We use hiragana to spell words of Japanese origin. Although we usually write the roots of verbs and adjectives in kanji, we write their conjugations in hiragana, as well as polite forms, greetings, and particles; hiragana is the glue that connects the ideas expressed in the kanjis.
Learning the kanas is not difficult; Japanese children learn to read and write both hiragana and katakana in 1st grade, with time to spare to learn 80 kanjis. Learning the kanas is probably the biggest bang for the buck when learning Japanese; we can learn them with 1/100th of the effort needed to learn a small number of kanjis, and they immediately give us the possibility of writing anything in Japanese, and reading about 50% of it. In addition, a lot of Japanese text aimed to young people uses kanjis with ‘furiganas’, i.e., a small text in hiragana next to the kanji that describes how it sounds.
Furiganas are common in mangas because many are aimed to a young population that has yet to master kanjis. For example, every character in the following panel is either in hiragana or kanji, and each kanji has its corresponding hiragana-reading (i.e., its ‘furigana’) on its right so, in essence, we can read all the text using hiragana alone:
Knowing kanas allow us to ‘read’ many mangas, but this does not mean that we’ll ‘understand’ them since, after all, they are in Japanese. Still, learning the kanas is a basic and huge step towards learning Japanese, and its really time well spent.
from kanji to hiragana
Hiragana started around the 5th century, at a time when kanjis were the only writing system available; kanjis represent meaningful ideas – things, feelings, actions, but since there are thousands of such meaningful ideas, there are thousands of kanjis. However, in the Japanese language there are only around 110 different sounds – ‘a’, ‘ka’, ‘tsu’, etc. Hiragana takes advantage of this small number of sounds: instead of using characters to represent meanings, it uses characters to represent sounds. For example, to design the hiragana character ‘me’ we would select one of the many kanjis whose kun-yomi (Japanese reading) or on-yomi (Chinese reading) is ‘me’; one such kanji is 女 (woman, female), which has two kun-yomis: ‘onna’ (like in 女, onna – woman), and ‘me’ (like in 女神, me-gami – female deity), so we could use the kanji 女 to represent the sound ‘me’. Similarly, we would select one kanji for each of the 46 ‘core’ sounds of Japanese, making sure that no kanji, coincidentally, represents more than one sound. We need only these 46 ‘core’ characters because we can obtain the rest of the 110 sounds as variations of the core ones.
After we select our set of kanji 46 core characters with the desired different sounds, we rewrite them using cursive script. Similar to western script, these ‘scripted’ characters duplicate the entire original kanji; scripting makes the kanjis more curvilinear and minimalistic, with fewer and faster strokes; on the other hand, scripted kanjis are more difficult to read than the non-scripted ones. For example, the cursive script of 女 was め. Thus, the resulting few-stroke fast-to-write hiragana characters often have lost the resemblance to the kanji characters from which they came from.
The following is the list of kanjis used to derive the core 46 hiragana characters, together with the resulting hiragana character [wikipedia]. There is a clear resemblance between some kanjis and their hiragana characters, e.g., 仁 and に, 寸 and す, or 世 and せ; the resemblance between others is not lost, but it is more difficult to see, e.g., 計 and け, 由 and ゆ, or 太 and た; however, this resemblance is all but lost in many hiragana characters, e.g., 機 and き, 遠 and を, or 美 and み.
Hiragana has a set of 46 ‘core’ characters that provides the basic sounds. We can follow some of these characters with a small ‘ya’ (や), ‘yu’ (ゆ), or ‘yo'(よ), to obtain new sounds, e.g., the character ‘hi’ (ひ) combined with a small version of ‘ya’ sounds ‘hya’ (ひゃ).
- Japanese has the sounds し (shi), ち (chi), and つ (tsu), instead of ‘si’, ‘ti’ and ‘tu’, which it doesn’t have
- は, へ, and を are pronounced ‘wa’, ‘e’, and ‘o’, when used as particles (see pronunciation)
- ふ is usually written as the sound ‘fu’, but its actually closer to ‘hu’, or to the English word who (see pronunciation)
- A character followed with the small ‘ya’, ‘yu’ or ‘yo’ is considered a single syllable, and is pronounced in one ‘beat’, e.g., ひゃく (hyaku – hundred) is pronounced ‘hya-ku’, not ‘hy-a-ku’
ten-ten (“) and maru (°)
To allow more sounds, we can mark some characters with double quotes (“, a.k.a. ten-ten) or with a circle (°, a.k.a. maru):
- We can write ‘ji’ as either じ or ぢ, but, in practice, ぢ is seldom used
- We can write ‘zu’ as either ず or つ” but, in practice, つ” is seldom used
- ‘ji + ya’ (じゃ) is ‘ja’, not ‘jya’
- ‘ji + yu’ (じゅ) is ‘ju’, not ‘jyu’
- ‘ji + yo’ (じょ) is ‘jo’, not ‘jyo’
The issue of having both じ and ぢ sound ‘ji’, or ず and つ” sounding ‘zu’, seems an arbitrary complication, and it is, but many languages have the same issue; in English, for example, should we write ‘sent’ or ‘cent’? The words have different meanings so, even though they sound the same, we just have to memorize the correct spelling of each.
And that is all there is to hiragana. Now some practice: