Learning Katakana – Interesting Tips and Tricks

2011 August 26
by Rinko

It’s always confusing for new learners to become masters at reading and writing Japanese, especially because Japanese has three “alphabets” instead of one. Luckily, you have come to the right place to get better all three.

Let’s give a brief description of the alphabets before moving onto one of them in greater detail;

Hiragana (the 1st) and Katakana (the 2nd) are simply variations of each other, while Kanji is made up of characters taken from China that are combinations of Hiragana.

While each of the characters in Hiragana and Katakana do not make out words (They are a lot like the letters in our alphabet), Kanji characters each have their own meaning to them

 

(For beginners first coming to this site, I strongly suggest that you read the article for learning Hiragana first. It not only summarizes all three alphabets, but also explains—what else?–Hiragana in great detail. Hiragana is the most basic stepping stone to learning Japanese, and it is better to master it first before moving on to Katakana in this article )

http://www.hillslearning.com/2009/09/30/learning-hiragana-the-foundation-for-any-japanese-language-learner/

 

 

So what is Katakana anyway?

Katakana is the second “alphabet” out of the three alphabets you would learn to become a pro at Japanese. Luckily, if you already know the basics of hiragana, katakana should be pretty easy—it has nearly the exact same format, with the same number of characters and sounds. In fact, the only thing that’s different is katakana’s appearance when you write it down on paper.

Let’s start with the first five characters as an example;

 

Learn Katakana

These characters, from left to right, are the katakana forms of the hiragana characters

あ、い、う、え、 and お。 (Pronunciation; “ah”, “ee”, “uu”, “eh”, and “oh”)

Note that while Hiragana looks softer and more round in appearance, Katakana looks harsher and has many sharp edges. Of course, on the inside they’re both the same sounds.

 

Why does katakana exist if its appearance is the only thing that makes it different from hiragana?

Ahh, now that’s a good question! Katakana has a limited, but very useful purpose in writing to show the difference between words that were originally formed in Japan, and words that had come from overseas (such as Europe) by boat and trade. Many “foreign” words had flooded Japan at one point, so people needed a new alphabet to differentiate between the old and new sounds.

In the present, Katakana is often used in TV advertisements, products and signs because people think foreign words are “cool” and visually appealing. When I was in Japan, I couldn’t read a newspaper or magazine without bumping into Katakana in some form or another.

For example,

Learning Katakana

Although Chair sounds nothing like “issu”, “kappu” sounds a bit like “cup”, does it not?

It is also used when writing the names of people who are not from Japan and do not have Kanji to represent their name. The name John would be ジョン (in Katakana) and not じょん (in Hiragana) because it is not a “traditional” Japanese word.

Additionally, Japan has an interesting culture that not only names sounds (such as the creak of your door opening at night) but also names “sounds” from visual effects. Did you know that when you smile, the “sound” of your face would be expressed as ”ニコッ”? (Nico, as in nee-koh.) Your face doesn’t actually makes that sound when you smile, but it would be expressed that way to enforce the expression using Katakana in comic books and literary novels.  Other “visual sounds” are

“イラッ” when you are annoyed by something (Ira, as in “ee-rah”)

“キラキラ” when something sparkles, perhaps your favorite jewelry or silverware (Kirakira, as in “kee-rah kee-rah”)

” ドーン” when someone makes a big entrance or something significant happens, such as if you find a million dollars under the table (Don, as in “doh-oh-nn)

 

To learn more about the three alphabets and go more in-depth with Katakana, or if you’re simply curious and have some spare time, take a better look around on the site. You may leave with a little more knowledge about the fascinating traditions/culture of Japan.

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