Thursday, June 9, 2011

Intro to Hiragana

What is Hiragana?
Hiragana (ひらがな) is one of four writing systems in Japanese language. It is used to write native Japanese words and particles that have no kanji. Younger children tend to use hiragana more often, as they do not know as many kanji as adults. The complete hiragana syllabary consists of 48 characters:

 1 particle that is pronounced as a vowel in modern Japanese (を/wo)
 1 singular consonant (ん/n)
 5 singular vowels (あ,い,う,え,お)
 39 distinct consonant-vowel unions (see charts)

2 consonant-vowel unions that are pronounced as vowels and are obsolete in modern Japanese (ゑ/we,ゐ/wi)

Hiragana Charts
As you can see, the charts below are organized to line up with the vowels in the far right column. The vowels in Japanese are a, i, u, e, o. Each column in the chart simply combines a consonant with a vowel, like k, m, or s. There are, however, a few exceptions like the 'n' sound. Here are some cute charts that associate a picture and a word with each character ^_^ Click a chart to enlarge the image.

Ten ten & Maru 
Tenten/Dakuten: Also known as 'the two little dashes next to Japanese characters that change their pronunciation'. The translation is simply 'dot dot' or 'dash dash'. It gives characters a G, Z, J, D, and B sounds for the first consonant. The chart shows what the sound changes to with the added tenten. It shows the katakana version of the sound below the hiragana version.

Maru: also known as 'the little circle by Japanese characters that change their pronunciation'. It gives characters a "P" sound at the beginning instead of whatever was there previously. These are a little easier to remember, as there are fewer (you can only really apply them to hiragana 'h' sounds)

Ya, Yu, Yo! 
You may have noticed in the hiragana charts, that these guys stand out a bit. They don't have 'e' or 'i' sounds like the other characters do, but they serve an interesting function. When written half size next to another hiragana character, it creates a sound combination. For example: み(Mi) + ゃ(half sized ya) = みゃ(Mya). You can see the 'i' in Mi was replaced by the 'ya', making it a blended sound. Mya! Here are the combinations with other hiragana characters:
 Remember the rules for tenten and maru? These also apply to the ya, yu, yo sound combinations! This chart unfortunately isn't terribly clear about how to pronounce the "chi" sound when ya, yu, or yo is added to it, but it's almost never used so you don't have to worry. If you just want to know for the sake of knowing, it's like pronouncing the 'ji' sound but with a slight 'd' at the beginning. Almost like saying 'djya' where the j is barely heard.

Stroke Order
Stroke order is important in hiragana, katakana, and kanji alike. Stroke order primarily has to do with how the ink takes to the paper when you are using a brush to write. Supposedly the character's ink 'flicks', 'drags', and line thicknesses will look best if the stroke order is correct. When it comes to using pencil or pen on paper, those subtleties are often lost. It is still worth attempting to get stroke order right though, in case you ever do get into calligraphy (or have a particularly strict sensei hover over you as you're writing in class!) Plus it can help with character memorization if you're consistently doing stroke order the same way each time. Here are some references to get you on the right track for stroke order: (shows animated stroke order if you click the character)
- This cute chart associates pictures and words with the characters like the ones above, but also shows the direction the strokes should be written (very large image file)

Originally, hiragana was known as 'woman's hand' or 
 (女手), and was used more by women who didn't have the same access to education as men did. It also has soft flowing curves, which are often associated with women.

In turn, katakana, which is blocky and rigid, was known as 'man's hand' or otokode (男手)
Hiragana was used for personal letters while katakana was used for official/legal documents.
Hiragana that is written next to a kanji to help readers with pronunciation of the kanji are called 'furigana'

Sources referenced for this hiragana guide:
-Wikipedia page on Hiragana

- Google image searches for charts


  1. Do you know katakana?

    1. Yes, and I have a katakana explanation here:

      Do you need any help with katakana?