Why is Ha(は) Read as “Wa?” : We’d all like to think that hiragana and katakana are the easy parts of reading Japanese. For the most part, there are. But sometimes, you might come across a character that’s read differently and you aren’t sure why.
There are only a couple of these to worry about, so it’s not too much of a problem. And I’m here to tell you why these characters are read differently.
The Short Answer
Ha(は) is wa(わ) and HE(へ) is e(え)
The basic reason is that they are particles.
Our title example is the character は. Normally, this is read “ha” when in words such as “Ohayou” (おはよう). However, when used as a particle, it is pronounced “wa,” as in “Watashi wa genki desu” (私は元気です).
Other examples include を and へ. When を is used as a particle, it is pronounced as “o” instead of “wo” (though, some people will still say “wo,” especially in songs). The character を is hardly ever used except for particles, so this one is pretty easy to remember.
The character へ is a lot like は, in that it is used in words where it is pronounced “he” and as a particle where it is pronounced “e.”
The good news is that you’ll only have to deal with these in hiragana. Katakana is almost exclusively for foreign words, so you’re not really going to see particles written in katakana. Even “wo” in katakana (ヲ) retains its original pronunciation.
The Deep Cut
If the answer “That’s just how it is,” doesn’t satisfy you with this question, keep reading. The Japanese language has a long and complicated history, and the language was a whole lot harder before the Meiji Period when a bunch of people got together, said “This is ridiculous,” and simplified it way down. Take it from someone who has actually studied Classical Japanese.
The biggest reason for these particles having different pronunciations is because their pronunciations have actually changed over time.
The character は, for example, originally came from the Chinese character 八. In Chinese, it’s pronounced “ba,” and back in the day, it was pronounced similarly to that in Japan as well (well, more like “pa,” but those are still pretty close sounds).
Over time, it shifted to more of a “fa” sound, except when it followed a vowel, in which case it changed to “wa.” Since practically every word in Japanese ends in a vowel (except those few that end in ん), “wa” became the standard pronunciation for the particle.
The “fa” sound, then shifted into more of a “ha” sound, and later it was standardized that は in words was pronounced “ha” and as a particle was pronounced “wa.”
This is a really simplified explanation, but hopefully it helps.
Some More History
Hiragana actually used to be a lot more complicated than it is now. If you ever happen to look into Classical Japanese, you’ll see what I mean. First of all, there used to be 48 characters, not 46. Over time, ゐ and ゑ kind of just. Stopped being used.
The other interesting tidbit about hiragana and katakana, is that they all have their roots in kanji. You can see this pretty easily with some characters. I said earlier that は came from 八. The character あ actually came from 安, い from 以, and so on.
There were also other ways to write these characters, and calligraphers would use different versions of these kana characters to make their writing more artistic and visually appealing. For example, if you were writing あ more than once, you might write it using the 安 version first, and then the 阿 version second.
These alternative roots for kana characters are known as “hentaigana” (変体仮名), or “non-standard kana,” and no, it has nothing to do with what you thought of just now.
“Non-standard kana” are completely obsolete now, as spelling and writing have all been standardized to make things a whole lot easier. Trust me, you may think writing in Japanese is hard now, but it was a whole other animal a couple hundred years ago. Just take a glance at any sort of calligraphy from that long ago, and you’ll be glad for these standardizations.
The point I’m trying to make is that things in Japanese aren’t the way they are “just because.” Everything has a deep history, because Japan and its language have been around for a very, very long time.
Even hiragana and katakana didn’t just spring into existence exactly as they are 800 years ago. Things have developed slowly over time and undergone subtle changes over the years. These eventually result in things we might find confusing, such as a slight difference in pronunciation. But that’s just how language works. Just look at English. It breaks every single grammar rule it makes.
Learning little things like this is just a part of the language learning experience. But learning about the linguistic and cultural history can help you develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for Japan and its language.