Writing Japanese – The Secrets of Hiragana

2011 February 4
by PaulBenson

Welcome back! This is the second article in a series on the Japanese writing system. In the first article we took a look at kanji 漢字, where we learned a few key things: 1) kanji express meaning, 2) different kanji can be read the same way (e.g. 髪 “hair” and 紙 “paper” are both “kami”), and 3) each kanji can be read differently.

In this article we’ll take a look at hiragana ひらがな. There are 46 unique hiragana shapes, all of which are derived from one kanji or another. In general, hiragana have simpler and curvier shapes. Most hiragana can be altered by adding  ゛or  °to a character. For example, は (ha) ば (ba) ぱ (pa). “Alright, that’s all well and good,” you say, “but how are these squigglies different from the last ones?!” Hang on a moment, we’re getting there.

Hiragana are the phonetic building blocks of Japanese, much like our English alphabet. The difference here between English and Japanese is that Japanese has kanji, which are pronounced/read in hiragana and in writing take the place of 1 or more hiragana characters. For example, the word “Japan” is 日本, two kanji, but 3 hiragana (にほん ni ho n). When reading out loud, you “unpack” the pronunciation compacted in the kanji into the hiragana.

Japanese could be written entirely in hiragana, but then it’d be much harder to understand (see the article on kanji). Japanese usually ends up being somewhat shorter than a similar piece in English precisely because kanji packs all the pronunciation as well as the meaning into kanji characters. Because kanji visually and succinctly express meaning, what’s left, the hiragana, functions as an indicator of syntax and grammar, modifying and/or directing that meaning. Thus, while not intended as such, hiragana ends up giving a visual distinction between meaning and grammar. Case in point:

話 “speak”      はなし “hanashi” noun: a talk, conversation (formed from the verb はなす)

話す                はなす “hanasu” verb: to speak (infinitive, casual)

話した            はなした “hanashita” verb: spoke (past tense, casual)

話します        はなします “hanashimasu” verb: speak (infinitive, polite)

話せる            はなせる “hanaseru” verb: to be able to speak

話せ!            はなせ “hanase” command: speak!

As you can see, the base meaning (here: “speak”) is the same — the hiragana shows you what’s changing. The kanji itself shows meaning and by itself it can stand as a noun, but the hiragana indicate it’s a verb (in various conjugations), a noun, or a command. Visually you can see that there’s a core “speak” with some extra characters.

A quick word of caution: Japanese isn’t always written with kanji = meaning and hiragana = grammar. It’s generally the case, but it isn’t always. Children’s books are usually entirely written in hiragana, while legal documents use more kanji. Remember: this is an effect resulting from the fact that Japanese uses kanji, which are read in hiragana and take the place of 1 or more hiragana characters. Again, Japanese could be written entirely in hiragana, but then we’d have trouble with homonyms. Because kanji are loaded with both pronunciation and meaning into one character, hiragana is what’s left and consequently indicates syntax and grammar. Using kanji with English gives somewhat a similar effect:

went to the and bought for 夕食.

私 = I  /  店 = store  /  買 = buy  /  鮨 = sushi  /  夕食 = dinner

I went to the store and bought sushi for dinner.

Just as before, we’ll be approaching Japanese like a mechanic would approach a car – we want to look at the construction of written Japanese and be able to understand the parts for what they are and how they relate to each other. Let’s look at two example sentences. The kanji meanings are given upfront followed by a nuts and bolts explanation of the sentence to show what’s going on.

彼の手は大きい

kare no te wa okii

He のhands は big

彼 = he   /   手 = hand(s)   /   大 = big, large

Pretty simple sentence, AのBはZ (translatable as “A’s B is Z”). With a small leap of intuition you get “his hands are big.” If you didn’t immediately think that, you probably thought of something very close. Here we have “の” (no) which expresses relation, here as a possessive, indicating that these hands aren’t just anybodies; they’re part of our male person. We also have the topic-markerは (written “ha,” but pronounced “wa”), which sets the stage for what comes next: we’re talking about “his hands,” and as for them, they’re big! Let’s look at another example:

彼女は山口と日本語で話した

kanojo wa yamaguchi to nihongo de hanashita

SheはMr. YamaguchiとJapaneseでspoke

彼女 = she   /   山口 = Mr. Yamaguchi   /   日本語 = Japanese language

“She spoke with Mr. Yamaguchi in Japanese”

Here we have some new signposts.  Woohoo!! The more we have, the more and more we can say and understand! We have our familiar topic-marking は following “she,” so this woman is our topic (as for her…). Theと attached to Yamaguchi shows that whatever is being done, she is doing it with Yamaguchi (as for her, [she] ____ with Mr. Yamaguchi…). Next we have で attached to Japanese, which shows that whatever’s being done (we still don’t have our verb), it’s being done in Japanese (as for her, [she] ___ with Mr. Yamaguchi in Japanese…). Finally we get to the end and our verb, 話した hanashita (to speak, casual, past-tense), which tells us that the action the woman did with Mr. Yamaguchi in Japanese was speaking – they spoke together in Japanese. Whew!

To review, in this article we’ve seen that hiragana is a visual aid in written Japanese that helps you separate what’s grammar and what expresses meaning in a sentence. Hiragana gives us all the tools needed to make sense of Japanese. Kanji give us core meanings, but hiragana alters that meaning.

Want to take your Japanese past this short introduction? Sign up for Japanese Classes at Hills Learning to take your Japanese to the next level. Leave a post to this article if you have some feedback or anything else to add!

Next up is our last script カタカナ katakana.

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