第3課: Kana I: Hiragana ひらがな 

Japanese is written with a mixed script composed of four parts. Of these are two systems called Kana. These systems spell words moraically. These means that, unlike an alphabet, every symbol will stand for a mora. Thus, a symbol may stand either for a "consonant + vowel" (CV), a "vowel" (V), or a "consonant" (C). 

The two Kana systems are called Hiragana and Katakana. Because there are many symbols and rules to learn per system, we will first study Hiragana. Then, in Lesson 3 we'll learn the symbols of Katakana. After we've covered both sets, we'll learn about Kanji, which are Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. 

Curriculum Note: Just as has been the case for the past two lessons, pitch notes will be provided for the vocabulary used. High pitch is designated as text in bold. Pitch falls are noted with a ↓.

Hiragana ひらがな

Kana represent the morae of Japanese. As we learned in Lesson 1, a mora is an equal time unit of speechKana can be organized into a chart called the Gojūonzu, which means the table of 50 sounds. Although it doesn't actually have 50 sounds in it, they are deemed to be the most basic sound combinations in Japanese, which are called seion

Each Kana system has its own set of symbols. That means once you have mastered the Hiragana symbols below, you'll have to prepare yourself to learn an entirely different set for the same sound combinations. As tedious as this might seem, the two systems are used differently. The most important and most used system is Hiragana, which is why it is being introduced to you first.


The basic symbols of Hiragana, as stated above, are organized into a chart called the Gojūonzu. This chart is shown below with each basic symbol. Notice how the chart is organized. Stoke orders are listed, and all the allophones of sounds we learned in the previous lesson are shown in their respective columns. 


Curriculum Note: Print this sheet out and have it at hand as we continue moving forward. It will be useful while you memorize them and when Hiragana continues to be referenced. After we've learned about Katakana and Chinese characters (Kanji), we'll learn how they're all three used along with English letters to write Japanese.  

Usage Notes

Of these characters, all of them except the symbols for we and wi are actually used. These two characters live on only in names, place names, and old literature. Because there is the chance you will encounter them, when you do see them, read them as "e" and "i" respectively as the "w" has dropped from their actual pronunciations. This is largely why the symbols are no longer seen today. 

Similarly, the symbol for wo is usually pronounced by "o" by most speakers. However, the traditional pronunciation "wo" is still heard depending on personal preference, dialect, as well as occasion. For instance, in music, singers tend to be conservative in pronunciation. This is also the case when people slow down their speech to purposefully enunciate every sound clearly. 

Of these characters, all but the symbols for we, wi, wo, and n can start words. The symbols for we and wi are deemed obsolete. Also, the symbol for wo is only used in names or as a grammatical word that cannot stand alone, which we will learn about later.  

Handwriting Notes

1. Write strokes from top to bottom and left to right.  
2. Make sure the end of the second stroke in あ is crossing the curve of the final stroke. 
3. Make sure that the final stroke in け is slightly farther down than the first.
4. For せ, the second stroke usually doesn't have a hook.  
5. For い, こ, た, ふ, り, and ゆ, don't connect the strokes together.
6. For む, if you connect stroke 2 and 3, do not add another slash.
7. Make sure the stroke 3 for お is not positioned far away from the rest of the character.
8. In more proper handwriting, the last stroke in さ and き is not connected with the rest.  


The best way to see if you can read Hiragana is to practice with actual words. Below is a list of 30 common words written without any aids. 

 Shape かたち Dream ゆ Japan に
 Usual ふつう End おわり Promise やくそく
 Snow ゆ Kitten こ Proof あかし
 Chair い Bowl うつわ Plate さ
 Payment しはらい Seat  Speculation すいそく
 Gymnasium たいいくかん Strength ちから Pathway うろ
 Store clerk てんいん Chicken meat とりにく Accent なまり
 Duty んむ Bypath ぬけみち Drink のもの
 Secret ひみつ Star ほ Command めいれい
 Night  Young person わかもの Bus/train line ろせん 

Diacritics: ゛ & ゜

There are two diacritics that can be added to symbols that change the consonant of the symbol in question. These diacritics are the ゛ (dakuten/nigori↓) and the ゜ (handakuten). The first diacritic changes a consonant into a voiced consonant. A voiced consonant causes the vocal folds to vibrate. The second diacritic changes an /h/ into a /p/. 


