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About Japanese Katakana

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Katakana (片仮名, カタカナ or かたかな?) is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system along with hiragana, kanji, and in some cases the Latin script (known as romaji). The word katakana means “fragmentary kana”, as the katakana characters are derived from components of more complex kanji. Katakana and hiragana are both kana systems; they have corresponding character sets in which each kana, or character, represents one mora (one sound in the Japanese language). Each kana is either a vowel such as “a” (katakana ); a consonant followed by a vowel such as “ka” (katakana ); or “n” (katakana ), a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ([ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of Portuguese or French.

In contrast to the hiragana syllabary, which is used for those Japanese language words and grammatical inflections which kanji does not cover, the katakana syllabary is primarily used for transcription of foreign language words into Japanese and the writing of loan words (collectively gairaigo). It is also used for emphasis, to represent onomatopoeia, and to write certain Japanese language words, such as technical and scientific terms, and the names of plants, animals, and minerals. Names of Japanese companies are also often written in katakana rather than the other systems.

Katakana are characterized by short, straight strokes and angular corners, and are the simplest of the Japanese scripts. There are two main systems of ordering katakana: the old-fashioned iroha ordering, and the more prevalent gojūon ordering.


Writing system



The complete katakana script consists of 48 characters, not counting functional and diacritic marks:

  • 5 nucleus vowels – V
  • 42 core or body (onset-nucleus) syllabograms – CV, consisting of 9 consonants in combination with each of the 5 vowels, of which 3 possible combinations (yi, ye, wu) are not canonical
  • 1 coda consonant – C

These are conceived as a 5×10 grid (gojūon, 五十音, lit. “Fifty Sounds”) which inherits its vowel and consonant order from Sanskrit practice. In vertical text contexts, which used to be the default case, the grid is usually presented as 10 columns by 5 rows, with vowels on the right hand side and ア (a) on top. Unlike other syllabaries, katakana glyphs in the same row or column do not share common graphic characteristics. Three of the syllabograms to be expected, yi, ye and wu, may have been used idiosyncratically with varying glyphs, but never became conventional in any language and are not present at all in modern Japanese.

The 50-sound table is often amended with an extra character, the nasal stop ン (n). This can appear in several positions, most often next to the N signs or, because it developed from one of many mu hentaigana, below the u column. It may also be appended to the vowel row or the a column. Here, it is shown in a table of its own.

The script includes two diacritic marks that change the initial sound of a syllabogram. Both appear mutually exclusive at the upper right of the base character. A double dot, called dakuten, indicates a primary alteration, most often it voices the consonant: kg, sz, td and hb. Secondary alteration, where possible, is shown by a circular handakuten: hp. Diacritics are a comparatively new feature of the script, only becoming mandatory in the Japanese writing system in the second half of the 20th century. Their application is strictly limited in proper writing systems, but may be more extensive in academic transcriptions.

Furthermore, some characters may have special semantics when used in smaller size after a normal one (see below), but this does not make the script truly bicameral.

The layout of the gojūon table promotes a systematic view of kana syllabograms as being always pronounced with the same single consonant followed by a vowel. This is, however, not the case today (synchronically) and also never has been (diachronically). Therefore existing schemes for the romanization of Japanese either are based on the systematic nature of the script, e.g. nihon-sikiti, or they apply some Western graphotactics, usually the English one, to the common Japanese pronunciation of the kana signs, e.g. Hepburn-shikichi. Both approaches conceal the fact, though, that many consonant-based katakana signs, especially those canonically ending in u, can be used in coda position, too, where the vowel is not pronounced, or only as a weak schwa.



Syllabary and orthography

2013y11m03d_131652835Of the 48 katakana syllabograms described above, only 46 are used in modern Japanese, and one of these is preserved for only a single use:

  • wi and we are pronounced as vowels in modern Japanese and are therefore obsolete, being supplanted by i and e respectively.
  • wo is now used only as a particle, and is normally pronounced the same as vowel オ o. As a particle, it is usually written in hiragana (を) and the katakana form, ヲ, is uncommon.

