What does Yebisu mean?

In yesterday’s post, you may have noticed some strange spellings.

I don’t want to get too deep into changes in Japanese orthography, but in Old Japanese 恵比寿 was pronounced ヱビス Webisu. In the 11th Century, the we phoneme disappeared and was the same sound as e.

For some reason, in the old days, when transliterating Japanese words, foreigners and Japanese alike continued to mimic the obsolete orthography by using ye to represent even though it was the same sounds as (and even though it was a W sound not a Y).

Some other words you might see transliterated in older texts with a Y are:
江戸 Edo ⇒ Yedo
家康 Ieyasu ⇒ Iyeyasu

Anyhoo… ヱビス Yebisu and and エビス Ebisu are pronounced the same: /E BI SU/.

An old Yebisu Beer Poster.
An old Yebisu Beer Poster.

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3 thoughts on “What does Yebisu mean?

  1. I’m not sure where the “We” comes from, since the “Ye” character in “Ebisu” is in the same row as the still-existing “Ya”, “Yu”, and “Yo”. The correct transliteration, and the original pronunciation, of the first character in “Ebisu” is “Ye” and I’ve often heard native speakers (mostly the older generation) pronounce it that way.

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment.

      Actually, it’s my understanding that character is from the WA row, not the YA row.

      However, the sounds were lost by the Kamakura Period and it seems that Old/Middle Japanese orthography wasn’t very consistent on this issue.

      /we/ and /wi/ could have been inserted into the YA row to represent a missing /ye/ and */yi/. Again, I’m no expert in Old Japanese, but it seems like both the WA and YA rows were always incomplete compared to the other kana rows, so it’s easy to see how the Japanese themselves would confuse these incomplete rows.

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