When writing these characters, you write the diacritics last. It's important to note how there are two characters for /ji/ and /zu/. These symbols are not always pronounced exactly the same, but we will go into greater detail about this later.


The hardest part to mastering the diacritics will simply be remembering to use them and realizing that the pronunciation of a symbol will change because of them. For practice, below are 30 common words that utilize them.

 Number  College student だいがくせい Key か
 Walk さんぽ Mountain climbing ざん Culture んか
 Throat  Poison ど Yes and no んぴ
 Cheers かんぱい Nosebleed はなぢ Attachment んぷ
 Electricity んき Potentiality そこぢから Hippopotamus 
 Skin  Furniture  Wall か
 Elbow ひ Part ぶん Whirlpool 
 Continuation つづき Scale  Wind か
 Eyelash まつげ Crevice ひびわれ Tatami room ざしき
 Mirror かがみ Family ぞく Map 

Palatal Sounds

Palatal sounds are created by placing the tongue on the hard palate of the mouth. Many consonants in Japanese can be palatalized and then followed by the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/. In the case of /i/, palatalization is an inherent part of the pronunciation of the sound combination. For instance, /ki/, /shi/, /chi/, /ni/, /mi/, /hi/, and /ri/ are all technically palatalized. This is simply part of the natural process of pronouncing them.

The way Japanese creates more sound combinations with palatalized combinations is by having /ya/, /yu/ and /yo/ follow a consonant. When this happens, new consonants are produced. In Hiragana, these combinations are created by using an i-sound symbol with a shrunken y-sound symbol--ゃ, ゅ, or ょ. 


Similarly to above, there are two ways to write /ja/, /ju/, and /jo/. For now, we'll put aside how they differ in pronunciation and usage and solely focus on memorizing these glyphs. Note, though, that you will rarely see the variants that utilize ぢ.

Pronunciation-wise, the ry-sounds will be the most difficult to master as the Japanese /r/ tends to be difficult as it is for native English speakers to acquire. 


Below are 30 words utilizing these glyphs to help you learn them.

 Resident じゅうみん Parking
 ちゅうしゃ Giant きょじん
 Meow-meow にゃにゃ Acronym りゃくご Tune
 Seafood ぎょいるい Inn りょかん Opposite ぎゃ
 600 ろっぴゃく Tathagata にょらい Studying abroad りゅうがく
 Cow milk ぎゅうにゅう Bathing にゅうよく Customer きゃ
 Concentration しゅうちゅうりょく Processing しょ Society しゃかい
 Touch down ちゃくりく Tea おちゃ Directly ちょくせつ
 Weak point じゃくて Tutor じょしゅ Pulse みゃ
 Teacup ゆのみぢゃわん Hyuga ひゅうが 100 ひゃ
 Chinese ちゅうごくご Properly ちゃんと Address じゅうしょ

Although it may be difficult to properly pronounce these palatal sounds, mispronouncing them as separate morae will result in the word either becoming a different word altogether or a non-word. 

 i-sound + や・ゆ・よ i-sound + ゃ・ゅ・ょ
 じう (Freedom) じゅう  (Ten/gun)
 りゆう (Reason) りゅう (Dragon)
 き(Needless anxiety) きゅう (Nine)
 しゆう (Private ownership) しゅう (Week/state)

 To Continue

So far, we have covered the unique glyphs that compose Hiragana. What we have not learned is how long consonants and vowels are transcribed. We have also not learned about what situations Hiragana is even used in. Both of these topics require that we first go over Katakana as comparing the two is essentially in understanding these topics properly. 


Part I: Change the following words into Hiragana.

1. Kemuri (smoke)          
2. Amagumo (rain cloud)             
3. Uta (song)
4. Sekai (world)
5. Karate (karate)

Part II: Change the following words in Hiragana into Rōmaji.

1. のじょ (She)            2. しょだな (Bookshelf)        
3. にほんご (Japanese language) 4. さかな (Fish)            
5. にんげん (Human)           6. だいがく (College)
7. ひ (Person) 8. あした↓ (Tomorrow)