Kana: The Japanese Syllabaries

Anyways, yeah, (1) hiragana, (2) katakana, and (3) kanji are the three types of characters. Now let’s get into the fun stuff—breaking down this writing system with nerd-like precision.

Note: I know that we’ve technically moved past the "pronunciation section" of this guide, but you will find that a lot of things being discussed in the following few sections are as much about pronunciation as they are about writing. This is because, as you will see, you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other.

We’ve already established that the sounds of Japanese are divided into mora, which are kind of like syllables. When talking about the sounds of Japanese, we saw that there aren’t really that many of them. There are so few, in fact, that we can illustrate them using syllabaries.

To quote my best friend, Wikipedia:

A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or (more frequently) moras which make up words.

Basically this just means that each character in a syllabary represents one of the syllables of the language, and the syllabary as a whole represents all of the possible syllables of the language.

あ is not a letter. Rather, it is a symbol of the sound/syllable/mora a, pronounced “ah.”

か is not a letter, either. It is a symbol of the sound/syllable/mora ka, pronounced “kah.”

This is different than English, which uses the Latin alphabet. English has a lot of complex syllable structures, so a syllabary for English would be way too big to be of any use to anyone. For example, we would need to have different characters for all of these syllables: "bag", "beg", "big", "bog", "bug"; "bad", "bed", "bid", "bod", "bud", "book", "bay", "bead", "bide", "bode", "boom", "bird", "Boyd", "bow", etc. No thank you.

The Japanese language uses two syllabaries: Hiragana and Katakana. These are referred to collectively as kana, and they represent every distinct sound of Japanese.

Kana

Hiragana

ひらがな

Katakana

カタカナ

I should point out that both hiragana and katakana are syllabaries for the same sounds of Japanese. There are no sounds in hiragana that you can’t write in katakana, and there are no sounds in katakana that you can’t write in hiragana.

Remember earlier how we wrote out every sound of Japanese (in hiragana)? Well, we can add katakana to that chart, also. Here we see the hiragana on top, katakana in the middle, and romaji on the bottom (all characters are linked to their respective Wikipedia pages):

IPA
(romaji)

-a
(-a)

-i/ʲi
(-i)

-ɯ̥
(-u)

-e
(-e)

-o
(-o)

-ʲa
(-ya)

-ʲu
(-yu)

-ʲo
(-yo)

'-
(-)



a



i



u



e



o

k-
(k-)



ka



ki



ku



ke



ko

きゃ
キャ
kya

きゅ
キュ
kyu

きょ
キョ
kyo

g-
(g-)



ga



gi



gu



ge



go

ぎゃ
ギャ
gya

ぎゅ
ギュ
gyu

ぎょ
ギョ
gyo

s-
(s-)



sa



su



se



so

ɕ-
(sh-)

しゃ
シャ
sha



shi

しゅ
シュ
shu

しょ
ショ
sho

z-
(z-)



za



zu



ze



zo

dʑ-
(j-)

じゃ
ジャ
ja



ji

じゅ
ジュ
ju

じょ
ジョ
jo

t-
(t-)



ta



te



to

tɕ-
(ch-)

ちゃ
チャ
cha



chi

ちゅ
チュ
chu

ちょ
チョ
cho

t͡s-
(ts-)



tsu

d-
(d-)



da



de



do

n-
(n-)



na



ni



nu



ne



no

にゃ
ニャ
nya

にゅ
ニュ
nyu

にょ
ニョ
nyo

h-
(h-)



ha



hi



he



ho

ç-
(hy-)

ひゃ
ヒャ
hya

ひゅ
ヒュ
hyu

ひょ
ヒョ
hyo

ɸ-
(f-)



fu

p-
(p-)



pa



pi



pu



pe



po

ぴゃ
ピャ
pya

ぴゅ
ピュ
pyu

ぴょ
ピョ
pyo

b-
(b-)



ba



bi



bu



be



bo

びゃ
ビャ
bya

びゅ
ビュ
byu

びょ
ビョ
byo

m-
(m-)



ma



mi



mu



me



mo

みゃ
ミャ
mya

みゅ
ミュ
myu

みょ
ミョ
myo

j-
(y-)



ya



yu



yo

ɺ-
(r-)



ra



ri



ru



re



ro

りゃ
リャ
rya

りゅ
リュ
ryu

りょ
リョ
ryo

β̞-
(w-)



wa

special mora

ɴ-



n

t̚ -



[double consonant marker] (i.e. shows that the following consonant is 2 moras in length.)

zu



dzu
Although the romaji version includes a “d,” for this character, you don’t actually need to pronounce it. Just saying ず (zu) is quite common (←debatable claim).

dʑi



dzi
Although the romaji version is written with “dz,” this character is usually just pronounced the same as じ (ji).

ː-


[long vowel marker] (i.e. shows that the preceding vowel is 2 moras in length)

[o]



The same pronunciation as お / オ (o), but often written in romaji as wo. (used almost exclusively as a particle, the katakana form (ヲ) is almost never used.)

Hey you, why are you just skimming over my awesome chart in two seconds? Ain’t nobody got time to be memorizing charts? Okay, that’s fine. Barely even hurts my feelings. Not that you care.

Anyways, don’t worry about it, because we’re going to drill these into oblivion in a second here.




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