第4課: Kana III: Basic Kana Orthography

Orthography means "application of a writing system". Now that you know Hiragana and Katakana, you'll learn about the basic rules that govern their usage. There is a lot that can be said about any of the broad topics this lesson will cover, but you will leave this lesson with a good sense of how Kana works overall.

If you still haven't gotten both Kana systems down yet, don't worry because we'll primarily study how long vowels and consonants are written.

Long Vowels

Long vowels are crucial to speaking Japanese properly, and you cannot leave them unaccounted for in writing. If you remember the romanization used in Lesson 1 for long vowels, this information will make this section easier.

ああ Ā 

ああ is essentially not found in words from Chinese (Kango), although there are some.

   Kango?   Kango?
 ああ Ah No おかあさん Mom No
おばさんAunt; middle-aged woman No おばさん Grandmother/old woman No

いい Ii

       いい is more common in native words, but it is seen in words from Chinese. This long vowel happens to be the one most likely accidentally shortened by foreigners. 

   Kango?   Kango?
 ミイラ Mummy No ちい Status Yes → 地位
 おじさん Uncle/middle-aged man No おじさん Grandfather/old man No

うう Ū

うう is not that common in native words. If it is present, it is usually in the latter part of the final form of a verb. Otherwise, however, it is numerously encountered in words from Chinese.

   Kango?   Kango?
 すうがく Math Yes → 数学 ぬう To sew No
 ふうふ Married couple Yes → 夫婦 ぎゅうにく Beef Yes → 牛肉

ええ Ē 

ええ is seen in native words. It is not seen in a lot of words, but those that it exists in happen to be quite common expressions.

   Kango?   Kango?
 おねえさん Older sister/young lady/miss No いいですねえ  That’s good, isn’t it? No
 せえの Altogether now! No へえ Oh, really? No

おお Ō

おお is found in native words. In most cases, the second o was actually originally a ほ or を. This is why, as you will see, ō is sometimes spelled as おう instead.

   Kango?   Kango?
 こおり Ice No おおきい Big No
 とおい Far away No おおい Many No      

Irregularities: えい & おう

We also have the spellings えい and おう that sometimes stand for a long e and long o respectively. Things get a little complicated with these exceptions, so pay close attention to detail. 


えい in Sino-Japanese words (Kango = 漢語) is typically pronounced in Standard Japanese as a long e sound. However, as the spelling suggests, it can be pronounced as “e+i”, pronouncing each vowel as is written. This is especially common in singing as singers tend to be trained to be more conservative in pronunciation. It’s important to note, though, that in non-Sino-Japanese words, えい is never a long e.

Chart Note: はつおん = Pronunciation 

  Kango? Meaning Rōmaji  Kango? Meaning  Rōmaji
 めいし Yes → 名刺 Business card Mēshi/Meishi えいが Yes → 映画 Movie Ēga/Eiga
 スペイン No Spain Supein    


おう is somewhat more complicated. When you see this at the end of a Japanese verb, the vowels are pronounced separately. And, when the vowels are separated as separate readings of Chinese characters next to each other, they should be pronounced separately and not as おお.

Otherwise, whenever you see this combination in other words, those native and Sino-Japanese, it stands for a long o. One exception is the capital of South Korea, Seoul, which in Japanese is spelled as ソウル and pronounced as "souru."   

  Kango? Meaning Rōmaji  Kango? Meaning Rōmaji
 もう No Already  そう No (Like) so 
 おとうさん No → お父さん Father Otōsan がっこう Yes → 学校 School Gakkō

Practice (1):

1. Spell the Sino-Japanese word saikyou (strongest) in ひらがな.
2. Spell omou (to think) in ひらがな.  
3. Spell ohayō gozaimasu (good morning) in ひらがな.
4. Spell the Sino-Japanese word keiki (opportunity) in ひらがな.
5. Spell Tokyo in ひらがな. 

Other Long Vowel Representations

For Katakana, long vowels are typically represented with a mark that looks similar to a hyphen: ー. It's normally either called a "chō’onpu 長音符ちょうおんぷ" or "bōbiki 棒引ぼうびき."

As Katakana is used primarily to write foreign words, you are primarily going to use and see this with foreign words. However, there are some emphatic instances where regular Hiragana long vowel representations are changed to use ー instead. A great example is the word for cellphone, which in Kana is spelled as "keitai けいたい" but colloquially spelled as "kētai ケータイ."

