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Thursday, February 21, 2008



A few weeks ago we looked at katakana (カタカナ). Today we are going to focus on the other syllabary (an alphabet of syllables) in the Japanese written language - hiragana (ひらがな).

As katakana are square and angular in design, hiragana are more rounded and flowing. Whereas katakana are used mainly to write foreign loan words, hiragana are used for representing the body of Japanese grammar.


There are 48 hiragana "kana" which include the vowels (a, i, u, e, o; あ,い,う,え,お), consonants followed by a vowel (かka, きki, くku, けke, こko) and n ん.

Hiragana are used for Japanese words for which there are no equivalent Chinese characters (漢字 kanji), for example particles such as wa は, some suffixes such as ~san さん (Mr, Mrs) and verb and adjective inflections. In the present tense of the verb "to go" iku 行く (ku く) is the inflection, in the past tense of the verb - ikimashita 行きました (kimashita きました) is the inflection. Similarly with adjectives: using "beautiful" - utsukushii 美しい - as an example (shi しい) is the inflection.

The basic set of hiragana characters (gojuuon) can be modified by the addition of the dakuten marker < ゛>. Unvoiced consonants can be changed to voiced consonants with the marker placed after the character, thus ka か becomes ga が and ta た becomes da だ for example.

Hiragana are also used to give the pronunciation of Chinese characters (漢字 kanji), where the character may be obscure or in children's books. This reading aid is called furigana (ふりがな).

Hiragana story book

Pre-school children begin reading stories made up exclusively of hiragana before moving on to books with a mix of simple kanji plus furigana and hiragana.

Hiragana developed in the 5th century and was based on the cursive script of Chinese characters used in calligraphy.

Nowadays hiragana is important for inputting Japanese text from a computer keyboard, electronic translation dictionary or mobile phone keypad. Typically typing a phrase or word in hiragana will automatically bring up a number of kanji equivalents for the user to choose from.
In the sentence "I am a doctor." (watashi wa isha desu 私は医者です) the characters for watashi (I) and isha (doctor) can be generated by inputting the hiragana.

Some useful books for getting started with hiragana are Let's Learn Hiragana, Japanese Hiragana For Beginners and Learning Hiragana & Katakana.

がんばってください! (Ganbatte kudasai - Good luck!)

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