A small version of the katakana for ya, yu or yo (ャ, ュ or ョ respectively) may be added to katakana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide (palatalization) to a, u or o, e.g. キャ (ki + ya) /kja/. Addition of the small y kana is called yōon.

Small versions of the five vowel kana are sometimes used to represent trailing off sounds (ハァ haa, ネェ nee), but in katakana they are more often used in yōon-like extended digraphs designed to represent phonemes not present in Japanese; examples include チェ (che) in チェンジ chenji (“change”), and ウィ (wi) and ディ (di) in ウィキペディア Wikipedia.

A character called a sokuon, which is visually identical to a small tsu ッ, indicates that the following consonant is geminated (doubled); this is represented in rōmaji by doubling the consonant that follows the sokuon. For example, compare Japanese サカ saka “hill” with サッカ sakka “author”. Geminated consonants are common in transliterations of foreign loanwords; for example English “bed” is represented as ベッド (beddo). The sokuon also sometimes appears at the end of utterances, where it denotes a glottal stop. However, it cannot be used to double the na, ni, nu, ne, no syllables’ consonants – to double these, the singular n (ン) is added in front of the syllable. The sokuon may also be used to approximate a non-native sound; Bach is written バッハ (Bahha); Mach as マッハ (Mahha).

Both katakana and hiragana usually spell native long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana, but katakana uses a vowel extender mark, called a chōonpu (“long vowel mark”), in foreign loanwords. This is a short line (ー) following the direction of the text, horizontal for yokogaki (horizontal text), and vertical for tategaki (vertical text). For example, メール mēru is the gairaigo for e-mail taken from the English word “mail”; the ー lengthens the e. There are some exceptions, such as ローソク (rōsoku (蝋燭?, “candle”)) or ケータイ(kētai (携帯?, “mobile phone”)), where Japanese words written in katakana use the elongation mark, too.

Standard and voiced iteration marks are written in katakana as ヽ and ヾ respectively.



Main article: Japanese writing system

In modern Japanese, katakana is most often used for transcription of words from foreign languages (other than words historically imported from Chinese), called gairaigo. For example, “television” is written テレビ (terebi). Similarly, katakana is usually used for country names, foreign places, and foreign personal names. For example, the United States is usually referred to as アメリカ Amerika, rather than in its ateji kanji spelling of 亜米利加 Amerika.

Katakana are also used for onomatopoeia,[ words used to represent sounds – for example, ピンポン (pinpon), the “ding-dong” sound of a doorbell.

Technical and scientific terms, such as the names of animal and plant species and minerals, are also commonly written in katakana. Homo sapiens (ホモ・サピエンス Homo sapiensu?), as a species, is written ヒト (hito), rather than its kanji 人.

Katakana are also often, but not always, used for transcription of Japanese company names. For example Suzuki is written スズキ, and Toyota is written トヨタ. Katakana are also used for emphasis, especially on signs, advertisements, and hoardings (i.e., billboards). For example, it is common to see ココ koko (“here”), ゴミ gomi (“trash”), or メガネ megane (“glasses”). Words the writer wishes to emphasize in a sentence are also sometimes written in katakana, mirroring the European usage of italics.

Pre-World War II official documents mix katakana and kanji in the same way that hiragana and kanji are mixed in modern Japanese texts, that is, katakana were used for okurigana and particles such as wa or o.

Katakana were also used for telegrams in Japan before 1988, and for computer systems – before the introduction of multibyte characters – in the 1980s. Most computers in that era used katakana instead of kanji or hiragana for output.

Although words borrowed from ancient Chinese are usually written in kanji, loanwords from modern Chinese dialects which are borrowed directly use katakana rather than the Sino-Japanese on’yomi readings.




The very common Chinese loanword rāmen, written in katakana as ラーメン in Japanese, is rarely written with its kanji (拉麺).

