Introduction to Japanese Language: Hiragana and Katakana

Hello! Konnichiwa! Have you ever dreamed of knowing how to read Japanese?! After reading this article, you will be able to do that!
Let’s talk about the Japanese language and its writing system. Japanese uses 3 different kinds of alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji (i.e. the ideograms).

Hiragana ひらがな

Here is the hiragana alphabet:


There is a total of 46 kana. First, you need to know that hiragana is a syllabary; every symbol represents a syllable (called “kana”) rather than a phoneme. Where English (or any other language which uses the Latin alphabet) would have one letter for the sound “m” and another for the sound “a” (then combining them for the sound “ma”), in Japanese you have a symbol that, by itself, is a sound “ma”: ま. Now if you want to write “me”, you are not simply substituting the “a” for an “e”. Instead, there is a completely different symbol for “me”: め.
The hiragana originates from the cursive script of Chinese calligraphy. As you can see, the form of hiragana is round and smooth without any sharp edges. Hiragana is a phonetic letter system. It can be used to represent the pronunciation of a Kanji as well as used alone as a character in writing. When hiragana is used as a character on its own, it can be a segment of a word or a grammatical element in a sentence such as a particle.

For examples:

  • Japan -> 日本 (the Japanese translation with kanjis); にほん is the Hiragana form and their pronunciation = ni-ho-n
  • I eat an apple -> 私(わたし)はりんごを食(た)べます。=wa-ta-shi wa ri-n-go wo ta-be-ma-su
    は (wa) is the particle of the topic in a sentence and を(wo) is the object particle.

 Katakana カタカナ
Let’s see the katakana syllabary:

Katakana Tablekata

Like Hiragana, there are a total of 46 kana in katakana. Katakana are characterized by short, straight strokes and sharp edges. The word katakana means “fragmentary kana”, as the katakana characters are derived from components or fragments of more complex kanji. In contrast to the hiragana syllabary, which is used for Japanese words, the katakana one is used to write foreign loanwords. Also, it is used for Japanese words in case of onomatopoeia. Novel writers create terms in katakana to show that the characters know how to pronounce the terms but don’t know their meanings. And manga artists always write dialogues in katakana to give visual and/or very slight semantic emphasis (almost like using bold or italics in English).

Let’s see some examples:

Loanwords: コーヒー(coffee) [koohii]、サラダ(salad) [sarada]、カメラ(camera) [kamera]
Onomatopoeia: わんわん (woof) [wanwan]=dog’s sound; にゃん (meow) [nyan]=cat’s sound

If you want to learn more about the use of Katakana for foreign loanwords, read our article about it: hope that you enjoy reading my article as much as I enjoyed writing it!

By リータ








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