The rabbit girl and the obsolete ゐ

Hey, happy December, and happy official official start of the Christmas/holiday/whatever you want to call it season.  Here’s a post that has nothing to do with any of that.  I mentioned before that I’m doing some Japanese self-study, and now I have some dumbass 外人 ideas about this language that, up until recently, I only slightly understood mainly through reading untranslated doujins.* And if one of those ideas happens to have a connection to games, anime, manga, or the usual kind of thing I write about on this site, I might just post about it like I’m doing now.  Whether you’re fluent, studying, or neither of those, I hope you find it interesting.

For several years, I’ve had the hiragana and katakana down, the two Japanese syllabary writing systems that are used to write out anything that’s not written in kanji, the character-based system derived from Chinese. The largest part of my study by far is of these kanji, of which there are over 3,000. Learning the kanji is a great undertaking, but not as difficult as many people think: the kanji themselves are composed of pieces called radicals, and once you realize how these pieces work, the task of learning the characters they make becomes quite a lot easier.  Still not easy — not even close.  But easier.

However, I’m not talking about kanji today. Today I’m talking about ゐ, a now-obsolete kana, or syllabary character. As the name of the writing system suggests, most of these kana represent a syllable instead of a lone vowel or consonant, the exceptions being the long a i u e o sounds and the lone consonant n. I learned about ゐ well before even properly learning my hiragana, however, thanks to Touhou Project, a shoot-em-up series made by independent game developer/music composer/guy drinking beer in his basement ZUN. One of the most popular games in the series was Touhou 8, subtitled Imperishable Night, which dealt with aliens called Lunarians and moon rabbits causing the moon to stay in the night sky into the day, which somehow causes the world to fall into a permanent night (also, just like in every Touhou game, all these characters are cute girls just like chief protagonists Reimu and Marisa, even the moon aliens.) No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but none of the plots to the Touhou games make much sense.  You don’t play these games for their plots anyway.

A typically cute depiction of Tewi. You’d never guess she would ever try to murder you by firing hundreds of magical bullets at you. (source: poronegi, pixiv)

The connection to my language study comes with the introduction of Tewi Inaba, an Earth-native rabbit girl who acts as a mid-level boss in Stage 5 and dumps bullets all over the screen at you for a few rounds that you either have to dodge or waste your limited number of bombs on to clear. Tewi isn’t a very important character in the game — while she is distinct from all the common enemies around her and can be a pain in the ass to fight, she falls short of the honor of having her own boss theme, at least in her initial appearance in Touhou 8. However, her name is interesting from a linguistic perspective. Tewi’s name is written last name first in the Japanese fashion as 因幡てゐ, her last name in kanji, and her first name in hiragana: て, te, and ゐ, wi.  In 1946, however, the Japanese government decided wi wasn’t a syllable they’d need anymore since it had disappeared from common usage long before. Thus ゐ got the boot along with ゑ (we).  Since wi is no longer a sound used in Japanese, even Tewi’s name is pronounced when spoken as “Tei”.

So the question remains: why did ZUN use ゐ in Tewi’s name when it’s not pronounced that way anymore? The answer may lay in the setting of the Touhou Project games. Gensokyo is a piece of Japan that for centuries was populated with youkai, mythical beasts that have magical powers they can use to help or harm humans (very often the latter.) In 1885, this land was finally sealed from the rest of Japan with a magical barrier by Yukari Yakumo, an extremely powerful youkai, to protect the youkai within from the outside world, and ever since the human and non-human residents of Gensokyo have had to try to live side by side. Back when Gensokyo was sealed off, therefore, ゐ was still an official part of the Japanese language, so maybe it’s not strange for it to be used in Gensokyo.  Add to that the fact that despite her looks, Tewi is supposed to be over a thousand years old, and her name’s now-obsolete spelling makes more sense.

If you squint you can see the obsolete ヰ in the company’s name printed on the bottle, but not in the loanword “whisky” printed above it. (source: Hispania – own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Either that or ZUN was just doing whatever he felt like doing with the characters’ names. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. After all, the wi syllable isn’t quite dead and buried in our modern world.  ヰ, the katakana counterpart to ゐ, is still used in a few brand names like the Japanese distillery Nikka Whisky, and both hiragana and katakana forms hang onto life in the character sets of the Okinawan and Ainu languages, though those are on the decline and nearly extinct respectively. Small comfort indeed. ゐ now has so little going on that Tewi herself is mentioned in the introduction of the kana’s Wikipedia page as one of the few remaining common usages of the character. The poor kana is relying on being featured in the name of a Touhou character.  Isn’t that rough?  At least Tewi is one of the more popular characters, but still, a long way to fall.

Again, I hope that was interesting.  Don’t know if I’ll write more of these posts or if I’ll make this a regular feature; I’ll just make it up as I go along like I always do.  It may also be a while until my next post — unless you want to read a lengthy, unedited mess of nonsense garbage, I’ll have to take some more time on it.  So I thought I’d post this as a kind of bonus.  Happy December again, and I hope you don’t freeze too much this season if you’re not one of those lucky people in the Southern Hemisphere or the tropics right now.  I’d say you can warm yourself up with some Nikka whisky, but it seems to cost at least 50-60 dollars a bottle.  Must be good stuff. 𒀭

*I’ll leave to your imagination the kinds of expressions I learned from reading doujins, but they certainly aren’t ones you’d say in polite society.

7 thoughts on “The rabbit girl and the obsolete ゐ

  1. I thought this was rather interesting. I studied Japanese in college, and had vaguely heard of some Kana that had fallen out of use. It’s neat seeing this look into how it’s actually applied. That does make a bit of sense, given Touhou’s setting.

    • Yeah, I like stuff like this too. It seems like the use of these kana are similar to how some people use the thorn from Old English in shop signs — it gives them that old-time feel, and Touhou definitely has that.

  2. Three thousand characters is a lot, so losing a few isn’t a big deal. I doubt I could remember so many. Never played a Tohou game, but have seem some of the spin-offs sold on the PS4 and um some of the comics.

    • You are right about that for sure. As far as the kanji go, I think they have simplified a lot of them and dropped some others, though not to the extent the PRC did to the Chinese languages.

      Touhou is quite a deep rabbit hole to go down. The games are still pretty good, though I think the music is the best part of the series. Lots of cute girls as well for people who are into that — they make up 99% of the series’ characters. I did buy Touhou Luna Nights on Steam recently, so I might write about it sometime.

  3. The first set of kana flashcards I learned from had we and wi in them. This was in the early 90s when the characters had been out of use for nearly 50 years, so I have no idea why they wasted four cards on the hiragana and katakana versions of the characters but by god I learned them.

    You still see ヱ on occasion, for brand names and the like.

    • I’ve seen them on some of the kana charts as well, even today. Yeah, if they’re going to include them, at least make it clear that they’re obsolete and not necessary to learn.

      I think I’ve seen ヱ used a couple of times as well. I’ve never had it, but I believe it’s used by Yebisu beer.

  4. Pingback: December 2019 in Summary: The End of a Decade | Extra Life

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