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Home > Language > Japanese Syllabary
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

This document is aimed to provide basic understanding of the Japanese syllabary.

The Japanese syllabary basically about fifty different sounds in it, all a combination of consonants and vowels. However, in writing these characters, we use two separate character sets: hiragana and katakana.

We use hiragana when we refer to an word that has its origins in Japanese. However, we use katakana when the word is a "borrowed" word or a name from another language. So, for example, if we were to use the word "computer" (or, "konpyu-ta" in Japanese), we would use katakana; however, we can use its antiquated Japanese equivalent "keisanki" and use hiragana for its representation.

The Japanese syllabary is based on five vowel sounds:

Hiragana Katakana Sound Description
a (as in the initial vowel sound for "aye")
i (as in "key," only a bit shorter)
u (as in "food," only a bit shorter)
e (as in "met")
o (as in "dough," only a bit shorter)

With these five vowel sounds, Japanese puts one of about fifteen consonant sounds before each consonants The basic consonants are:

Beginning Consonant Sound Description Beginning Consonant Sound Description
k as in cat m as in mom
s as in sun y as in yes
t as in ten r/l as in light
n as in no w as in wow
h as in hi    

Note that the "r/l" consonant sound in Japanese is a lot more like the clear "l" sound (as in "light") rather than the muddled "l" (as in "dull") or an r sound (as in "right"). That's one of the reasons why some Japanese people have problems speaking the "r" sound; it's just not available in the language.

There's also the "n" sound which takes no vowel sounds with it.

So, taking all of this together, you get:

Hiragana Table
Katakana Table

Alert readers will notice the blank gaps for "yi," "ye," "wi," "wu," and "we." These sounds are not used in modern Japanese. (Probably since they're so hard to pronounce, and they're hard to distringuish amongst each other.)

These aren't all of the consonants, either. Some of the above sounds become voiced and change. These are called the "nigori" sounds:

Sound Change Description
k becomes g (as in "green")
s becomes z (as in "zero")
t becomes d (as in "dog")
h becomes b (as in "boy")
When written, you would add two little tick marks above and to the right of the character. This adds the following sounds:

Hiragana Nigori Katakana Nigori

Also, there is one last column of characters for the "p" sounds:

Sound Description
h becomes p as in pop

These characters get a tiny little circle above and to the right of the character and are called "maru" (which means "circle" in Japanese) sounds:

Hiragana Maru Katakana Maru

Usually, a Japanese dictionary is laid out in order of the consonants (regardless of the nigori or maru) then the vowels associated with them. So, dictionaries starts out with a, i, u, e, o, then goes through ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, sa, shi, su, se, so, and so forth.

One way to learn the consonants is to learn the consonant sequence. Most people use "a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa" to learn them. I did!

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