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  Introduction To The Written Japanese Language

an introduction for anime otakus

 

The japanese written language uses three kinds of characters.  Imported during the 3rd century a.d. from chinese are the Kanji characters. Kanji are representing meanings and not sounds.  However they also have phonetic expressions and most of the kanjis have more than one reading. The original chinese phonetic reading is  called the "ON" reading while the (softer) japanese reading is called "KUN" reading. A word is made of one or more  kanji. There is no rule what reading for a kanji is used when building up a word. There are more than 50,000 kanji signs and not even the  best scholars have all of them memorized. In 1981, the japanese Ministry of Education has designated 1,945 kanji characters for  "general use." 996 of these kanji characters are learnt by japanese children in the first six grades of elementary school. These set  of characters is called Yojo Kanji. You might wonder how japanese school kids can write anything in school without knowing the  kanji.

 

The solution is kana. There are two more sets of characters called Hiragana and Katakana. These are syllablary alphabets, each character representing a sound, rather than a meaning. Hiragana are  simplified chinese kanji, which borrowed their sounds for the character. Every kanji sound can be represented by kana. So after learning all  the kana signs, japanese children are already able to write everything they want. It’s a common mistake for people who never bothered to  dive into the secrets of the japanese language, to demand that kanji are dropped and only kana or – even better- romaji are used. The  reason for this is the sound of the japanese language. The word “ki” can have many meanings, from tree or wood to spirit, feeling, notice,  thoughts and some more. This words have different meanings but all sound the same. The correct word is often made clear from the context.  But you can still see japanese people writing kanji in their hands while talking to someone else or use a branch to write a kanji on the  ground.

 

About Kana:

  1. There are two kana systems: hiragana and katakana. Katakana is used for loan words taken from other languages. Hiragana is used for everything not written in Katakana or Kanji.
  2. A third system of kana is the so-called furigana. Designed as a help for readers it's normal hiragana written next to kanji signs, especially  for these of non general use. Books designed for children may always use furigana.
  3. The base vowels: Vowel and consonant followed by a vowel and the only standalone letter "n"
  4. The syllables yi, ye, wi, wu and we are no longer used in written japanese (but you can find them from time to time.) Their sounds are  considered to be identical to the sounds of i, u and e.
  5. The dictionary order of the japanese vowels is: A, I, U, E, O. This is a difference to the english language where a different order is  used.
  6. The dictionary order of the japanese consonants is: Vowels,K,S,T,N,H,M,Y,R and W. There is a simple way to learn this by memorizing  the sentence "Ah, Kana Signs! Take Note How Many You  Remember Well!"
  7. Doubling Consonants: The following consonants can be doubled using the kana () written noticeably smaller than the rest of the text: kk, pp, ss and tt.
  8. Long vocals: Long vocals are spoken exactly twice as long as their short versions. Don’t mistake a long vowel (u) for a double vowel (uu). There is a very short pause between the sounds in case of a double vowel while the long vowel is strectched.

    aa

    ああ ()
    ii, i いい ()
    u うう ()
    e, ei ええ、えい ()
    o おう、おお ()

  9. Stroke order: Japanese characters are written from top to bottom and left to right. (Exceptions are  the katakana signs for shi and n.)
  10. Varied syllables: By attaching a " sign to hiragana and katakana the sound is changed slightly. These syllables carry the name  "dakuon" which means "hardened sound". By attaching a ° sign to hiragana and katakana the sound is also changed.  These syllables carry the name "handakuon" which means "half voiced sound" (Table 2)
  11. A combination of a consonant and y- is known as a "yoon", meaning "contracted sound". (Table 3)
  12. ji and zu: In hiragana these are normally written and . In a few occurrences their old representations and is still existant.
  13. o,  ewa - These are another three exceptions of the rules:

    • if used as a particle, o is written (wo) instead of .

    • if used as a particle, e is written (he) instead of .

    • if used as a patricle, wa is written (ha) instead of .

 


A I U E O
KA KI KU KE KO
SA SHI SU SE SO
TA CHI TSU TE TO
NA NI NU NE NO
HA HI HU HE HO
MA MI MU ME MO
YA I YU E YO
RA RI RU RE RO
WA I U E WO
N
Table 1: Basic Kana Signs

GA GI GU GE GO
ZA JI ZU ZE ZO
DA JI ZU DE DO
BA BI BU BE BO
PA PI PU PE PO
Table 2: Dakuon and Handakuon

きゃ KYA きゅ KYU きょ KYO
キャ キュ キョ
しゃ SHA しゅ SHU しょ SHO
シャ シュ ショ
ちゃ CHA ちゅ CHU ちょ CHO
チャ チュ ショ
にゃ NYA にゅ NYU にょ NYO
ニャ ニュ ニョ
ひゃ HYA ひゅ HYU ひょ HYO
ヒャ ヒュ ヒョ
みゃ MYA みゅ MYU みょ MYO
ミャ ミュ ミョ
りゃ RYA りゅ RYU りょ RYO
リャ リュ リョ
ぎゃ GYA ぎゅ GYU ぎょ GYO
ギャ ギュ ギョ
じゃ JA じゅ JU じょ JO
ジャ ジュ ジョ
びゃ BYA びゅ BYU びょ BYO
ビャ ビュ ビョ
ぴゃ PYA ぴゅ PYU ぴょ PYO
ピャ ピュ ピョ
Table 3: Yoon

 
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