Hiragana and katakana are the two syllabaries in Japanese. Hiragana is used to form the grammar of the sentence and katakana is used primarily to write words that have been imported from other languages, e.g. coffee, table, and so forth. You can dispense with learning katakana for a little while, but hiragana is absolutely essential. The most popular study book used at Japanese language schools in Japan—Minna no Nihongo—does not use romaji and assumes the student can read hiragana from the start. This guide, too, does not use romaji except to show the phonetics below.
Hiragana is the main syllabary containing a total of 46 base syllables, some of which can be altered slightly or combined to create the 100 or so phonetics in the language. The base syllables are show in the table below. You should note the structure of the table as this will be important when we start conjugating verbs.
I’m calling these the base syllables because to certain rows of syllables a dakuten (like a closing apostrophe) or a handakuten (like the symbol for degrees) can be added to the syllables to form a new phonetic. These special rows are marked in red above. By adding a dakuten or handakuten we get the following phonetics.
Finally, half-size versions of the や, ゆ, よ syllables can be appended to all five syllable rows except the first. Coupled with the dakuten and handakuten we get the following syllables.
The complete table for hiragana is below:
If you don’t have a Japanese friend who can help you learn the correct pronunciations of each of these syllables, then it’s a good idea to check out YouTube where there are numerous videos by native speakers running through the hiragana pronunciations.
Many words in Japanese contain elongated sounds. For instance, the word for “high school student”:
The characters in red are silent; you will not hear their individual pronunciation. Instead they merely extend the sound of the preceding syllable. In other words, the following is true:
|こう ≠ こ＋う|
All syllables in Japanese are pronounced over the same time period and doubling of the length of the sound can change the meaning entirely.
You should remember the following elongation patterns:
- Syllable ending in “e” plus い e.g. けい、せい、てい etc.
- Syllable ending in “o” plus う e.g. こう、そう、とう、しょう、りょう etc.
- Syllable ending in “u” plus う e.g. くう、すう、つう、しゅう、りゅう etc.
- Others: かあ、おお、ねえ (elongations that are rarely ever used)
Other combinations such as た and い will create the same sound as if each syllable were enunciated individually. And so たい＝た＋い.
The bridging っ
The bridging っ is a small version of the syllable つ which creates a short void in the word before you reach the next syllable (it does not have a sound itself). Remembering that all syllables have identical time periods, let’s use the word “school” to show how っ works.
This creates a short pause after が before you hit the hard sound of the “k” for こ.
Today katakana is the script used for the innumerable foreign words that have crept into the language over time. As mentioned before, katakana contains no new syllables—it is just a different way of writing the hiragana syllables. The base syllables are given below.
The rest of the rules around the rules around the dakuten and handakuten and so on apply in exactly the same manner. Equally, the same rules around elongations and the bridging ッ (っ in katakana) apply with the following points to note.
While you can form exactly the same elongated syllables using katakana as you can with hiragana you will actually see a hyphen-like character “ー” used instead. For instance, take the word “coffee”.
All of the above have the same pronunciation but you will only ever see the last one in cafes and restaurants.
Due to the limited phonetics of the Japanese language you get some inventive uses of the top five characters ア、エ、ウ、イ、オ to force additional sounds. For example, there is no “v” sound in Japanese so ヴ is used as a proxy. Mini-versions of the five characters are also placed after other syllables to further stretch the possibilities. “Violet” thus gets turned into katakana as ヴィイオレット and so on. You most commonly come across these rarer forms when foreign names are turned into katakana.