Unlike us hopelessly conformist humans, languages love oddities. The more common a word is, the higher the chance it will be irregular in some way; repeated use gradually changes words into variants that are easier to pronounce, or simply erodes them in randomly insane ways that give language learners persistent nightmares.
This is also true of two of the most ubiquitous expressions in Japanese, ありがとうございます (thank you) and おはようございます (good morning). Japanese is often claimed to be a very regular language, and compared to other languages, that is indeed true; but even Japanese has its maverick words, including these two. And far from being a piece of trivia for diehard linguamaniacs, the formation of ありがとう and おはよう actually offers an insight into important grammatical features of advanced Japanese.
So what are ありがとう and おはよう, anyway? They may look like nouns, but each of these words is actually an adjective that has undergone a series of changes to end up in this unusual form, which at first glance looks nothing like a standard adjective.
The basic adjectives that hide under these odd words are ありがたい (welcome; something to be thankful for) and はやい (early). The first change they went through was becoming adverbs in the ordinary way, by removing the い and adding a く:
ありがたい → ありがた → ありがたく
はやい → はや → はやく
Hey consonant, you're fired!
So far, so good. Everything about the stages above is completely regular and obvious. But in the next stage things start getting interesting.
One of the ways that Japanese speakers in historical times made rapid pronunciation easier for themselves was by turning that final く into an う. It may not make much sense when you write it in kana, but when we romanize these sounds we can see that it's nothing more than the omission of the initial consonant [k], leaving only the vowel [u]:
[ku] → [u]
This phenomenon also took place in the pronunciation of our two adverbs:
ありがたく → ありがたう
はやく → はやう
Sound the alarm
And here is the really crazy part. In older Japanese, when the vowel [a] is immediately followed by the vowel [u], the combination is normally pronounced not as [au] but as [ou] (which is virtually the same as a long [o]).
This applies to any syllable that ends in [a], such as あ, な, か, etc. Whenever there is an う after one of these, it results in changing the [au] to a long [o] sound. ありがたう and はやう may have been, at some point, pronounced [arigatau] and [hayau], but the prevailing rules of the language dictated that they become [arigatou] and [hayou].
In historical kana usage the kana characters were not changed to reflect this sound change, and it was simply a matter of convention that such combinations were to be pronounced differently. Modern kana usage, however, more closely follows the actual pronunciation. So when we transition from old to modern kana, what we get is:
ありがたう → ありがとう
はやう → はよう
And this is how we got these two words as we know them nowadays. Note that each adjective is pronounced identically in either of its two spelling variations.
Aru comes to the rescue
Now that we know that ありがとう and おはよう are actually sound-changed adverbs that were originally adjectives, we might ask what they are doing next to ございます. As you may know, ございます is a highly formal (polite or honorific) version of ある. And it's this socially-aware function of the verb that is at play here.
In older Japanese it was not possible to simply stick something like です after an adjective to make it polite; one had to do it by deconstructing and then conjugating the adjective using auxiliary verbs. In this case, too, the adjectives are basically made highly formal by combining them with ございます. In the case of はよう, this is further strengthened by prefixing the suffix お.
The ironic thing is that despite its tortuous formation, this construction is now the standard method of making highly formal adjectives: an ある-like verb is combined with an adjective that was turned into adverb and has undergone sound changes. While it's not a very common thing to do in everyday Japanese, any adjective can technically be used this way, and you'll sometimes hear this in formal contexts. For example, the way to produce the highly formal equivalent of 美しいwould be:
美しい → 美し → 美しく → 美しう → 美しゅう → 美しゅうございます
See how the vowel combination [i] + [u] became a long [u]? That's what the naughty [u] used to do in historical Japanese when it followed syllables ending in [i]—a convention that was retained in this old-fashioned construction. Otherwise it works in exactly the same way as shown above with the other adjectives.
But this is not all; the ability to combine an adverb with an ある-like verb is also important for other functions, which we will look at in the next grammar post here on the Reajer blog. In the meantime, every time you say おはよう or ありがとう, say it with pride; you are actually using highly advanced Japanese!
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