Hiragana

Welcome to the Kanji Sketch Pad series of lessons. This lesson corresponds with Lesson 1 of the KSP Android app, and it will deal with hiragana. The next lesson will deal with katakana. (If you don’t know what that means, read on.) If you already know your hiragana and katakana, or want to get started on learning kanji, go straight to the first kanji lesson.

The KSP app does not currently provide mnemonics for hiragana or katakana, because its primary focus is on kanji, but mnemonics for hiragana and katakana will be provided in later versions.

If you know the basics of hiragana but just want a quick refresher, scroll down to the tables below.

Hiragana

The word hiragana means ‘ordinary syllabic script’. It is one of three major components of the Japanese writing system – the other two are katakana (dealt with in Lesson 2) and kanji (Lessons 3-100). Hiragana and katakana are both phonetic systems, intended to display the sound of Japanese words, in contrast to kanji which generally indicate the idea behind the word (although the link between the word, the shape and the idea can be tenuous).

Hiragana and katakana should usually be learned before tackling kanji. They are quite similar to each other, and both are known as ‘kana.’ They are parallel systems – in most cases a hiragana character has an obvious partner in the katakana system, with the same sound, and sometimes a similar shape. Hiragana are usually used to express the sound of native Japanese words, and katakana are usually reserved for foreign words or loan words that have been absorbed into Japanese. For instance, many English words that have been adopted by the Japanese are expressed in katakana. As a general rule, hiragana are curvy, and katakana are angular.

Hiragana are used in a variety of contexts: when the native word has no kanji, for grammatical particles and prepositions, and in the formation of suffixes added onto the end of a kanji. Hiragana are also used for words where the kanji is not known to the writer or reader, or to avoid using a kanji that is felt to be too formal for the occasion. Many words can be written with hiragana or kanji according to the author’s preferences, but some words are conventionally written with hiragana despite having a kanji form.

Hiragana are sometimes used in a small font form next to kanji as a reading aid, to indicate the pronunciation of kanji – for instance, for junior Japanese readers or for non-native learners; this is referred to as furigana. Unfortunately, most kanji have multiple potential pronunciations, depending on the context.

There is an important difference between the Western concept of a phonetic alphabet, which generally maps symbols to consonants or vowels, and the hiragana system, which is usually described as a syllabry because it maps symbols to whole syllables. For instance, the symbol き indicates a consonant-vowel pair – usually spelled ‘ki’ when translated into the Western alphabet and pronounced like ‘key’.

With a couple of minor exceptions, every possible syllable in the Japanese language is represented by one hiragana character (and a corresponding katakana character), with very little phonetic ambiguity. Most Japanese syllables lack a terminating consonant, so the syllable can consist of a vowel sound, such as ‘a’ (hiragana あ), or a consonant followed by a vowel, such as ‘ka’ (か, sounding a little like ‘car’). One important exception is that some syllables end in an ‘n’-like sound, (ん), although the exact pronunciation varies by context and ん can sometimes sound like English ‘m’ or ‘ng’. For these syllables, the start of the syllable is represented by one character, and the terminal ‘n’ sound is represented by ‘ん’. For example, ‘かん’ is pronounced ‘kan’ instead of ‘ka’.

Japanese has five basic vowel sounds, and nine basic consonant sounds. (Additional consonant sounds are considered to be variants of the basic nine, and are represented using a modification of the basic characters, as described further below). Given the possibility of syllables with no consonant, that potentially gives 5×10 different basic combinations, plus ん. These are often presented as a 5×10 grid, known as the gojūon ( , literally ‘Fifty Sounds’), as illustrated in table below. Along with the anomalous singular consonant ん (n), that makes 51 potential characters, but not all of these combinations exist in modern Japanese, so the modern hiragana syllabary is based on 46 characters:

  • 5 singular vowels, a, i, u, e, o
  • Notionally, 45 consonant–vowel unions, but
    • 3 of these (yi, ye, and wu) are unused;
    • 2 of these (wi, and we) are obsolete in modern Japanese; and
    • 1 (wo) is usually pronounced as a vowel (o) in modern Japanese
  • 1 singular consonant (ん).

Except for ‘し’ (shi)、’ち’ (chi)、’つ’ (tsu) and ‘ん’ (n), you can predict how each character is pronounced by matching the consonant on the left of the table to the vowel at the top of the column. For example, き is positioned in the ‘k’ row and the ‘i’ column and therefore has the pronunciation ‘ki’ (like the English word ‘key’); ゆ is pronounced ‘yu’ (like English ‘you’); め has the pronunciation ‘me’, like the start of ‘mess'; と has the pronunciation ‘to'(like English toe). The character を would normally be considered to have the sound ‘wo’, according to the table, but in its most common usage, it drops the ‘w’ and is pronounced as ‘o’.

Note that the sound marked by ‘r’ in the table is unlike any sound in English and resembles both ‘l’ and ‘r’ without being quite the same as either. It involves hitting the roof of the mouth with the tongue, but it is best appreciated by listening to Japanese audio. (For pronunciations, visit http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/hiragana ).

Basic Hiragana Table – The Gojūon

a i u e o
k
s
t
n
h
m
y . .
r
w .
n

Hiragana can also be used to represent 25 other consonant-vowel combinations, but these combinations are treated as modifications of the basic ‘Fifty Sounds’. For instance, the word ‘hiragana’ contains a ‘ga’ sound, but the closest match in the table above is ‘ka’. The difference between ‘ka’ and ‘ga’ is that the pronunciation of ‘ga’ involves the vocal cords – that is, it is voiced, whereas the consonant of ‘ka’ is unvoiced. (This is like the difference between whispering loudly and talking.) The voicing of a consonant is indicated by adding two tiny lines (similar to a double quotation mark) in the top right corner of the character. For instance, か is pronounced ‘ka’ but が is pronounced ‘ga’. The pair of lines is called dakuten (濁 点). With the addition of a dakuten, a ‘t’ sound is converted to a ‘d’, an ‘s’ sound to a ‘z’ and a ‘k’ to a hard ‘g’. The ‘sh’ sound of ‘shi’ becomes a ‘j’ in ‘ji’.

The logic of this system breaks down a little when it comes to the ‘h’ row of the gojūon: ha, hi, hu, he, ho. Addition of dakuten to any of these symbols converts them to syllables starting with ‘b': ba, bi, bu, be, bo (adding not just voicing but lip closure). Similarly, a ‘p’ sound is indicated by taking one of the ‘h’ characters and adding a tiny circle called handakuten (半 点), giving pa, pi, pu, pe, po.

The ち character provides another exception. Just as it is pronounced ‘chi’ instead of ‘ti’ in its unvoiced form, it is pronounced ‘ji’ instead of ‘di’ in its voiced form – this gives hiragana two ways of expressing the sound ‘ji’ ( ぢ and じ). The ‘づ’ character also has a different consonant sound compared to the other characters in its row, but at least the addition of the dakuten produces the change we would expect, ‘tsu’ becoming ‘dzu’.

Voiced Hiragana

a i u e o
p pa ぱ pi ぴ pu ぷ pe ぺ po ぽ
b ba ば bi び bu ぶ be べ bo ぼ
d da だ ji ぢ dzu づ de で do ど
z za ざ ji じ zu ず ze ぜ zo ぞ
g ga が gi ぎ gu ぐ ge げ go ご

For more information about hiragana, come back soon, or try this link:
http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/hiragana

In particular, make sure you understand the use of small versions of ‘ya’, ‘yu’ and ‘yo’ , and the small version of ‘tsu’.