Japanese - The Three-In-One Alphabet

Updated: May 19

HELLO EVERYONE!

Today’s post is another language lesson! Ok, now I promised you before that I wasn't going to write an essay, but this one kind of has to be one, purely because there are things you need to know about this language, before we can actually get started.


Why Japanese?

I hear you ask…basically, I grew up in an Asian community, so you can bet that I’ve had my fair share of Anime and being a weeaboo at one point. And yes, I use that word, because I will not be insulted by it. In fact, I’ll say it proudly, I used to be a weeaboo!

Ok, so maybe not so proudly, but you get my drift. Anyway, I may have fallen by the wayside, in terms of my Anime obsessions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the Japanese culture. So, before I go into their history, and their traditions, I thought I’d start learning about them, through their language!

I mean, it’s one of the first things you have to encounter when you’re there! So, why not? My motto is: how are you going to understand their way of life, if you can’t understand them? And that is what we are going to try to accomplish right now!


So Let's Start!

Now, just like my Spanish lessons, I’m not going to go straight into words, expressions and greetings. After all, that’s not learning, that’s just parroting (meaning, you’re just memorising the word and not why it’s the word…I mean you’re not learning what makes it a word and not just a bunch of syllables stringed together). So, I’m going to show you the differences between the Japanese alphabet and the English one.

Alright, the first thing to know is that there are three versions of the Japanese alphabet, and each on has their own specific purpose. It’s actually pretty handy to remember that, because it’ll take time to figure out which letter, or which syllable belongs to which alphabet. I mean, I’m just getting confused thinking about how I’m going to sort it all out for myself!


The Difference Between Tradition And Trend

So, the Japanese alphabet is basically a derivative of the Chinese one. After all, they were conquered by the Chinese ages ago (I mean prehistory…that’s how far back). That’s why it’s no surprise that their alphabet looks like the Chinese one. However, their symbols and their meanings are completely different.

Think about it this way, Chinese is block-y...Japanese is not

Ok, before we go into whole alphabet, we have to take a look at the words that make them up. Now, we can call them “symbols”, in English, because it would be easier for us, but that would simply be the wrong thing to say, because they’re not “symbols”, they’re phonetic characters. So, instead, we’ll call them what they’re supposed to be called:


KANJI


This just means it’s the Japanese character for a syllable, in a word. With me so far?

Now, the Kanji of the Japanese alphabet is, in its most basic form, the traditional way to spell, in Japanese, and is mostly used in the Hiragana form of their alphabet.


WHAT IS HIRAGANA! WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE!

Hang on, before you panic, remember it this way…Hiragana is their traditional alphabet! So, everything that you see in Japanese is in Hiragana (well…except when it’s not, and you’ll know when it’s not).

Hiragana is basically the one everyone uses, as a start. It’s a derivative of the Chinese alphabet, so no, it’s not Chinese…per say…what it is, is a phonetic alphabet. Basically, every Kanji, in the Hiragana alphabet, represents every (and I mean every) sound the Japanese language has.

So, technically, you could write everything in Hiragana, but because there are no spaces in Japanese, even you wouldn’t understand your own writing, because it’ll be nearly indecipherable!


YOU SAID THERE WERE OTHER ALPHABETS!

Yes, there are, and the next one I’ll talk about is Katakana. It’s the same set of sounds, but it’s used instead to “import” foreign words. When I say foreign words, I mean the words we use in English, but phonetically broken up for the Japanese language.


So, for example, if you say “Christmas”, in Japanese, it’ll sound more like “Cris-smas-su” because they use their Katakana system to break the word up into something, they’re familiar with.

Basically, if there isn’t a Kanji for a foreign word, they use Katakana. Similarly, if a Kanji is too complicated, the Katakana equivalent is used. Now, the reason it’s not taught first is because it’s a completely different set of characters.


Don’t get me wrong, it’s the same set of sounds, but finding Kanji for English-originating words can be too difficult, and sound confusing anyway, so it won’t make any sense whatsoever. That’s why, they use Katakana, and its unique writing system to, as I said, “import” words into their alphabet. So, think of Katakana as a love child between Japanese and English.


YOU SAID THERE’S A THIRD!

This one is much easier to learn. I mean as a native English speaker, it’s easier for me to learn using this alphabet, because it uses the English alphabet. It’s called Romaji (I think you understand, now, why I say it’s easy to use). It’s basically the “Roman” version of the Japanese alphabet. It’s our way of knowing what each Kanji stands for and helps us (as non-native Japanese speakers) to associate their words with ours.


So, when I say Christmas is “Cris-smas-su” (which is the wrong spelling, it’s actually “kurisumasu”), it’s the Romaji version of the word. In Katakana (you see now why I started off with telling you about the first two versions) the word is spelled “クリスマス”. Now, in the Hiragana version, the word is spelled “くりすます”.


Do you see why we now have a third alphabet? It’s mostly to help both Japanese speakers, and English speakers to translate from one language to another.


I'm Getting A Headache Now!

Ok, I know it’s a lot to take in. I mean, I’m just learning the language myself, so I’m not too far from where you guys are, but hey, that’s why I made this section of the blog right? To share with you guys everything I know about these subjects.


So, I’ll leave it there for now, because it’s already complicated as it is.


What I suggest as homework for all of you, is to just find a word to translate in Japanese and find both the Hiragana version and the Katakana version of the word. I wouldn’t go into detail with the Romaji version, because that is a black hole you don’t want to step in.


Why?


Intonation.


I’ll say no more, because I know it’ll be another world of headaches for you. So, have fun learning the kanji for your words, as well as their Katakana equivalent. Don’t worry so much about memorizing them, since we’re going to be learning together, just remember that there is a difference between Hiragana and Katakana.


The best way to remember which character is Hiragana and which one is Katakana: Hiragana is cursive (i.e. there are more curves – duh – in Hiragana), and Katakana is more angular (so, there are less complicated strokes, in Katakana than there are in Hiragana).


Well, that’s it for now. I’ll see you guys next time, when I do start talking about intonation and whatnots, because that is a very important aspect in the Japanese language. I’m not joking, it’s the difference between saying something like “I need the loo,” and “pig’s balls”!


With love,


  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon