Katakana

We use katakana to write foreign words and sound words (onomatopoeias) and, in general, to point out that something is unusual.

from kanji to katakana

Katakana was created in the 9th century by Buddhist monks. As with hiragana, katakana uses kanjis whose kun-yomi (Japanese reading) or on-yomi (Chinese reading) is one of the 46 core Japanese sounds as a base for the design of its characters. It is not surprising that in many cases the corresponding characters of hiragana and katakana were based on the same kanji; actually, two-thirds of all these pairs of characters, drawn in red, are based on the same kanji:

a i u e o
hir. kat. hir. kat. hir. kat. hir. kat. hir. kat.
k
s
t
n
h
m
y
r
w
n

As we should expect, when the two syllabaries based their corresponding characters on different kanjis, any resemblance between the characters would be coincidental so, in general, such characters don’t resemble each other:

sound hiragana hiragana orig. kanji katakana katakana orig. kanji
mi
su
ta

Sometimes, when both syllabaries used the same kanji as the base for the corresponding characters, the characters resemble each other:

sound original kanji hiragana katakana
he
mo
ri

However, it is often the case that the corresponding characters do not resemble each other even if they were derived from the same kanji:

sound original kanji hiragana katakana
me
to
ni
ne

This difference comes from the methods used to create hiragana and katakana characters: hiragana uses scripting, while katakana uses fragmentation. Hiragana characters are the entire original kanji simplified via cursive scripting, while katakana ones are unmodified fragments of the original kanji. Actually, ‘kata-kana’ in kanji is 片仮名, with 片 (kata) meaning ‘fragment’, and 仮名 (kana) meaning ‘Japanese syllabary’. For example, hiragana scripts the kanji 仁 (ni) into the stylized に, while katakana fragments it and takes its original right set of strokes to create ニ.

The following are the kanjis from which the monks derived the katakana characters:

kanji a kanji i kanji u kanji e kanji o
k
s
t
n
h
m
y
r
w
n

core characters

Katakana has a set of ‘core’ characters that provides a basic set of sounds. We can follow some of these characters with a small ‘ya’ (ヤ), ‘yu’ (ユ), or ‘yo'(ヨ), to obtain new sounds, e.g., the character ‘ki’ (キ) combined with a small version of ‘ya’ sounds ‘kya’ (キャ).

+ヤ +ユ +ヨ
a i u e o
k ka ki ku ke ko キャ kya キュ kyu キョ kyo
s sa shi su se so シャ sha シュ shu ショ sho
t ta chi tsu te to チャ cha チュ chu チョ cho
t テュ tu
n na ni nu ne no ニャ nya ニュ nyu ニョ nyo
h ha hi fu he ho ヒャ hya ヒュ hyu ヒョ hyo
m ma mi mu me mo ミャ mya ミュ myu ミョ myo
y ya yu yo
r ra ri ru re ro リャ rya リュ ryu リョ ryo
w wa wo
n
  • Japanese has the sounds シ (shi), チ (chi), and ツ (tsu), instead of ‘si’, ‘ti’ and ‘tu’, which it doesn’t have
  • The character ヲ (wo) is rarely used
  • ‘te + yu’ (テュ) is ‘tu’, which is not a Japanese sound, so it doesn’t have a hiragana counterpart.
  •  
    フ is usually written as the sound ‘fu’, but its actually closer to ‘hu’ or to the English word who (see pronunciation):


    English
    front desk
    knife
    golf


    romaji
    furonto
    naifu
    gorufu


    hiragana
    フロント
    ナイフ
    ゴルフ


    What it sounds
    who-ronto
    nai-who
    goru-who


ten-ten (“) and maru (°)

As in hiragana, 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):

+ヤ +ユ +ヨ
g ga gi gu ge go ギャ gya ギュ gyu ギョ gyo
z za ji zu ze zo ジャ ja ジュ ju ジョ jo
d da チ” ji ツ” zu de do デュ du
b ba bi bu be bo ビャ bya ビュ byu ビョ byo
p pa pi pu pe po ピャ pya ピュ pyu ピョ pyo
  • We can write ‘ji’ as ジ or チ”, but, in practice, チ” is seldom used
  • We can write ‘zu’ as ズ or ツ” but, in practice, ツ” is seldom used
  • ‘ji + ya’ (ジャ) is ‘ja’, not ‘zya’
  • ‘ji + yu’ (ジュ) is ‘ju’, not ‘zyu’
  • ‘ji + yo’ (ジョ) is ‘jo’, not ‘zyo’
  • ‘de + yu’ (デュ) is ‘du’, which is not a Japanese sound, so it doesn’t have a hiragana counterpart.

small vowels

Up to here, katakana is almost a mirror image of hiragana. However, katakana has been further adapted to include many foreign sounds beyond the ‘tu’ and ‘du’ sounds already noted.

