Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1

Chapter 3

Katakana

In our last article we learned how speak and write Hiragana, one of three (or four, if you count the Latin alphabet) scripts used to write the Japanese language. In this article, we are going to learn Katakana, the second script we will be using to write Japanese. Although there is a natural progression from Hiragana to Katakana, if you are starting just now, it is perfectly ok to try to learn both of them at the same time.

What you need to know

Like Hiragana, Katakana is also syllabary, that is to say, every “letter” represents a syllable (called “kana”, hence Katakana) rather than a phoneme, as in our Latin alphabet. While the word “Katakana” uses the letter “a” four times when written in English, you will notice that there when we write the same word in Japanese (カタカナ) there is only one repetition, corresponding to the syllable “Ka”, which appears twice.

“Wait”, you might say, “this is remarkably similar to Hiragana”. Bingo. Katakana is actually just another set of symbols to write the very same phonetic sounds. There are 46 kana in Katakana, just like there are 46 symbols in Hiragana. “Why in the world would I need to learn two syllabaries to write the very same thing?”, you might also ask (I know I did). To make it brief, while Hiragana and Katakana have very interesting origin stories, today the only difference between them is which kind of words they are used to write.

I will explain. While, as we have seen before, Hiragana is mostly used to write native Japanese words, grammatical particles and verb and adjective inflections, Katakana is mostly used for the transcription of words from foreign languages (historically from Portuguese, Dutch and French, and today mostly from English). For example, the word “radio” becomes ラジオ (rajio), while “television” is テレビ (terebi). Another word that will you also probably be writing a lot in Katakana is, in case you didn’t know, your own name, as foreign places and names (with the exception of Chinese names) are written in Katakana. Finally, Japanese also use Katakana a lot to write onomatopoeia; believe me when I say that the Japanese language has onomatopoeia for every possible situation you can imagine (did you know that “nebaneba” means “to be sticky” and “kibikibi” means “to be businesslike”?).

One last word about Katakana and foreign words: because there are relatively few phonemes in Japanese, foreign words often undergo many sound changes in a way that speakers of the original language often cannot understand the resulting word in Japanese. While you may have no issues to understand intanettu (internet), mashin (machine), or furansu (France), others like kuremu (claim) or konsento (power outlet) would probably leave you clueless to their meaning. This also means you sometimes may not be understood if you say an originally English word using the proper English pronunciation! Take it in your stride, though: it was an amusing experience when a Japanese speaker lectured me on the proper pronunciation of the word “manners” (it’s manaa, by the way).

Writing Katakana

Like Hiragana, there are a total of 46 kana in Katakana. Again, how you memorize them is up to you (some books or websites use mnemonics or short stories to help you memorize each one of them), but my suggestion is to simply take 30 minutes of your day for a week or two and write them down many times until you memorize them. It helps if as you write them down you repeat their sounds.

Some people may say that Katakana is the simplest of the writing systems. I would argue that because they have more simple features than Hiragana they can actually be harder to memorize and easy to mix them up, so please take care when you write them. Like Hiragana, each Katakana has its own proper stroke order, and you should do well to stick to it, as some kana can very easily be mistaken for another if written out of order.

The 46 Katakana symbols

On to the symbols! Again, let’s start with the vowels:

Katakana - Vowels

A
E
U
E
O

First, this time I will not spend time explaining the pronunciation of each letter, as they are exactly the same as Hiragana, so please check our earlier article if you have any doubts on how to speak a symbol.
As you can notice, Katakana is noticeably less round and more angular than Hiragana. That is exactly what its name implies, as “Kata” means “fragmentary, broken”, as they are derived from the definitely more complex kanji. Keep your lines straight when writing Katakana. Finally, pay attention with エ, as while it resembles the capital I, it actually means “E”.

Katakana – K group

KA
KI
KU
KE
KO

Katakana – G group

GA
GI
GU
GE
GO

The K-group bring us some similarities with Hiragana. Katakana カ in particular is quite similar to Hiragana か, losing the last stroke and becoming less roundish, and キ is also a simplification of き. Use these similarities for your advantage. On the other hand, by this moment you can already begin to notice what I meant when I said that it is easy to mix Katakana, as ウ (u) andク (ku) can look very similar when handwritten.

