Wolfgang Hadamitzky


Japan-related Textbooks, Dictionaries, and Reference Works



Kana


Definition

“Kana” is the general term for the two common Japanese syllabaries hiragana and katakana. A syllabary is a set of characters in which each character represents a syllable. In form, the hiragana are more cursive, like あいうえお, while the katakana have a more angular appearance, like アイウエオ.

Function

The hiragana and the katakana represent the same syllables, but have different functions:

Hiragana are generally used for all purely Japanese or Sino-Japanese words that are not written with kanji, and in particular for words that have grammatical functions, such as particles and auxiliary verbs. Another important use of hiragana is to represent the inflected parts of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In fact, one way to distinguish whether a text is written in Japanese or Chinese, for someone who knows neither language, is that a Japanese text will be sprinkled with the round, curly hiragana character の (which mean, roughly, “of”). Finally, hiragana are also used phonetically to transcribe the pronunciation of words written with kanji.

Katakana are used mainly to represent foreign-derived words, foreign proper names (except Chinese proper names, which are written with kanji), and names of plants and animals in a scientific context. Katakana also have an italic-like use in emphasizing words, in advertising for example.


Each of the 71 kana characters stands for a syllable. But some syllables — 33 in Sino-Japanese words and about 140 in words derived from other languages — are represented by a combination of two (or, in some cases, three) kana characters.

How many kana are there?

The hiragana, like the katakana, consist of 46 basic syllable characters. To these are added 25 more that consist of a basic character with a diacritical mark (analogous to an umlaut in German or an accent mark in French or Spanish). In addition, 12 of the 46 basic characters also come in a smaller size; three of these are independent kana that have their own pronunciation, and the other nine represent a syllable only in combination with other kana.

Order of the kana

Both the hiragana version and the katakana version of the kana characters are arranged in the same sequence, in a kind of mnemonic coordinate system. This sequence begins with the five vowels あ a, い i, う u, え e, お o, from which the Japanese “aiueo” alphabet gets its name. Memorizing this sequence of syllables is just as important for using Japanese reference works as is knowing the ABC sequence of the alphabet in European languages. For this reason, it is advisable to learn the kana in this a-i-u-e-o sequence.

The kana characters are presented in the following tables, which show their form, order, kinds, number, transcription into roman letters, how to write them, and how to input them via a keyboard.

Fifty sounds tables

The classical tables of the 46 basic characters of the hiragana and katakana

Table of 256 syllables

256 syllables that occur most frequently in Japanese

Kana writing tables

Directions for writing kana by hand

Kana romanization tables

84 syllable characters and 171 character combinations with their transliterations according to the Hepburn and Kunrei romanization systems

Official romanization rules of 1954

The official rules and tables for transcribing kana into roman letters by the Kunrei, Hepburn, and Nippon romanization schemes

Rōmaji-kana conversion tables

Directions for inputting kana via computer keyboard


Literature

W. Hadamitzky, M. Spahn: Kanji & Kana. First rev. ed. Tuttle 1997
p. 16-35: The Kana: Origin, Order, Writing, Orthography, Usage.


August 2005, W. H. with Mark Spahn





Wolfgang Hadamitzky

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