Written Japanese – The Lowdown on the 3 Alphabets

2011 January 20
by PaulBenson

Scared of written Japanese? Does the thought of learning kanji 漢字 (the Chinese characters) give you sudden dread and make you want to sign up for French or Spanish or German or Farsi?? Japanese is generally considered to have one of the most fiendishly difficult writing systems on Earth. However, I think it’d be awful if amazing wonderful prospective language-learners such as yourself were suddenly turned away from Japanese by such a myth. That’s right! It’s true! The notion that any part of written Japanese is beyond your English-centric brain is a myth.

The key is to approach written Japanese like a mechanic would approach a car. The multiple scripts (read: “alphabets”) used in Japanese are not used arbitrarily. The scripts are the component pieces to the language, each fulfilling an important function. Written Japanese has its parts just as a car has a body, a transmission, a steering wheel, and all those other parts. Strip away its intimidating veneer and you’ll see there’s a system to written Japanese. And, it’s relatively simple to boot! The purpose of this series of articles is to take apart the written language of Japan, isolate and introduce its pieces, and put it all back together again so we can all feel like linguistic superheroes who’ve conquered the great beast of Japanese.

There are essentially 4 scripts used in Japanese:

漢字 kanji ひらがな hiragana カタカナ katakana Romaji

(each is written in its own script)

1) First up is kanji 漢字. Kanji are characters used in Chinese that Japan borrowed from China a really long time ago and assimilated into its written language. The study of kanji and an individual character’s origins, usage and differences is I would say a rewarding pursuit, but for the purposes of an introduction this is all you really need to know. Here’s the key: all kanji have a specific meaning. Each is tethered to some concrete and definable meaning, and you can always connect a specific meaning to each kanji. Here are the numbers 1, 2, and 3 in kanji:

一        二        三

All these are your basic vanilla nouns: each represents “one,” “two,” and “three” – pretty obvious. Here’s another set for “tree,” “forest,” and “jungle:”

木        林        森

Same as before, simple easy nouns. See how that works? We have one “tree” – two “tree(s)” – three “tree(s),” the more “trees” in the kanji, the more “trees” expressed. Here’s where things start to get tricky: different kanji can be read the same way. Don’t worry about how why and this happens – this is just an easy social get-together with kanji. A quick “hello” and bow and we’re on our way. A side-effect of this is that Japanese has an astonishing number of homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings). How do the Japanese make sense of all these different-meaning but similar-sounding words? The answer is not telepathy; it’s kanji. You’ll have to rely on context and usage in spoken conversation, but kanji are a great tool for getting through written Japanese. In short, Japanese would be impossibly more difficult to read (nigh incomprehensible) without kanji. Take the following exclamation:

かみ の かみ に かみ が かみあっている!

The kami in my kami made of kami are kami-ing each other like dogs!

“Well,” you might think, “what the devil is all this “kami” business about?” The mystery is solved by adding in the kanji, which in turn makes clear the intended meaning:

の  に いる  が 噛み合っている!

The gods in my hair made of paper are biting each other like dogs!

(I never said the sentence made any sense!)

Aha! Whew! Thank you Mr. Kanji, sir! The reverse is also possible – each kanji can be read differently. Let’s go back to number one. Here are a few words with “一” in it:

一色 hito iro (one color)

一息 hito iki (a breath)

一一 ichi ichi (one by one)

Don’t think for an instant this doesn’t happen in English. For example, read the following conversation out loud:

“Did you read the book I lent you?”

“I read it last week.”

“Well, give it back then.”

As we’ve seen, kanji characters express specific meanings. Different kanji can have the same reading, and individual kanji can be read differently. The difficulty of learning kanji lies in remembering which means what and keeping all the readings straight. This is a lot to keep in your head, especially when you realize you need to know around 2000 kanji to consider yourself introduced to all the essential kanji. This is not impossible to do. In fact, perhaps unbelievably, there’s a whole country of people, millions upon millions, that do it all the time. Don’t worry, they make mistakes too. J

I hope you enjoyed this short article introducing you to kanji 漢字 in written Japanese. With the teachers at Hills Learning, you’ll get as far you want to go with your study of kanji.

For the next post in this series we’ll introduce you to ひらがな hiragana, another of the scripts commonly used in written Japanese.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011

    It definitely is a myth. All you need to do is get used to it.

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