Katakana – S group

SA
SHI
SU
SE
SO

 

Katakana – Z group

ZA
JI
ZU
ZE
ZO

Welcome to the S and Z groups, home of the emoticon-favourite シ, which does look like a smiling face. By the way, I will later talk about both シ andソ, so please keep them in mind. Also of note is the セ, which is quite similar to Hiragana せ.

As you can see, the sounds and exceptions are the same from Hiragana, which means your only job is to memorize the writing forms.

Katakana – T group

TA
CHI
TSU
TE
TO

Katakana – D group

DA
JI
ZU
DE
DO

If you weren’t convinced yet of how tricky Katakana can be to write and to memorize, look no further than the T-group, asツ (tsu) is heinously similar to シ (shi), which we just saw earlier. This is also the last chance for any of you who still were not convinced that learning the proper strokes are not important, as it is pretty much the only thing that sets ツ and シ apart (the last stroke – the “smile”, if you will – on ツ goes downwards, while on シ it goes upwards). Also please take care to not mix タ withウ (u) orク (ku).

By the way, do you remember the “small tsu”, that indicated a pause in a word? Katakana has its own version, too. Again, it literally is just a smaller version of Katakana tsu, looking like thisッ. If you are ever reading a text in Japanese and are unsure if the kana you are looking at means ツ (tsu) or シ (shi), a good trick could be searching for a small tsu ッin the text to compare, as there is no “small shi”.

Katakana – N group

NA
NI
NU
NE
NO

Just like in Hiragana, the N-group has no ten-ten form. Please take care to not mix ナ with チ (chi). Furthermore, ヌ joins our ever growing list of similar Katakana with タ (ta), ウ (u) andク (ku). ノ is the easiest Katakana to write, while ニ and ネ offer us a sneak peek at our next step, Kanji: the Kanji for the number 2 (二) is virtually identical to the Katakana ニ, and they have the same sound to boot: ni. Here you can clearly understand how the Katakana were created and based on Kanji. As for ネ, while somewhat complicated to write, is very helpful to memorize, as it is an important part of many Kanji, such as 社 (company), 礼 (salute), 祈 (pray), 祝 (celebrate), and 神 (god).

Katakana – H group

HA
HI
FU
HE
HO

Katakana – B group

BA
BI
BU
BE
BO

Katakana – P group

PA
PI
PU
PE
PO

Moving on to the H, B and P-groups, we get another sneak peek at Kanji, as ハ is very close to 八 (hachi), the Kanji for “eight”. Notice that both start with “ha”, so again we see that there are some hints to Kanji pronunciation within Katakana. The same happens with ヒ, since it was based on 比 (comparison), which also sounds “hi”.

With also get a break as ヘ and its variations are exactly the same as its Hiragana counterpart – it is the only time this happens, though, so be sure to enjoy your break! My suggestion would be to use it to compare the differences between ホ and オ (o) and between フ and ヌ(nu), タ (ta), ウ (u) andク (ku).

Katakana – M group

MA
MI
MU
ME
MO

Welcome back to the M-group, a group that is very close for me as my name starts with “Ma”. Please learn from my experience and take care when writing マ, as it can be easily mistaken with ア (a) if you make the last stroke too long. The kana ミ resembles the Kanji for the number three (三); although normally “three” sounds like “san”, in some word compounds it actually sounds like “mi”. メ is basically ノ (no) with a dash, and モ is somewhat similar to write as its Hiragana counterpart, も (just pay attention that in the Katakana version the vertical stroke starts from the horizontal line, while the Hiragana one starts from a bit above it).

Katakana – Y group

YA
YU
YO

The Y-group again only has three symbols, ヤ (quite similar to its Hiragana counterpart, や), ユ (which should not be confused with コ, “ko”) and ヨ, which looks like an inverted E. Again, these symbols are very useful because they can be combined with other kana (from the second or “I” column) to make other sounds such as “ja”, as in ジャンプ (“janpu” – “jump”), “sho”, as in アクション (“akushon” – “action”), and “myu”, as inミュージック(“myuujikku” – music), in which case you write their small form.

