Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Brief Guide to the Japanese Alphabet(s)

The first thing that comes to mind under the concept of Japanese alphabet is an infinite phone book of illegible pictures. Those that know more about the issue would call these illegible pictures characters. That is a good starting point, but there's more to it. Most importantly, there are three phone books, and only one of them might seem infinite. The other two are just pages.

In other words, the Japanese use three alphabets. It may seem extremely inefficient (in fact it is), but once you understand the concept, you will make sense out of it. I will not bother you with the historical particularities of each alphabet now - all you need to know are the actual alphabets.

The first alphabet is called Hiragana (ひらがな). It only contains about forty letters which represent Japanese sounds, and do not convey any meaning. Any Japanese word can be written in Hiragana.

Second comes Katakana (カタカナ). Same as Hiragana, it represents Japanese sounds, and therefore has the exact same number of characters, all of which which are pronounced the same. Again, any Japanese word can be written in Katakana, but that's not what this alphabet is used for. Instead, Japanese use Katakana to write foreign words: names of people which are not native to Japan, such as Martin, names of foreign things like a computer, hamburger, McDonald's, Czech etc.

Third comes the big infinite phone book of pictures known as Kanji (漢字). These are characters taken from Chinese and they literally mean Chinese (Kan 漢) characters (Ji 字). Unlike the two previous alphabets, the Kanji convey meanings, as well as sounds, and there are thousands of them. What is more, a single Kanji character usually has more than one meaning and even more ways of being pronounced (One Chinese and at least one Japanese pronunciation). Therefore knowing one way of pronouncing a Kanji and the meaning of it does not guarantee you that you will know what the same character means in the next sentence or how it is pronounced. As such, the purpose for the existence of Kanji seems to be making the life of a Japanese student more of a pain in the backside.

Now that you know the particularities of the three Japanese alphabets, it surely won't take you by surprise that most Japanese words contain a combination of Hiragana and Kanji and one sentence can contain a mix of all three alphabets. So stop grumbling about Spanish, por favor!

Hiragana and the stroke orders. Source: Wikipedia.


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