There are rare instances where the opposite has occurred, with kanji forms created from words originally written in katakana. An example of this is コーヒー kōhī, (“coffee“), which can be alternatively written as 珈琲. This kanji usage is occasionally employed by coffee manufacturers or coffee shops for novelty.

Katakana are used to indicate the on’yomi (Chinese-derived readings) of a kanji in a kanji dictionary. For instance, the kanji 人 has a Japanese pronunciation, written in hiragana as ひと hito (person), as well as a Chinese derived pronunciation, written in katakana as ジン jin (used to denote groups of people). Katakana are sometimes used instead of hiragana as furigana to give the pronunciation of a word written in Roman characters, or for a foreign word, which is written as kanji for the meaning, but intended to be pronounced as the original.

Katakana are also sometimes used to indicate words being spoken in a foreign or otherwise unusual accent. For example, in a manga, the speech of a foreign character or a robot may be represented by コンニチワ konnichiwa (“hello”) instead of the more typical hiragana こんにちは. Some Japanese personal names are written in katakana. This was more common in the past, hence elderly women often have katakana names.

It is very common to write words with difficult-to-read kanji in katakana. This phenomenon is often seen with medical terminology. For example, in the word 皮膚科 hifuka (“dermatology“), the second kanji, 膚, is considered difficult to read, and thus the word hifuka is commonly written 皮フ科 or ヒフ科, mixing kanji and katakana. Similarly, the difficult-to-read kanji such as 癌 gan (“cancer“) are often written in katakana or hiragana.

Katakana is also used for traditional musical notations, as in the Tozan-ryū of shakuhachi, and in sankyoku ensembles with koto, shamisen and shakuhachi.

Some instructors for Japanese as a foreign language “introduce katakana after the students have learned to read and write sentences in hiragana without difficulty and know the rules.” Most students who have learned hiragana “do not have great difficulty in memorizing” katakana as well. Other instructors introduce the katakana first, because these are used with loanwords. This gives students a chance to practice reading and writing kana with meaningful words. This was the approach taken by the influential American linguistics scholar Eleanor Harz Jorden in Japanese: The Written Language (parallel to Japanese: The Spoken Language).


Katakana is commonly used to write the Ainu language by Japanese linguists. In Ainu language katakana usage, the consonant that comes at the end of a syllable is represented by a small version of a katakana that corresponds to that final consonant and with an arbitrary vowel. For instance “up” is represented by ウㇷ゚ (ウ [u followed by small pu]). Ainu also uses three handakuten modified katakana, セ゜ ([tse]), and ツ゜ or ト゜ ([tu̜]). In Unicode, the Katakana Phonetic Extensions block (U+31F0–U+31FF) exists for Ainu language support. These characters are used for the Ainu language only.


Table of katakana

This is a table of katakana together with their Hepburn romanization and rough IPA transcription for their use in Japanese. Katakana with dakuten or handakuten follow the gojūon kana without them.

Characters shi シ and tsu ツ, and so ソ and n(g) ン, look very similar in print except for the slant and stroke shape. These differences in slant and shape are more prominent when written with an ink brush.





Katakana origine.svg

Katakana was developed in the early Heian Period (AD 794 to 1185) by Buddhist monks from parts of man’yōgana characters as a form of shorthand. For example, ka カ comes from the left side of ka 加 “increase”. The adjacent table shows the origins of each katakana: the red markings of the original Chinese character eventually became each corresponding symbol.

Recent findings by Yoshinori Kobayashi, professor of Japanese at Tokushima Bunri University suggest the possibility that the comma which is used in Okototen (ヲコト点?) (reading guide marks) may have originated in the eighth century on the Korean Peninsula (possibly from Silla Dinasty) and been introduced to Japan through Buddhist texts.

Stroke order

The following table shows the method for writing each katakana character. It is arranged in the traditional way, beginning top right and reading columns down. The numbers and arrows indicate the stroke order and direction respectively.

Table katakana.svg

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