Katakana – R group

RA
RI
RU
RE
RO

We are almost over! The R-group’s kana are not particularly hard, but you should take care to not mix ラ with フ (fu); also, sometimes the katakana ル can be mistaken with the katakana “no” followed by a “re” (ノレ), so do not write it too big or too spaced out.

One think you should bear in mind when writing or reading Japanese is that the language lacks a true “L” sound, so many foreign words are transliterated using sounds from the R-group instead, such as ロリコン (“rorikon” – Lolita complex) and ラスベガス (“rasu begasu” – Las Vegas).

Katakana – Outliers

WA
N
WO

Remember when I asked you way before to keep ソ (so) in mind? That was because ン and ソ are again very similar and easy to mix up. The solution, just like in the シ (shi) and ツ (tsu) case, is to pay attention to the stroke: with ン, the stroke should being down moving upwards, while the opposite is true with ソ (so). Another thing that can help you is that in “ソ” the stroke should begin at the same level as the dash next to it, while in ン the line never goes that far up.

As for the others, ワ is the last entrant in our group of similar-looking kana with フ (fu), ヌ(nu), タ (ta), ウ (u) andク (ku), while ヲ is probably the least used kana of all – I literally do not remember writing it or reading it anywhere outside a classroom.

Other symbols

In Hiragana, when we want to represent a long vowel sound, we simply add the appropriate vowel; that is how we have words like おかあさん (“okaasan” – mother) and おとうさん (“otousan” – father). In Katakana, however, we use a specific symbol to indicate a longer vowel sound. The chooonpu (rather appropriate that it has long vowel sound itself) looks similar to a dash and is written after the sound you want to extend, as in the words コミュニケーション (“komyunikeeshon” – communications) プレーヤー (“pureeyaa” – “player”). Only Katakana words use this dash to indicate longer vowel sounds.

Another symbol that you might see among Katakana words is the nakaguro or the interpunct, that looks like a floating period: ・. Because Japanese is written without spacing, it can often be hard for Japanese speakers to understand when a word of foreign origin ends and when the next word begins, so interpuncts are written between longer strings of Katakana words. For example, we could write ニュー・ヨーク (“nyuu yooku” – New York) with an interpunct. Please note that writing the interpunct is completely optional.

Finally, because Katakana is used to emulate sounds and words from other languages, it is often used in ways that Hiragana isn’t. For example, normally, only the つ and the Y-group kana (や・ゆ・よ) have smaller versions (っ・ゃ・ゅ・ょ), but in Katakana, smaller versions of the regular vowels may be written and appended to other symbols to mimic foreign sounds, as in the word コミュニティ (“komyuniti” – “community”). Since there isn’t a sound “ti” in Japanese, the original English pronunciation is alluded to by combining a “te” sound with an “i” vowel, something that does not happen with Hiragana. Another possible symbol you might see is ヴ, that is, an “u” symbol with the ten-ten marker. This symbol has been used to represent a V sound, such as in the word ヴィクトリー (“vikutorii” – “Victory”). Just because it represents a V sound, though, does not mean that Japanese speakers will necessarily be able to pronounce it – Japanese, like Spanish, does not have a true “V” sound.

Wrap-up

My intention with this article was to introduce readers both to the Katakana writing script, noting both its similarities to and differences with Hiragana. Katakana words are being more and more used within modern Japanese as a result of the influx of words and concepts from other countries and languages, and particularly from English. This can be both a boon and a curse: Katakana words give you an “instant vocabulary” in Japanese, but on the other hand you must mind the different pronunciations that these words often get when transliterated into Japanese.

Your next step should be practicing what you have learned, writing down Katakana as much as you can. Like Hiragana, you can memorize Katakana in one or two weeks if you dedicate some time to it every day. Given what I just mentioned about foreign words and Katakana, one suggestion I make is to, using an online dictionary or translation service, look for English words that were incorporated into Japanese, writing their Katakana versions down, practicing both your writing and speaking skills and quickly increasing your Japanese vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies, and we’ll meet again in our next article!

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