How does Japanese writing work?

Japanese script consists of three different systems of symbols. Katakana, hiragana and kanji.

Katakana is used for words taken from other languages, more colloquial abreviations and new buzz words. For example, cake - keeki - ケーキor the beating of the heart/excitement - dokidoki - ドキドキ. The shapes of these symbols are sharper and more angled than their counterparts hiragana.

Hiragana is used for grammar, particles and verbs, even greetings! For example Hello - konnichiwa -  こんにちわ or To be - desu - です. When Japanese childern are learning to write, they first use this script as it is more fluid, funner and quicker to write. It is possible to write all Japanese in hiragana but this would not be grammatically correct!

These two systems are closer to our own alphabet than kanji which is derived from Chinese. It is more useful to describe katakana and hiragana as syllabaries as they are made up of phonetic sounds:

a, i, u, e, o 

ka, ki, ku, ke, ko

ma, mi, mu, me, mo


It is important to note that kanji is pronounced through these systems of script. Some examples of Kanji include 日本語 (nihongo) Japanese, 図書館 (toshokan) library and 食べ物 (tabemono) food.

With 食べ物 tabemono we notice some hiragana in the middle - べ.This is because some Japanese words have no kanji, unlike Chinese in which all text is made up of kanji.

We will go into greater detail about kanji and the other two systems in later lessons.

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