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The Japanese Writing System
For a lot of people, native English-speakers included, the Japanese language can look quite daunting. I’ve seen many a listicle place Japanese as one of the highest ranking ‘most difficult languages to learn’, up there next to Russian, Arabic, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese. The most obvious common denominator between each of these languages is that they do not use the Latin alphabet – this immediately makes them initially indecipherable to those of us who speak English as a first language and many others, thereby adding to their mystique. Adding to this, Japanese has not one, but three scripts that are used in conjunction with each other, which can lead to a bit of head-scratching from beginners at first glance.
But, if you take the time to learn the writing system, underneath Japanese is an incredibly regular language grammatically (you can largely forget all about the horror of learning irregular verbs during GCSE French and German), and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be accessible for keen learners. So, I’m going to try and introduce the three scripts used in Japanese, their origins and uses, in an attempt to de-mystify what is an incredibly rewarding language to learn and show that once the basics of the language’s script and structure are learnt, it doesn’t need to seem so impossible!
1. Kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters)
Kanji are characters which have been imported from Chinese, only slightly modified in the way that they are written. As in Chinese, Kanji are logographs, meaning that each character represents an entire word or concept. This is in opposition to alphabets or syllabaries where each character represents a sound, which when used in combination with other characters form words.
Kanji have various uses in the written language, but most importantly the following:
The vast majority of nouns will be written using Chinese characters. For example: 猫 (neko, “cat”), 犬 (inu, “dog”), 山 (yama, “mountain”), 会社 (kaisha, “company”).
Most proper nouns, Japanese names and places. For example: 東京 (Tokyo), 日本 (Nihon, “Japan”), 絢香 (Ayaka, a feminine name), 良太 (Ryota, a masculine name).
The majority of verb stems and adjective stems. For example: 行 in 行く(iku, “to go”), or 入 in 入る (hairu, “to enter”); 強 in 強い (tsuyoi, “strong”), or 弱 in 弱い (yowai, “weak”).
The majority of adverb stems. For example: 勤勉 in 勤勉に (kinben-ni, “diligently”) or 速 in 速く(haya-ku, “quickly”).
Many kanji have multiple pronunciations. The exact pronunciation of the kanji can depend on whether the character is being used alone or in a compound. For example火, meaning fire, is pronounced hi when used alone. 山, meaning mountain, is pronounced yama when used alone. When used in a compound with each other – 火山 – the first character火 is pronounced ka, and 山is pronounced zan, forming the word “volcano”, pronounced kazan. The various pronunciations of kanji can be difficult to learn, but you will start learning patterns which will enable you to learn them faster!
2. Hiragana 平仮名／ひらがな
Hiragana is a syllabary, meaning each character represents a mono-syllabic sound. It is used in the following ways:
Furigana – these are phonetic readings of kanji written above or next to the kanji character. This may be used in books or magazines if the kanji used is rare, or if the text is aimed at children who might not know how to read even more common kanji, or in any situation where the reading of the kanji might not be clear.
Okurigana – verb/adjective ending conjugations. For example: うin 言う (iu, “to say”). Hiragana is used in these cases to show whether the verb is in the present tense, past tense, conditional, causative etc. We can see how this works using the verb 言う:
- 言う i-u “[I] say”
- 言った i-tta “[I] said”
- 言える i-eru “[I] can say” (potential verb)
- 言われる i-wareru “[something] was said”
- 言わせる i-waseru “make [someone]/allow [someone] to say”
- 言いたい i-itai “[I] want to say”
Prepositions such as in (に／で), to (へ／まで), from (から), by (までに) and grammatical particles.
Hiragana can be used to phonetically write any noun or verb for which the writer cannot remember the appropriate kanji. For example, 行く (iku, “to go”) can be written using only hiragana as いく, and 言う (iu, to say), can be written using only hiragana as いう. As for nouns, 猫 (neko, “cat”) can be written using hiragana asねこ, and犬 (inu, “dog”) can be written using only hiragana asいぬ.
The phonetic Hiragana symbols where derived from kanji characters that had similar phonetic sounds. Historically, Hiragana was used for poetry, personal letters and other informal texts, while kanji was used for official and legal documents. The introduction of Hiragana was not favoured by elites, who preferred kanji, but I’m sure that many Japanese speakers are grateful for its existence now – it’s a relief to know that, if you can’t remember how to write a kanji, you can write it using the more simple Hiragana instead!
3. Katakana 片仮名／カタカナ
Katakana is also a syllabary, like Hiragana. One of its most common usages is to transliterate foreign words and names. For example, Madeleine would be written using Katakana as マデリン (maderin); Adeline would be written アデリーヌ (aderīnu) and Joe would be written ジョー (jō). Lots of foreign words have entered Japanese vocabulary over the past couple of decades, with some of the most common being テレビ (terebi, “television”), ラジオ (rajio, “radio”) and ビール (bīru, beer)!
Another common usage for Katakana can be for writing onomatopoeias and other sound-symbolic words. Some good onomatopoeias are にゃんにゃん (nyan-nyan, “meow”) or ハックション (hakkushon, “achoo!”). Some sound-symbolic words, by contrast, don’t simply represent sounds but states or conditions. Take the following, for example:
ギリギリ giri-giri “at the last minute/just barely”
ヒリヒリ hiri-hiri “stinging pain/tingling”
ギザギザ giza-giza “jagged/notched”
ニコニコ niko-niko “grinning”
Finally, Katakana can also be used for technical and scientific terms (such as plants) or to create emphasis, much in the same way that italics are used in English.
Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana in practice…
Because each writing system serves a different purpose within the language, you will often use all three in one sentence! Take the following sentence:
Aderīnu-san wa furansu-go wo hanaseru kedo, nihon-go wo hanasenai.
“Adeline can speak French, but she can’t speak Japanese.”
In this sentence, Katakana (red), Hiragana (blue), and Kanji (green) all work alongside each other to form a full sentence. Once you’ve mastered the use of the writing system, you’ve tackled a huge step on the road to cracking Japanese. With some practice, this really does become second nature and you can focus on picking up vocabulary, learning grammar structures, and getting fluent – just like any other language!
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