 Tēburu テーブル Table Aisukuriimu アイスクリーム Ice cream
 Intāchenji インターチェン ジ  Interchange Mēru メール Email
 Fināre フィナーレ Finale Kōchi コーチ Coach
 Sōda ソーダ Soda Kompyūtā コンピューター Computer
 Rēru レール Rail Sēru セール Sale
 Orenjijūsu オレンジジュース Orange juice Chiizu チーズ Cheese
 Daunrōdo ダウンロード Download Kōhii コーヒー Coffee
 Aisutii アイスティー Ice tea Bājinia ヴァージニア Virginia

Word Note: Coffee is an older loan, which is why it isn't pronounced as "kōfii コーフィー." 

Exception Note: Sometimes you get words like bouru/bōru ボウル・ボール for "bowl". The reason for the first spelling being possible is that it better reflects the actually English pronunciation. Another similar exception is Seoul/soul, which are both spelled as "souru ソウル." 

Practice (2): Katakanize the following words.

1. Steak
2. Cake
3. Privacy
4. Rouge
5. Key                 

Trailing: Small Vowel Kana

Small かな--ぁ, ぃ, ぅ, ぇ, ぉ—represent trailing. You may often see these at the end of sentences to show a trailing off effect. This is similar to long vowels, but in this case it is not meant for word distinction. Rather, it demonstrates a manner of speaking.

It's pretty, isn't it...?

Long Consonants

っ doubles a consonant and is placed before a given consonant. It is most frequently used in Sino-Japanese words, loanwords, and conjugations, but even so, basically all instances of it come from some sort of contraction.

Never double n and m with っ. This is NEVER done, not even in loanwords. To get around this, you have to use ん before a n or m sound. Phonetically, however, they end up being double consonants. The spelling is just different. 

 Word Rōmaji Meaning Word Rōmaji Meaning
 ちょっと Chotto A little マット Matto Mat
 ホッケー Hokkē Hockey しっぱい  Shippai Failure
 Jetto Jet
 Intānetto Internet 
 サッカー Sakkā Soccer ロボット Robotto Robot

G, z, d, h, f, b, r, w and y can be seen doubled, but they are almost always either used in loan words or in exaggerated spellings.

 Word Rōmaji Meaning Word Rōmaji Meaning Word Rōmaji Meaning
 バッグ Baggu Bag iPad (アイパッド) Aipaddo iPad バッハ Bahha Bach
 すっごい Suggoi Cool! ホットドッグ
 Hot dog

Audible stops may be written with っ too. This audible stop is called a "glottal stop." The glottis is a part of your throat, and if you're a native English speaker, an easy phrase to practice making this sound is "uh-oh" because each vowel is actually preceded by a glottal stop. Most vowel-initial words in Japanese actually begin with a glottal stop, too, but it is is never written. The only time when a glottal stop is written is when it abruptly ends a word. 


Practice (3):

1. Find an incorrect usage of っ. 

はっぱ     かっな    きった     はっけん

じ VS ぢ & ず VS づ

し and す are voiced as じ and ず. つ and ち are voiced as ぢ and づ. However, づ and ぢ are pronounced the same as ず and じ respectively by most speakers. Exact pronunciation has already been covered in Lesson 1 in regards to these sounds, but it is important to know that distinguishing the four is no longer important in Standard Japanese. There are some places where they are all distinguished from each other, but this shouldn’t concern you at this moment.

              What should concern you in the meantime is the spelling issue of keeping the old distinctions somewhat relevant in writing. When characters are used phonetically, づ and ぢ are never used. However, they are typically used in compounds in which つ or ち is the initial sound of the second element and subsequently becomes voiced. Another instance is when a sound gets doubled and voiced at the same time.

 Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning  Kanji Kana Rōmaji Meaning
 鼻血 はなぢ Hana(d)ji Nosebleed 指示 しじ Shiji Instruction
 縮み ちぢみ Chi(d)jimi Shrinkage 鈴 すず Suzu Bell
 続き つづき Tsu(d)zuki Continuation 独り占め ひとりじめ Hitorijime Monopoly

Words normally don't begin with ぢ or づ, but some do. For example, zura づら (wig). Of all words, hemorrhoids (ji 痔)  is often written as ぢ. Also, ぢ and づ are typically only used with native words. There are, of course, those rare exceptions. 

Practice (4):

1. The verb tsuzuru means "to spell". How would it be spelled in ひらがな?

2. Write the family name Suzuki in ひらがな. 

Next Lesson → 第5課: 漢字 


Practice (1): 1. さいきょう 2.  おもう 3. おはようございます 4. けいき 5. とうきょう

Practice (2): 1. ステーキ 2. ケーキ 3. プライバシー 4. ルージュ 5. キー 

Practice (3): かんな

Practice (4): 1. つづる 2. すずき