them for good measure.
Early Middle Japanese had the following consonant inventory (excluding allophones for now):
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m n (ɴ) (p) b t d k ɡ kʷ gʷ ɸ s z ɾ j w
- Like Modern Japanese, code /n/ was realized as [ɴ]. Or maybe it's a separate phoneme. Whichever.
- /ɸ/ merged with /w/ intervocallically. I will Romanize it as ‹h› in all cases, as is conventional.
- voiceless consonants can be geminated. Geminated /ɸ/ becomes /p/ and will be marked as such. /p/ may exist as a phoneme in mimetic/onomatopoeic words. Will have to confirm this.
- /u/ cannot appear after labial consonants, (/kʷ gʷ w/), while /i/ cannot appear after the palatal consonant /j/
- Like Modern Japanese, /s z/ and /t d/ are believed to have had varying pronunciations based on the following vowel. Based on contemporaneous Portuguese transliterations of Japanese words, we can posit the following:
- /si se/ - [ʃi ʃe] ← (‹xi xe›)
- /zi ze/ - [ʒi ʒe] ← (‹ji je›)
- /ti/ - [t͡ʃi] ← (‹chi›)
- /di/ - [d͡ʒi] ← (‹ggi›)
- /tu/ - [t͡su] ← (‹tçu›)
- /du/ - [d͡zu] ← (‹zzu›)
The influx of Chinese vocabulary during the Heian period altered the syllable structure of Japanese. The very strict CV pattern of Old Japanese, that forbade CC and VV sequences, was broken down. Final consonants, including final /ɴ/ and the geminate consonant, were introduced, as well as the velar labials and long vowels.
Please note that I will assume that you know how to read hiragana and katakana. If you don't, please check out my thread on Modern Japanese here. Here's where the mess comes in. Early Modern Japanese had the same inventory of kana as modern Japanese but with the addition of the two letters ゐ / ヰ wi and ゑ / ヱ we. Additionally, the letter を / ヲ wo, restricted in Modern Japanese to the accusative marker and nothing else, is somewhat more frequently encountered in Classical Japanese, though its pronunciation is not distinguished from お.
The technique of using small characters to distinguish yōon from standard syllables (i.e. CjV vs. CVjV) was not established in Classical Japanese. Therefore I probably will not use them in this guide either.
The main source of confusion for deciphering the phonology is that Old Japanese man'yōgana (phonetic use of kanji found in the Man'yōshu and other old texts) consistently distinguished three types of /e/ signs in writing, in a way that suggests a significant difference from Modern Japanese:
e: 衣, 依, 愛, 榎, etc.
ye: 兄, 江, 吉, 曳, 枝, 延, 要, 遥, 叡
we: 咲, 面, 廻, 恵, etc.
Old Japanese distinguished three distinct syllables where Modern Japanese has just one syllable (e).
By the time of Early Modern Japanese, the distinction between e and ye was lost in writing, while we remained (I.e. e merged into ye, which is why /e/ can never appear first in a syllable). This is also confusingly associated with the labialized velars, which are related orthographically, but not phonemically. Plus /ɸ/ merged with /w/ intervocalically, but remained distinct in writing. Adding to the confusion is that in Early Modern Japanese or thereabouts, intervocalic we an wi merged into ye and i respectively, so the ゑ/ヱ, despite being the character for we, is associated with the sound ye.
The most annoying part of it all is that it seems people easily confuse phonemes for syllables, due to the way these sound mergers are typically discussed in the literature. When a source says that ア行のエ (e) and ヤ行のエ (ye) merged, they do not mean that /e/ became /je/ in all instances, they mean the syllable represented by エ is consistently pronounced /je/. ケ (modern ke) for example, does not become /kje/, it remains /ke/. Even Wikipedia, that bastion of truthy knowledge, has fallen victim to this, claiming that the vowel is /je/ and citing three separate sources, not realizing that those sources say $e → $ye, not /e/ → /je/. Oh well. The same happened for o, i.e. $o → $wo.
($ means syllable boundary)
The other vowels are much clearer:
a maintains the three-way distinction into MJ: a - ya - wa;
yi is phonologically impossible, and the remaining two-way distinction, i - wi, was maintained until EMJ;
wu is phonologically impossible, and the remaining two-way distinction, u - yu, remains in MJ.
So to clear things up definitively! Here are the problem syllables (and the non-problematic /k/ syllables, for comparison) and how to write them:
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$_ k_ j_ w_ kw_ ア a カ ka ヤ ya ワ wa クワ kwa (クヮ) イ i キ ki -- ヰ wi クヰ kwi (クィ) ウ u ク ku ユ yu -- -- -- -- ケ ke エ ye ヱ we クヱ kwe (クェ) -- コ ko ヨ yo ヲ/オ wo クヲ kwo (クォ)
The last column represents how it the same sounds are normally written in Modern Japanese (for loanwords, since labialized velars are gone from Modern Japanese).
Let me know if you're interested in me continuing this.