The use of Katakana for English words transcription.

Do you know that in Japan they use four types of script?

Well, they can use Hiragana, katakana, kanji and romaji all together in just one sentence and we use each of them for different purposes.

The Hiragana script is the basic Japanese phonetic script, it represents every sound in the Japanese language and it is composed of traditional Japanese characters developed in the Heian period; it is mainly used for grammatical purposes, for example to write the particles and the suffix of verbs.

The Kanji system is a set of logographic symbols, each representing a morpheme and they originate from Chinese; there are thousands and thousands of kanji and they must be learned by heart.

 The Roomaji system is represented by roman letters.


Finally, there is the Katakana script. It was developed in the ninth century by Buddhist monks as a reading aid; they were used for indicating the way to read kanji in Chinese texts, so that they were initially regarded as mnemonic signs (not true characters), appearing in small font size next to the texts. Katakana represents the same set of phonetic sounds as Hiragana except all the characters are different. Nowadays, it is mainly used for words that have been borrowed from other languages such as country names, the names of foreign people, food, business world etc.


マネージャー (manējā) manager
ミーティング (mītingu) Meeting
コーラ (Kōra) coca cola
トマトジュース (tomato jūsu) tomato juice
イタリア (Itaria) Italy
リー (Rī) Lee
レストラン  (resutoran) restaurant
フィルム (firumu) film

Moreover, people who are keen on manga, they already know how important it is, since in manga English sounds are written by using katakana script.

However, many people, who for the first time start to learn it, tend to think that katakana is not necessary (this happened to me as well) but soon they realize how essential it is.  For example, mastering katakana will take you a long way towards being able to read a menu in Japanese, to read the big colourful signs of Japanese shops, or to take part in Karaoke nights (the most popular form of entertainment in Japan) where lyrics of foreign songs are displayed on the display with Katakana transcription.

As a student of Japanese, I know how hard it can be studying this language because, as I said, it is made up of different writing systems. As a matter of fact, if you want to start to study it, you should be able to learn each of them from the very beginning.


However, when it comes to learn Katakana, it turns out to be more difficult for students than kanji. This is because English speakers expect English words to sound like English, but sometimes they are completely different from the original ones. As a matter of fact, when words are converted in Japanese, they may undergo many radical changes: for example, the word ʺpyjamasˮ is converted as a singular noun, and it is ʺpajamaˮ (パジャマ), or sometimes a word can completely change from English to Japanese transcription, for example, the word ʺslippersˮ becomes ʺsuripaaˮ (スリッパあ), the word ʺgas rangeˮ becomes ʺgasuteeburuˮ (ガステーブル).

However, most of the conversion from an English word into Japanese is based on the pronunciation, in several cases the pronunciation is based on spelling, so for example, the English name Sarah can be converted as it is written so it will be ʺSaraˮ (サラ) rather than ʺSērāˮ (セーラー) as it is pronounced.

Sometimes Japanese people like to shorten katakana words, and this can be much more difficult for an English speaker to understand the meaning: for example, the word ʺpersonal computerʺ will be ʺpasokonʺ (パソコン); ʺair conditionerʺ will be ʺeaconʺ (エアコン), and ʺsmartphoneʺ will be ʺsumahoʺ (スマホ).

So, it is better to completely forget the original English word, and treat the word as an entirely separate Japanese word, otherwise you can run into the habit of saying English words with English pronunciations.

By Lucia D’Eligio


Personal notes


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