Man'yōgana (万葉仮名) is an ancient form of Japanese kana based on kanji (Chinese characters). Their earliest attestation is not clear, but seem to have been in use since at least the sixth century. The name man'yōgana is derived from the Man'yōshū (Anthology of Myriad Leaves), a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara period written in man'yōgana.
Katakana with man'yōgana equivalents (segments of man'yōgana adapted into katakana shown in red)
Development of hiragana from man'yōgana
Man'yōgana uses kanji strictly for their phonetic value, nominally without regard for their semantic value. Several kanji could be used to represent the same sound, and in practice writers would often choose kanji with felicitous associations. Kanji used in man'yōgana eventually gave rise to hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is essentially manyogana written in a highly cursive, flowing style; katakana is based on individual elements extracted from the original manyogana, and was developed by Buddhist monks as a form of shorthand. In some cases, one man'yōgana character for a given syllable gave rise to the current hiragana equivalent, and a different one gave rise to the current katakana equivalent; for example, the hiragana る is derived from the man'yōgana 留, the katakana ル is derived from the man'yōgana 流. The study of man'yōgana reveals that it can represent more sounds than hiragana and katakana, including eight vocalic sounds as opposed to the present day usage of five vowels only.
The use of multiple kanji for a single syllable also led to hentaigana (変体仮名), alternate letterforms for hiragana. Hentaigana were officially discouraged in 1900.
Man'yōgana continue to appear in some regional names of present-day Japan, especially in Kyushu. A phenomenon similar to man'yōgana, called ateji (当て字), still occurs, where words (including loanwords) are spelled out using kanji for their phonetic value: for example, 倶楽部 (kurabu, club).
- List of Man'yōgana (http://www6.airnet.ne.jp/manyo/main/notes/kana/home.html) (Japanese)
- Example of Man'yōgana (http://www.honco.net/japanese/03/page4.html) (English)
- Hentaigana on street signs (http://homepage2.nifty.com/Gat_Tin/kanji/kana.htm) (Japanese)