古典日本語 and old(er) japanese

I was doing some research on a word using Japanese wiktionary when i came accross the language category 古典日本語.

At first glance i figured it was the japanese equivalent for the english “old japanese”, but i cant actually find any resources to confirm this. The wikipedia article for old japanese uses 上代日本語 for the language category “old japanese” and states 中古日本語, “early middle japanese”, comes after that, and 中世日本語, “late middle japanese” comes after that, and so on with none of the succeeding terms being 古典日本語.

古典日本語 does however get redirected to 中古日本語, but i am hesitant to assume they are synonyms, especially when i cant find the former anywhere else.

Google translate translates it to “classical japanese”, but wikipedia translates that to 文語, 古文, and 文語体.

So i am at a loss! Can anyone help me solve this linguistic mystery?

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As far as I know 古典日本語 (classical Japanese) doesn’t refer to any particular period, but rather encompasses the literary form of Japanese from its earliest attested forms up until World War II.

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Ill try reading the japanese wiki article on 古文 more thoroughly to see if i can find it mentioned. Where do you get this definition? Is it just the sense you get from seeing it around here and there or is it from something more authoritative?

You can understand this by translating the phrase literally, in my opinion. 古典 just means ‘classics’ or ‘classical phrases or stories that are often alluded to’, and as a modifier, it means ‘classical’. 典 itself means ‘an important piece of writing’ or ‘a written document used as a model or standard’. (I’m mixing Japanese and Chinese definitions here, but I feel there’s a large overlap in this case, as is often the case besides, so I’ll allow myself to do so.) As such, 古典日本語 is the language used in the 古典 (i.e. the great works of Japanese literature that have been passed down through the ages). Anything that’s considered a traditional classic could be considered as having been written in 古典日本語, provided it’s not in Modern Japanese, of course.

Simply put,
文語 is ‘written language’ as opposed to 口語 (‘spoken language’)
文語体 is the form and style associated with 文語. You’ll notice that in Modern Japanese, some forms of expression are described as belonging to the だ体, である体 or です・ます体. 体 is being used the same way here.
Finally, 古文 is basically anything that’s written in Japanese that doesn’t use Modern Japanese grammar. It covers everything from ancient Japanese texts to Edo era literature if you’re looking at the textbook definition in Japan. As such…

… these are all just more specific linguistic terms that refer to each time period separately. I think 古典日本語 is closer to 古文 in that it’s not as time-period-specific, and basically refers to the Japanese in any sort of classical literary work.

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That said it’s surprisingly difficult to find a source that would explicitly define 古典日本語. It’s just that with some knowledge about the history of Japanese it can be seen that when people talk about 古典日本語 they mean 文語. For instance the Japanese Wiktionary categorizes all pre-modern Japanese words as 古典日本語.

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Well interesting input nonetheless!

I was reading the wiki article about early middle japanese and found this sentence:

日本語の文語体の基礎となる言語である。

Must be why 古典日本語 redirected me here? I wonder how many japanese people confuse the two. Or maybe they really are synonyms.

Unfortunately that article has almost no citations, so, not the best.

I also found a wiki article for 古典言語, which appears to be an article about classical language, which supports the theory 古典日本語 means classical japanese. Very interesting article, never really questioned what makes a language classical or not.

I think that might be the reason. In my opinion though (however, I could be entirely wrong because I don’t know the Japanese high school classical literature syllabus), 中古日本語 sounds like a specialist term that most Japanese people probably don’t have to bother with in their daily lives, like how most English speakers don’t know what Old English resembled and what it refers to. (Some might guess, ‘Shakespeare?’, but that’s not it.) As a result, I doubt the terms are frequently mixed up because at least one of them is basically unusable in daily life.

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