Some hiragana and katakana characters can be followed by a ‘tsu’, ‘ya’, yu’ or ‘yo’ to create new sounds. Katakana takes this further to represent sounds that are not present in hiragana, following the characters with small vowels. In this case, the syllable replaces the vowel with the small vowel that follows it. For example, Japanese does not have the sounds ‘fa’, ‘fi’, ‘fe’, or ‘fo’, but it has the sound ‘fu’. Thus, we can follow the ‘fu’ character with a small vowel to replace the ‘u’ with the small vowel:


char + small vowel
fu + a
fu + i
fu
fu + e
fu + o


katakana
ファ
フィ

フェ
フォ


sounds…
fa
fi
fu
fe
fo


For example:


word
office
fair
form


romaji
ofisu
fea
foomu


katakana
オフィス
フェア
フォーム



The same principle applies when we found any character followed by a small vowel:


char + small vowel
te + i
de + i
chi + e


katakana
ティ
ディ
チェ


sounds…
ti
di
che



the V sound

The ‘u’ (ウ) with a ten-ten (ヴ) sounds ‘vu’.

The following image is from the anime ‘Violet Evergarden’, which is also the name of its heroine:

The name ‘Violet Evergarden’ is not Japanese, so it is written in katakana as:

ヴァイオレット・エヴァーガーデン
va-i-o-re-t-to・e-va-a-ga-a-de-n

The dot between ‘violet’ and ‘evergarden’ separates the first and last names; Japanese has no spaces so without the dot, we could not parse the sequence of characters in a name.


char + small vowel
vu + a
vu + i
vu
vu + e
vu + o


katakana
ヴァ
ヴィ

ヴェ
ヴォ


sounds…
va
vi
vu
ve
vo


Words with a ‘v’ often have an alternative spelling with a ‘b’ because to the Japanese ear the ‘v’ sound is indistinguishable from the ‘b’ sound:


word
violin
virus
veil
volt


v sound
ヴァイオリン
ヴイルス, ヴィルス
ヴェール
ヴォルト


b sound
バイオリン
ビールス, バイラス
ベール
ボルト



mnemonics

The usual method to learn the kanas is to come up with mnemonics for their shapes. These are mnemonics I drew of the katakana characters that I found tricky; they might be useful while learning the kanas. Usually the problem is not remembering the appearance of the character, but remembering which of two or three similar characters is the correct one. And yes, I know… my drawings are terrible.


ソ, ン, and ノ (so, n, and no)

The son and the father are back to back, looking in opposite directions; ソ(so) and ン(n) have an ‘eye’, while ‘no’ has no eyes.


ル and レ (ru and re)

ビール (biiru – beer) ‘makes me see double’, so ル (ru) has two strokes, while レ (re) must have only one.




シ and ツ (shi and tsu)

These are two shitsus greeting each other.


ヒ (hi)

I didn’t have any problems remembering this character, but I thought the mnemonic was funny: A hippie singing a hit


ワ (wa)

wa needs to have walls on both the left and the right sides to be able to pretend to be a glass of wine; this is a trick that フ cannot pull.




ス, ロ, and フ (su, ro, and fu)

A superhero trying to get a rock through a funnel.


ス, ロ, and コ (su, ro, and ko)

The rock didn’t fit in the funnel, so now the superhero is trying to get the rock in a kontainer.


practice words

Many of these Japanese words are borrowed from English, but this does not mean that they necessarily sound like their English counterparts, e.g., the word for T-shirt is Tシャツ (Tshatsu), pronounced ‘tee-shah-tsu’, very different from the original ‘tee-shirt’ sound. Some words do sound about the same, though, e.g., ‘piano’, ‘pen’, ‘wain’ (wine), and many others.

ワイン wain wine ミルク miruku milk
メロン meron melon カメラ kamera camera
スキー sukii ski ケーキ keeki cake
セーター seetaa sweater スキート sukiito skirt
メニュー menyuu menu ジュース juusu juice
テューバ tuuba tuba デュエット duetto duet
シャツ shatsu shirt キャビネ kyabine cabinet
バス basu bus ビール biiru beer
ゲーム geemu game ゴルフ gorufu golf
ペン pen pen パン pan bread
ピアノ piano piano プール puuru pool
カップ kappu cup バッグ baggu bag
ベット betto bed ネックレス nekkuresu necklace
チェス chesu chess フォーク fooku fork
チェック chekku check パーティー paatii party
ヴィタミン vitamin vitamin ヴァイキング vaikingu viking
ビタミン bitamin vitamin バイキング baikingu viking
ヴェスト vesuto vest ヴォールト vooruto vault
ベスト besuto vest ボールト booruto vault