We use katakana to write sound words (onomatopoeias), to add emphasis or to point out that something is unusual, and to write words of foreign origin. Thus, words with no original Japanese counterpart, like ‘Samba’ or ‘computer’ are always written in Katakana but, moreover, in many cases foreign words for which there is a Japanese counterpart are still katakanized. For example, the Japanese word for ‘sugar’ is ‘sa-tou’ (さとう), but we still need to katakanize it as シュガー to write, say, ‘Sugar Ray Leonard’ (シュガー・レイ・レナード) or ‘Sugar Bowl’ (シュガーボウル). Likewise, there are Japanese words for ‘park’ (kou-en, こうえん) and ‘egg’ (tamago, たまご), but we still need to katakanize them to write ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘eggs benedict’, i.e., ジュラシック・パーク (jurashikku-paaku) and エッグベネディクト (eggubenedikuto). The same applies to every foreign word, regardless of whether there is a Japanese word for it.
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. Hence, it is not surprising that in two-thirds of the cases the corresponding characters of hiragana and katakana were based on the same kanji; these pairs are shown in red:
As we might expect, when the two syllabaries based their corresponding characters on different kanjis, any resemblance between the characters is coincidental so, in general, such characters don’t resemble each other:
|sound||hiragana||hiragana orig. kanji||katakana||katakana orig. kanji|
Sometimes, when both syllabaries used the same kanji as the base for the corresponding characters, the characters resemble each other:
However, it is often the case that the corresponding characters do not resemble each other even if they were derived from the same kanji:
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 characters 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:
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).
- 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):
What it sounds
ten-ten (“) and maru (°)
As in hiragana, to allow more sounds, we can mark some characters with double quotes (“), or ‘ten-ten’; or with a circle (°), or ‘maru’:
- 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.
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 + e
fu + o
The same principle applies when we find any other character followed by a small vowel:
char + small vowel
te + i
de + i
chi + e
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:
The dot between ‘violet’ and ‘evergarden’ separates the first and last names; this parses the name for Japanese speakers who have not seen it before. Now we can write all the ‘v’ sounds:
char + small vowel
vu + a
vu + i
vu + e
vu + o
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:
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 shi–tsus greeting each other.
I didn’t have any problems remembering this character, but I thought the mnemonic was funny: A hippie singing a hit
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.
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-sha-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.