The Writing System

Have you realized that the English writing system has 4 different “alphabets?” Not only are there the standard vs. cursive systems, but the difference between upper and lower case letters is quite significant as well. Think about it. The letter G looks absolutely nothing like the letter g, but they are both the same. Also, many people have a difficult time reading cursive handwriting even though it’s taught in school. I wonder if foreign textbooks explain this.

Well, now it shouldn’t be so surprising to hear that Japanese has three “alphabets.” The Japanese writing system consists of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are special. As a beginner, you can think of them like upper vs. lower case letters in English, even though this isn’t proper. They are part of a group called kana.

Just like letters in the English alphabet, each kana represents a specific sound. When we see the letter T, we can almost feel the tips of our tongues press against the roofs of our mouths because that’s what a letter does; it tells you which sound to make with your mouth. Kana aren’t exactly “letters,” though. They are actually syllables. For example, a common greeting is written “yo” in English. The phrase “yo yo yo” has three syllables, but it takes six letters to write it. Well, kana are unique in that they combine consonants and vowels into one character, so “yo” in English can be written with just one kana よ and “yo yo yo” would be written よよよ

This means that each kana actually represents one syllable and, as a writing system, it is not actually an alphabet; it’s called a syllabary.

The distinction between kana and kanji should now be quite clear: kana represent sound and kanji represent meaning. This is much different than English and, quite frankly, it can be troublesome. It’s kind of like kanji completely destroys the use of kana. Very quickly, you will reach a point where you can read all of the kana, but a simple sentence like 彼女が好きですか will mean absolutely nothing because you can only read half of the characters. Here’s that same sentence, with the stuff you won’t be able to read in bold red: 彼女きですか

Kana are very useful for what is called “conjugation” as well as the fact that many words are written using only hiragana, but very soon you will run into kanji as a silent obstacle. For now, no further discussion on kanji will be necessary. We will just leave them as big, crazy looking messes of strokes and slashes that have no sound or meaning.

Now that we understand Japanese uses a syllabary instead of an alphabet to represent sounds, learning kana is very simple. Unlike most kanji, kana are rather basic characters; simple enough to be organized into a table like this:

kana table_2_1

A kana table functions much like a multiplication table in how you match a consonant with a vowel to produce a sound. Allow this PowerPoint slide to demonstrate:

this is a kana table

Most kana tables, like the one I’ve provided, will list 142 “different” characters. Even the least sagacious reader, however, should notice that many of them are only different because of a mark in the upper right hand corner. Take, for example, these three kana:  は ば ぱ

If we consider は to be the base form, then ば is only different because of two small dashes and ぱ is only different because of a small circle. Since these diacritical marks only represent a change in sound and do not otherwise change the look of the kana, there are not actually 142 different characters to learn. Instead, a beginner’s kana table should look like this:

kana table_3

In reality, there are only 92 different kana to learn – 46 hiragana and 46 katakana.

As you may have noticed, this table is still too advanced for a beginner because it includes all 92 kana at once. In order to effectively distinguish the two at a subconscious level, it is necessary to learn hiragana and katakana separately and study them together afterwards. Ultimately, my method of learning the kana uses the following two tables:

hiragana table

Now that we understand the medium through which we will familiarize ourselves with kana, we will move forward with how to do exactly that in the next post.


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