Let’s use Toyota to explain Katakana– one of the four alphabets that are mixed and matched in Japanese sentences! Katakana (and its similar big sister Hiragana) are technically not called alphabets. They are syllabaries. This means the Katakana letters are used to form a convenient prepackaged sound. A whole syllable, instead of the sound of one letter.
For example: The word “Toyota” makes 3 syllables. So in Japanese the word is made of only 3 letters. Three Katakana prepackaged sounds.
Each letter contains a consonant and a vowel.
There are 51 of these stick-like letters in the Katakana syllable alphabet. They differ in style from Hiragana letters because of their block-like lines. Compared to Hiragana, the Katagana letters are not as curvy and round.
The heart and soul of Hiragana and Katakana are the five vowel sounds.
ア (a) イ (i) ウ (u) エ (e) オ (o)
If you know the five vowel sounds, you can pronounce all the other prepackaged letters. The vowels are powerful enough to stand on their own without a consonant attached. The rest of the letters are combinations of various consonant sounds with the vowels attached.
カ(ka) キ(ki) ク(ku) ケ(ke) コ(ko)
It is important to remember that there is absolutely no variation in the five vowel sounds. As an English speaker you should pause to think about that statement. It becomes somewhat unbelievable to comprehend. 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.
Though this may be a little confusing at first, it is actually a very predictable and dependable system. Unlike English, there are very few exceptions.
These Katakana and 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.
To yo ta ト ヨ タ
Su ba ru ス バ ル
Ka wa sa ki カ ワ サ キ
Ya ma ha ヤ マ ハ
Katakana and Hiragana are the same alphabet written in different styles. English letters look very different between handwritten cursive ,and typed out capital letters. Yet they still make the same sounds (see below). This is the same situation in Japanese, only there are twice as many letters.
Up until now the information and rules have basically been the same for both Japanese syllable alphabets. Now the inevitable questions begin popping up. As they did for me when I started studying Japanese.
- Why use two alphabets if they are the same?
- Why does Toyota use Katakana if they can use Hiragana?
- Can you use both?
- Which one should I use for a cool tattoo?
Wow… these are excellent questions I’ve asked myself. And I will answer them in order of excitement!
•First. Just don’t get a tattoo. You’ll regret it later, and more importantly you will not be allowed in any Japanese hot spring baths.
•Second. Two alphabets that do the same thing may arguably be a little inefficient, but they are used for different purposes. (see below)
•Third. You can technically use both. (see below for a sample of how it works)
•Fourth. Why would “Toyota” (which is a persons last name) use Katakana instead of Hiragana? Or use a third option, Kanji (the graphic based alphabet), to spell its name? This I will answer in Katakana Part 2 – The Toyota Logo.
The difference, besides the way they are written, is that Katakana is mainly used for foreign words and foreign names. When you see it in a sentence with the other alphabets it usually denotes a foreign word. Mostly English.
Lets try it out!
Below is a rather intimidating Japanese sentence. Don’t worry about the meaning or the other characters and alphabets, Just try to identify where the stick-like Katakana letters are:
Before you run out and get this tattooed on your back, you should know these are not words of wisdom. They are not a battle cry from a 12th century samurai. They are not haiku from a Basho book of poetry. They are words that you can say in an elevator on any given morning. The sentence basically says, “I spilled coffee in my car.”
The Katakana word being used in this sentence is “コーヒー”. The letter “コ” (ko) and the letter “ヒ” (hi, pronounce “hee”). The two dash marks, “ー”, after each letter are not letters. They are used to extend the vowel for each sound. So when we put the letters together they are pronounced, “KoHee”, as in coffee. There is no word for “coffee” in Japanese, so they just use the word coffee. Katakana letters are used to pronounce the word as close to the original as possible.
You can technically use either alphabet to write this whole sentence. Just like you can write them in English using both cursive and block capital letters.
All caps – I SPILLED COFFEE IN MY CAR.
Katakana – ワタシハクルマノナカデコーヒーヲコボシタ。
Hiragana – わたしはくるまのなかでこーひーをこぼした。
Just like it’s a little strange to write in all caps in English. It is very strange to write Japanese in all Katakana. However, that’s not quite the case for Hiragana. Hiragana is taught in school as the main written alphabet until the other writing systems (katakana and Kanji) can be learned.
The sentence does not look so intimidating if we break it down like a child stacking building blocks. Hiragana is used as the main framework for the sentence. It handles all the particles, possesives, and in this case the verb. Katakana handles the foreign noun, coffee. The other main nouns and subjects are handled by the character alphabet called Kanji, which I will use a different car company to discuss later.
So lets get crazy and try to use my writing-sample theory to try to reconstruct this kind of sentence using English. It should look something like this.
It may look wacky but you have to say, it is easier to see the different parts of the sentence. Lets take a look at it with its corresponding colors.
Wow… I’ve wanted write this post since my first Japanese class. But I’m just getting started. There are a lot more Japanese car companies and a lot more interesting things to learn. The next post in this series, I will talk about the old and new Toyota logo. What can it tell us about Japan and Japanese?
All Toyota logos are copyright Toyota Motor Company.