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Getting Lost in the Translations pt. 1: Kana

May 22, 2013

Hey folks! A few months ago I set out to learn the Japanese language, and while my knowledge of it at this stage may be but a drop of water in the ocean, I figured it’d be fun to jott down what it’s been like so far trying to learn a language using what online resources or study books I’ve been able to find with the hopes of maybe steering someone in the right direction concerning things I found troublesome or what-have-you. I apologize in advance for any flubs I make in explaining things. Keep in mind I’m just a beginner.

I guess it’d be best to begin where I began (and where I’m sure most people do) when learning Japanese, which is Kana.

Kana is made up of two scripts. Hiragana and Katakana. Unlike in English which uses Roman script, Japanese writing is entirely based on sound. There are 5 vowel bases, あ い う え お (a i u e o respectively), and almost all of the characters found in the Japanese language end with one of these five sounds (there are a few exceptions, such as the “n” sound ん).
While both Hiragana and Katakana share the same sounds, Hiragana is generally used for Japanese words (and is the more curvy and elegant looking script) while Katakana is for writing words borrowed from other languages (and is the more angular and sharp looking script).
A good example for Hiragana would be the non-kanji spelling of “cat”, which in 日本語 would be ねこ (neko). See how the two characters in ねこ are curvy?
Katakana took me a little while to wrap my head around, and I didn’t really see the point in a whole separate script to be used for foreign words (since in English we just write everything using the same script, regardless of what language the word is coming from). Leave it up to Strike Witches to open my eyes to clearer skies though. ストライク ウィッチーズ (sutoraiku uicchizu) is how that series’ title is written, and when spoken phonetically, it is pronounced (more or less) “Strike Witches”. As both of those words are borrowed from another language, they’re written using Katakana (note how those characters are more angular than the ones used for “cat” before).
There are a few exceptions to this whole “use Hiragana for Japanese words, use Katakana for borrowed words” ruleset though. Titles are often written using whichever of these two fonts seems more tonally appropriate given the material. A good example of this would be with the anime Lucky Star’s title, spelled らきすた (raki suta). Lucky and star are both borrowed words, so typically they’d be spelled using Katakana, but since this is a bright, slice-of-life comedy series, using the more angular script in the title would be opposed to the anime’s tone.  Hiragana, being the more curvy and soft script is used instead.

kana1 Learning Hiragana and Katakana has been the easiest thing so far with learning the Japanese language, and I figured maybe I’d share a few helpful tips for memorizing the scripts.
The way I did it (which worked pretty gangbusters for me) is I found myself a Hiragana/Katakana chart (the one posted here is one of the three I used) and each day I would try and learn at least one new row of characters. This chart is kind of confusing to use as an example for how I did it, but I went down each column starting at the vowel base (a i u e o), then to ka ki ku ke ko, then sa shi su se so, etc, etc.
I would write in a notebook a few words starting with each character, and then write the characters down on small flashcards. I’d shuffle the flashcards up and then flip them over one at a time and recite them aloud until I could do it without having to sit and stare at the cards for 20 seconds like an idiot trying to remember.
The pronunciation of some characters can change depending on where they’re used (はwhen used as a subject marking particle becomes the わ sound for example), so it’s helpful to have something to refer to for how things are pronounced. I recommend Forvo.com. They don’t have pronunciations for every word I’ve thrown at them, but they have had the majority.
Generally speaking though, one of the great things about the Japanese language is that there is (usually) only one way to pronounce each character. な (na) always sounds like “na”, と (to) will always sound like “toe”, etc. (Compare that to English, where our letters can essentially sound however the hell they please.)

There were a few characters that looked too similar to one another to keep from being confusing though, so there were a couple of ways I found to memorize them by how they look when written.
The biggest problems I had were with ねわれさち (ne wa re sa chi).
When written in Hiragana, the Japanese word for “cat” is ねこ (neko). If you look closely at ね, it sort of looks like a cat, with the head and front legs to the left, and a long curly tail to the right. Since ね looks like a cat, and the first syllable in the spelling for “cat” is ね, it’s easy to remember both.
ひ, よ, の, と (hi, yo, no, to) were also learned from visuals. ひ (hi) looks like a body part that only a “he” would have, よ (yo) looks like someone tossing down a yo-yo, の (no) resembles a “no smoking” sign and と (to) looks like a toe (with a toenail sticking upward). If you give the rest of the characters a good look, maybe you’ll find some go-to visual identifiers that I didn’t.
Not all of the tough (or confusing) characters were learned because the character looks like something, but there were still ways to make them easy.
For differentiating between さ (sa) and ち (chi) for example, all I did was look at the bottom of the character. If you can comfortably fit the top part of an S in it, it was さ (sa). Otherwise, it was ち (chi).
For わ and れ, I knew わ(wa) was how は(ha) was pronounced when it was used as a topic marking particle. Since I then knew what ね and わ were, the only one left was れ (re).

These tricks are only really all that useful in the super early-going of course. If you concentrate on one row at a time, you probably won’t need them at all.
Once you know the base characters, there’s also ten-ten (or dakuten) and handakuten to wrap your head around, but those are very simple once you get the main idea.
Dakuten (the quotation looking guys) are placed on top of Kana characters to give them (what I’ve read as) “muddy” sounds. た (ta) becomes だ (da), さ (sa) becomes ざ (za), etc. Their pronunciation doesn’t sound as clean as the base characters.
A handakuten is similar, but instead of a little quotation mark, a handakuten is a closed circle. The characters with handakuten are always pronounced with a “p” sound. ぱ (pa) ぴ (pi), etc.
Not every character has a dakuten version, and even fewer (only the ha,hi,fu,he,ho row) have handakuten versions, so learning these is pretty easy.

Once you’ve learned Hiragana (and I do strongly suggest you learn it first), Katakana is somewhat simpler, as you already know the sounds, and it’s easy to say “okay so ト is just と”.
There are also combination sounds (big character next to a small character), such as りょ (ryo), but these are very, very easy to learn, as they’re simply both characters spoken together (riyo, but slightly more emphasis placed on the “yo” part).

That’s pretty much Kana though… it was a lot of fun to learn, and while you can’t read a whole lot of Japanese without knowing Kanji, the first time I was able to read a twitter message that said ありがとう (arigatou), I felt pretty accomplished and ready to learn more.
I’m going to leave the post at that though. I’ll do more of these in the future at some point, and sorry if I missed something…

From → Rambles

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