This is an ongoing series where I explain concepts of the Japanese language through words that you already know; Japanese car names. (Car Names Main Page)
Lets use Honda to explain Hiragana.
Written Japanese is made up of four alphabets that are mixed and matched in Japanese sentences! Here are the four written in English, and the same words written in their equivalent “alphabets”.
- Hiragana – ひらがな
- Katakana – カタカナ
- Kanji – 漢字
- Romaji – Romaji (the ABC’s)
Hiragana is the fundamental alphabet of Japanese and is used as the foundation to learn the others.
Hiragana (and its similar little brother Katakana) are technically not called alphabets. They are syllabaries. This means that the letters are used to form a convenient prepackaged sound. A whole syllable, instead of the sound of one letter. So all the letters in the syllabary are made of two Roman letters. The only letters that have the power to stand on their own are the five vowels and the letter “n”.
Lets see an example of how this works. The name Honda is first broken into its syllables. and then shown with the Japanese Hiragana letters that make those syllables.
There are 48 characters in the Hiragana Library. Each letter contain a consonant and a vowel. The only exceptions are the vowels themselves and the powerful letter “n”. As you see demonstrated in the word “Honda”.
The heart and soul of Hiragana is its 5 vowel sounds. they have no consonant letter attached to them and are used to construct all the other syllables sounds.
Putting a “k” in front of them.
か(ka) き(ki) く(ku) け(ke) こ(ko)
Putting a “s” in front of them.
さ(sa) し(shi) す(su) せ(se) そ(so)
If you know the 5 vowel sounds, you can pronounce all the other prepackaged sounds.
It is important to remember that there is absolutely no variation in the five vowel sounds. As an English speaker this is somewhat unbelievable. In English there are 12 different letter combinations just to represent the “oo” sound; food, truth, rude, fruit, blue, to, shoe, move, tomb, group, through, and flew. This concept of trying to figure out which letters to use for each sound is not an issue in Japanese. In fact, once you take the 30 seconds to pronounce the Japanese vowels, you will never mispronounce any words in Japanese. By this same rule, you should never misspell any Japanese words.
This may be a little confusing at first, but it is actually a very predictable and dependable system. Unlike English, there are very few exceptions.
These Hiragana letters are then put together like building blocks to form the Japanese words that you see and hear. This is what gives them their rhythm and obvious identification when observing them as a foreigner.
He are some motor company names with their syllables and their corresponding Hiragana letters.
Ho/n/da – ほ ん だ
To/yo/ta – と よ た
Su/zu/ki – す ず き
Ka/wa/sa/ki – か わ さ き
So lets get crazy and start mixing and matching Hiragana with the other alphabets. The different alphabets each perform a different function that all combine to make a typical Japanese sentence.
– Kanji are the character alphabet that uses symbols for nouns and verbs. (I will use a different car company to explain Kanji.)
– Katakana are the stick like characters that use the exact same sounds as the Hiragana syllabary. They are used to denote foreign words and names. ( I explain Katakana in detail using Toyota.)
– Romaji is basically the ABC,s that we know and love. They are not technically part the the Japanese language, but they are used so extensively throughout the culture that they are also taught in school. (I will use a different car company to explain Romaji.)
Here is a easy Japanese sentence. don’t get intimidated… stay sharp. Don’t worry about understanding its meaning. Just try to identify the Hiragana from the other alphabets.
You probably have a lot of the same questions I had when I first saw a sentence like this. Your eye, no doubt, initially goes to the only character you recognize; the “CR-V”. This is “Romaji”. One of the four alphabets mentioned above. Since there is no way to accurately write this in Japanese, they just use the good ole ABC’s.
They next thing you’ll notice is that there are no spaces in the sentence. This ads a bit of an intimidation factor to Japanese writing. There just doesn’t seem much room to breathe in that sentence. At least if there were spaces you could break down the parts into smaller bite sizes pieces for better comprehension. Instead you just have to dive into the deep end.
The Hiragana’s swervy and curvy lines should be easy to identify. The Katakana stick-like alphabet is also easy to see in contrast with the curvy Hiragana. What’s left is the Kanji characters which are the complex square shaped symbols.
Rather than putting the spaces in between the words, I will keep it as is, and color code the different alphabets.
- I used Kanji for the name “Honda”. Though this is the official company name, most international Japanese companies use the ABC’s for their name and logo. This is how Mr. Honda would write his own name.
- Fit (seen in red) is an English word so it uses Katakana (the alphabet for foreign words). most car model names are written in Katakana. The Katakana letters you see here phonetically spell out the word “fit” as close to the original as it can.
- CR-V is written in Romaji (the ABC’s) because the Japanese writing system cannot do abbreviations or acronyms. (More on that Later)