Sorobun is a style of literary language in Japanese used from the middle ages to the modern times. The auxiliary verb for politeness (Japanese grammar) 'soro'('そうろう', 'そろ' or 'サウラフ' in historical kana (the Japanese syllabary) orthography) is placed at the end of a sentence.
Originally, 'soro' (in old times, Samorahu'サモラフ,' Saburahu'サブラフ,' and so on) was a verb meaning to serve in the vicinity of a person of high rank ('samurai' also originated from this). But, in the Heian period, it changed to a word to express modesty for 'ori ' (to exist) and further into an auxiliary verb that expresses politeness. At the end of the Heian period, it seems to have often been used in spoken language same as 'desu-masu style' (a formal and polite form of Japanese conversational style) (There are many examples of usage in the narrative part of Heike Monogatari (The tale of the Heike)).
During the Kamakura period, it was fixed as a literary style used for sentences in letters. During the Muromachi period, it was also used as a style for the narrative part of yokyoku (Noh) (Noh song). Around this time, it seems that it have dropped out of usage as spoken language (However, it is said that 'desu' (a word used at the end of a sentence) originated from 'nite soro').
However, it commonly used in writing and during the Edo period, almost all official documents and practical writing utilized this style.
Types of documents
Official documents related to shogunate and domain administration
Documents related to farming villages, fishing villages, and cities
Documents related to industry, transportation, commerce and trade
As shown above, in almost all fields, documents related to katatsu (transmission of wishes to subordinates), joshin (report to superior) and gotsu (communications between parties on equal level) exist as documents in 'sorobun' form.
The characters and style was characteristic of 'sorobun' during the Edo period. Many were written with a certain objective to transmit the writer's wishes to the receiver. Kanji characters in gyosho (cursive style of writing kanji characters) or sosho (advanced cursive style of writing kanji characters, more abbreviated and flowing than gyosho), variant characters, hentaigana (anomalous Japanese cursive syllabary), auxiliary words of kanji writing in gyosho or sosho, hiragana (Japanese syllabary characters), katakana (fragmentary kana), combined characters, etc. were used. (Refer to 'kuzushiji'- Chinese character in its simplified form).
It was also used as for letters in the Meiji period but died out because of the popularization of unifying colloquial and written style and because sorobun was not taken up as part of education in ancient literature.
Characteristics of the style is that standard 'kaeshiyomi (reversal reading in a Chinese of classical Japanese text)' originating from Chinese writing is mixed in a sentence in which word order follows the rules of the Japanese language. It is called 'sorobun' (soro sentence) if 'soro' is used at the end of the sentence. No voiced consonant marks or punctuation marks are used.
Examples of hendokumoji (kanji characters - in a Chinese or classical Japanese text - to be read in reverse order): auxiliary verbs such as 如 (gotoshi), 不 (zu), 為 (su, sasu, tari), 令 (shimu), 可 (beshi), 被 (ru, raru), and so on. There are also verbs, postpositional particles, and so on.
Many conjunctions, adverbs, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and so on, which were to be written in 'hiragana' as part of the reformation of the Japanese language after the Second World War were written with kanji (Chinese characters) or their abbreviated forms ('soro' is replaced with a dot or simple mark).
Conjunctions: 'aruiwa' (或者), 'shikareba' (然者), 'naomata' (尚又), 'mottomo' (尤), 'matawa' (又), and so on. Adverbs: 'isasaka' (聊), 'imamotte' (今以), 'iyoiyo' (弥), 'kanete' (兼而), 'moshi' (若), and so on. Pronouns: 'kono' (此), 'kore' (之/是), 'sono' (其), 'sore' (夫), and so on. Auxiliary verbs: 'soro' (候), 'nari' (也), 如 (gotoshi), 不 (zu), 為 (su, sasu, tari), 令 (shimu), 可 (beshi), 被 (ru, raru), and so on.
Hentaigana (including kanji characters in gyosho and sosho), hiragana, katakana, and ligatures as well as auxiliary words in kanji writing in gyosho or sosho are used as the part of okurigana (kana written after a kanji character to complete the full reading of the word) and postpositional particles, but the more official the document is, the less kana and more kanji is used. Furthermore, depending on the writer and the nature of document, usage of using kanji characters and kana differ. The use of kana in letters written by women was popular, but men increasingly used kana in private or internal documents.
Other than official documents related to administration or judicial procedures, a considerable number of documents, such as letters, commercial correspondences, records, diaries, acts and deed, licenses to pass barrier stations, religious census certificates and documents related to community life were in 'sorobun' style. Bungobun (sentences written in a literary style) used for written sentences regardless of spoken language used for daily life was a convenient nation-wide format used to overcome difficulties in communicating with dialects. Information regarding 'Dialects and sorobun' taken from "Tegami Koza Vol. 1" (volume 1, Lesson of writing a letter) edited by Tsutomu IGARASHI et al., issued by Heibonsha in 1935. This sentence looks back on the history of "sorobun" in comparison with spoken style derived from the movement to unify the written and spoken styles of the Japanese language.
Prohibition of free traffic during the Edo period added to the differentiation of dialects that were already numerous because of geological isolation and some dialects sounded like nanbangekizetsu (foreign language) between people in different domains. As a result, conversation with people from different domains became almost impossible and there were unresolvable situations when a person stayed in Edo. Under such situations, sorobun was created and was often used in yokyoku (Noh song) (sentences of the Kamakura period) which was popular among the military class and introduced the style of oraimono (primary textbooks in the style of the exchange of letters) which was widespread on a nationwide basis. There is an episode when Satsuma domain attacked the Aizu-jo Castle during the Boshin War, communication with a Shinto priest who was called as a guide impossible., after much consideration, yokyoku was thought of and conversation was carried out in the same way as the dialogue between shite (main actor) and waki (supporting actor) and finally done well.
(This episode is said to be from Toshiaki KIRINO, who became famous in the Seinan War)' (nanbangekizetsu: foreigner's language or songs of bullheaded shrike, in other words, foreigner's non-understandable language)
Example of a sentence
The following sentences were used for a circular on the occasion of the Imperial Princess Kazunomiya's marriage in the last days of Tokugawa shogunate.
和宮様御下向之説宿継人馬多入間左之村々中山道浦和宿江當分助郷申付候条問屋方より(よりは'かな'でなく合字)相觸次第人馬 遅参不致無滞差出し相勤可申候尤當時年季休役御用ニ限り是又相勤可申者也 右村々 文久元年(1861年)
(Translation) On the occasion of Kazunomiya's trip to Edo, the following villages are ordered to support Urawa inn town for the time being because many people and horses are needed. As soon as informed by the forward messenger sent from the wholesaler, send workers and horses without delay. Also, the usual yearly work must be conducted.