Katakana, pronunciation and English, part 1: Scripts, or that

This post is about the Japanese language. It’s not intended as a lesson, so much as a rough explanation of how things work. This is so that part 2 will make some sense or at least have some context for those readers who don’t speak/study Japanese.

As you may or may not know, there are 3 distinct scripts used to write Japanese: hiragana ひらがな, katakanaカタカナ, and kanji 漢字.

Kanji 漢字

…is probably the most famous because there are so many kanji, they can be read so many ways, and are what make learning to read and write Japanese such a challenge for so many people. Kanji means ‘Chinese letters/characters,’ and kanji have meanings.Depending on how they are combined with other characters, they sound different, too. For example, 茶 by itself is cha (tea), but if you join it with ‘road/way’ it becomes 茶道sadō (tea ceremony) and the ‘tea’ bit is said as sa. So, kanji is complicated, but for some people, interesting.

One gaikokujin comedian, who my kids often ask me to imitate because I’m also a foreigner (and according to one kid, look like said comedian), has based his catch phrase ‘WHY, JAPANESE PEOPLE!?’* on the idea that kanji is complicated and often doesn’t seem to make much sense. I personally find him pretty funny, but one of my British friends doesn’t like him because he plays up to the ‘foreigner’ stereotypes of being loud, a bit weird, and taking up a lot of space. (By the way, I think this could be said of almost all Japanese comedians, but I see my friend’s point.)

*If you can’t see the subtitles, click the CC button.

Sounds 音/発音

To know how to read kanji, you need to know the sounds of Japanese. Like all languages, Japanese uses a set number of sounds and it perceives those sounds in a certain way. As I learned at uni, when we are born, as able-bodied babies we have all the physical and mental tools necessary to perceive and produce any and all sounds used in the world’s languages. As we age and only use some of these physical and mental muscles, it becomes harder or even impossible to perceive distinctions between, and make, some of the sounds used in languages that are foreign to us. Think of some of the clicks used in some African languages, or the different R sounds used in French, German, Russian, Italian etc., or how many speakers of Asian languages don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the sounds of L and R.

Hiragana 平仮名/ひらがな

Kids and adult learners learn to write the sounds of Japanese using hiragana, which apparently translates to ‘ordinary syllabic script.’ They later learn katakana, which in the same way is used to write the sounds of Japanese. People sometimes make the generalisation that hiragana is a cursive-looking script, while katakana looks more angular/squarish, but they have a lot of similarities. For today though, let’s focus on hiragana. 

Each individual hiragana represents one of the distinct sounds (mora) used in Japanese. One of the most important things to know if you’re going to learn Japanese is that all consonant sounds (b, d, f, s, k, etc.) come with a vowel attached, with the exception of the kind of vague nasal ん, which can sound like ‘n’ or ‘ng’ or ‘m’ depending on the sounds before and after it. You can’t just make the sound ‘t’ or ‘k.’ Plus, some combinations aren’t allowed, like ‘s’+’i’ like in ‘sip.’ Instead it becomes ‘ship.’  Likewise, ‘t’ + ‘i’ = ‘chi,’ as in ちんちん chin-chin (meaning ‘penis’ – be careful when clinking glasses in Japan!) and ‘z’ + ‘i’ = ‘ji,’ as in もみじ momiji ‘Japanese maple’.

Because it represents collections of sounds rather than individual articulatory ones, hiragana is considered a syllabary rather than an alphabet, but it essentially functions as an alphabet. This brings us to another point of difference between the way Japanese thinks and the way English and many other languages think:

Syllable?

In English, basically, every time we get to a vowel sound, we declare a syllable. E.g. ‘I’, ‘an’ and ‘pane’ each have one syllable, ‘apple’ and ‘mummy’ have two, ‘lumberjack’ has 3, and so on.

Japanese differs in that each mora or what you can represent with one hiragana is considered a syllable. So ‘I’ is considered two ‘syllables:’ ‘a’ + ‘i’ = ai. (PS, this sound means ‘love’ 愛 in Japanese.) ‘Pane’ or ‘pain’ would be 3: ‘pe’ + ‘i’ + ‘n’ = pein. This is how they decide the 5-7-5 rule of haiku: not in what we consider syllables in English, but what they consider syllables in Japanese. Below is an example by a famous old haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō. It translates to something like,

‘old pond, frog jumps in, splash’

「古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音」

(ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと)

fu-ru-i-ke-ya

ka-wa-zu-to-bi-ko-mu

mi-zu-no-o-to

So… every time you get a consonant in Japanese (unless it’s the good old vague nasal ん), you get a new vowel. So that heavy one-syllable word ‘strength’ in English becomes 6 mora if you try to say it using Japanese sounds: su-to-le-n-gu-su. ‘Christmas cake’ is a good one: ku-ri-su-ma-su ke—ki.

Coarticulation

To make things more fun, in natural speech, the vowels attached to some consonants often get skipped over and you don’t hear them, but Japanese speakers hear/see them in their minds, e.g. the ‘u’ in す ‘su’ is often elided, so if someone says ii desu (‘No thanks, I’m OK’) it sounds more like ‘ee dess.’ Similarly, the ‘i’ sound in し’shi’ often seems completely optional, and the same goes for the same vowel in ち’chi’ and the voiced Japanese counterpart of this sound, ぢ ‘ji.’

Plus, some compound vowels get shortened. In Japanese, this means that nani shiteiru? (‘What are you doing?’) can sound more like nani shteru? which makes no real difference to any native Japanese speaker. However, when that same speaker starts speaking English, they might not hear a difference between ‘touch’ and ‘touchy’… when they hear that ‘ch’ sound, in their mind, it includes the sound ‘i’ by default, even if it’s unsaid.

So what’s the difference between hiragana and katakana?

They convey the exact same sounds, but they are used for different purposes. Hiragana is really the default one, used in conjunction with kanji to glue the language together, as it were, and make it flow. It’s used for the little bits – particles, they’re called in English, similar to prepositions – that convey things like ‘to,’ ‘from,’ ‘with’ etc. It’s used for the verby parts of words that tell you who’s doing what to whom, and the parts of words that tell us this kanji is being part of a verb, noun, adjective or adverb in this context.

Katakana is used for sound effects, loan words (words imported from other languages, like ‘ramen’ ラーメン which is seen as Chinese), and words that convey foreign-ness. It’s also used for other stylistic purposes sometimes, like in titles, or if you don’t know the kanji for someone’s name.

So, readers, next time we will investigate katakana in daily life, and how it is both a help and a hindrance for Japanese and non-Japanese people when communicating with each other.

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2 thoughts on “Katakana, pronunciation and English, part 1: Scripts, or that

  1. Clearly put and well written! Kanji can feel overwhelming but as you start to glean meaning here and there…it becomes almost like a puzzle or challenge to figure out the bits and pieces to see the whole picture!

    Like

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