Etymologies of は、が、and の, and their meaning in cognitive space

Does anyone know the etymologies of the particles は、が、の? I have done extensive searching and have found plenty of explanations of how to use them, but hardly anything about how they were derived. Cognitive linguistics posits that all words and expressions in language have their roots in actual spatial observations that have been abstracted and combined to form new idea. I have found that looking up the etymologies for words until they reach the original spatial concepts they came from to be really useful in understanding what words they actually mean (for example ‘to’ originated from a word meaning ‘in the direction of’, then evolved to mean ‘for the purpose of’, and ‘furthermore’. From the sense of ‘purpose’ it began to be used to mark the indirect object of sentences, including verbs in Middle English, before it was no longer used with verbs, leaving modern English with ‘to’ being used to mark infinitives (to | Search Online Etymology Dictionary)).

So far, I have:

  • が was originally the genitive case marker in classical Japanese, like の is now in modern Japanese. It was originally imported from the Ryukyuan languages into ancient Japanese.
  • 之 and 乃 were both used to represent の at some point. The first depicts short step, indicating something close but also outward motion, whereas the second could be translated at from. This makes sense for の being used possessively, as something originating from some can indicate possession or makeup, in much the same way that ‘of’ can times used for possession in English (as in 'the house of Bob = Bob’s house, a house which originates from Bob implying that it belongs to him), or ‘de’ in Spanish.
  • は originally expressed deep emotion then shifted to its current usage. (

From this I wonder how specifically が differs from の. I think it also includes the concept of outward motion from an origin like の, but unlike の, retains the perspective of the attached object instead of shifting to the object being described. For example, 綾子の猫 shifts outward from Ayako to focus on cat, creating Ayako’s cat - Ayako is just a descriptor. However, 綾子が猫 (though this is a rather odd sentence) shift outward from Ayako while focusing on Ayako, giving Ayako is a cat. This would seem to fit with the explanatory usage of の and the contrastive usage of が when placed at the end of a sentence. Since の indicates outward motion from the source, it indicates that the sentence before it is the origin from which the outcome emerges. For the same reason, が indicates a contrast - what occurs afterward is connected to が, but because the ‘focus’ at least partially remains on が, both parts of the sentence are compared (though not always, it can be, as occurs in Japanese, that が just links the two while keeping both relevant, functioning as a linking ‘and’ rather than a contrastive ‘or’). Is this correct? I can’t find an etymology of が so I can’t be sure.

For は it seems to show that the attached object has a deep, personal connection to the following object. It also makes the attached object be used descriptively, focusing on the following objects instead of the attached objects. I think it also represents a very specific/personal categorization/trait of an object, containing the following objects almost uniquely within the scope of the attached objects, explaining why は is used for observations, personal statements, contrast (if something is within one category, it probably isn’t within another), and emphasis (extension of the usage as a contrast marker). My main question here is what is the direction of motion for は? Does it connect the attached objects to the following objects or the following objects to the attached objects? Regardless of the direction it seems to me that は forces its attached object to function as a trait by putting it ‘inside’ the following objects. Also was a 漢字 ever used to express the concept は represents?

教えてください. I would try asking this in Japanese on some forum somewhere but the complexity of what I’m asking for goes beyond my current Japanese ability.

Bonus points: what is the etymology of を?


The imabi page on classical の might at least help with on the が/の distinction:

The case particle の has been interchangeable with が from the onset. Although this is so, it appears that が was originally limited to noun phrases with an emotional connection, particularly human nouns. This leaves everything else to の. This can explain why even today Japanese say 我が国, although 我の did exist at one point when this distinction faded away.

The page on bound particles may also help with how は was used/came to be as well

The particle は is as you should certainly know is extremely important in Modern Japanese. However, there was a point in time where it was not used, and it has taken centuries for the がVSは rivalry to get to its present form. In fact, the thing that rivaled は, which shows known information, was も, which could present new information. Where did this particle come from? It likely has origin with the particle ば, but it is certain that by the 平安時代 its usages had become greatly varied and increasingly more complex.

So, we know that it marks the topic. This topic is emphasized and often made distinct from other things, which is why we still often translate it into English with “as for”. This topic is what the explanation/predicate is going to be about. It can be used with parallel items to show comparison and or contrast. Of course, it still has the role of highlighting the negative.

I think the hypothesis that it’s related to ば makes sense given how contrastive は can be. Wiktionary reckons the relation is the the other way round from the proto-japonic *pa, although by that point we’re already into recontructed words because we just don’t really know :man_shrugging:

Seems like an interesting project though, good luck!


I had a brief look at the 万葉集 and it seems to alternate between 者 and 波 for the particle は, 者 also used for ば supporting what @theghostofdenzo said (funnily enough it also uses 庭 for the compound には).
波 is clearly phonetic, no idea about 者 though.


Thanks! I’d also be willing to guess the 者 is also phonetic.

Thanks! I guess the main problem is that no one really knows, although originating from ば makes sense

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With a little more searching I found this Wikipedia article for a 変体仮名 for は which is said to be derived from 者 so it seems the 者 in the 万葉集 is indeed phonetic. So even during Nara period when 乃 and 之 were going strong, は was written phonetically and so I doubt it ever had a semantic representation (maybe because there was no obvious equivalent in Chinese?)

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