Katakana

We write original Japanese words and words borrowed from China using kanjis, but we write words borrowed from any other country using katakanas. We also use katakanas to write sound words (onomatopoeias), to add emphasis, and to point out that something is unusual. 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 さとう (satou), but we still need to katakanize it as シュガー (shugaa) 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’ (こうえん) and ‘egg’ (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 non-chinese 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 base Japanese sounds as a starting point 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:

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 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
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
ya
mo
se

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
fu
ne

This difference comes from the methods used to create the 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 女 (me) into the stylized め, while katakana fragments it and takes its original lower-half set of strokes to create メ.

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

base characters

Katakana has a set of base characters that provides a basic set of sounds. We can follow some of these characters with a small ヤ (ya), ユ (yu), or ヨ (yo), to obtain new sounds, e.g., if we follow the キ (ki) with a small ヤ (ya) we get キャ (kya).

+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 tyu
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 ‘tyu’, 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 spoken just blowing air, without changing the shape of the mouth (see pronunciation).

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 dyu
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’ (as in Jazz), not ‘zya’
  • ‘ji + yu’ (ジュ) is ‘ju’ (as in juice), not ‘zyu’
  • ‘ji + yo’ (ジョ) is ‘jo’ (as in John), not ‘zyo’
  • ‘de + yu’ (デュ) is ‘dyu’, which is not a Japanese sound, so it doesn’t have a hiragana counterpart.

small characters

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




The same principle applies when we find any other katakana character followed by a small vowel:


char + small vowel
te + i
de + i
to + u
do + u
chi + e


katakana
ティ
ディ
トゥ
ドゥ
チェ


sounds…
ti
di
tu
du
che



For example:


word
tea
disk
tool
address
check


romaji
tii
disuku
tuuru
aduressu
chekku




Also, there is a counter called ‘ka’, that can be represented with カ or ケ, or their smaller versions, ヵ or ヶ. For example:


English
2 months
2 places
2 countries
2 languages


Japanese
2カ月、2ケ月、2ヵ月、2ヶ月
2カ所、2ケ所、2ヵ所、2ヶ所
2カ国、2ケ国、2ヵ国、2ヶ国
2カ国語、2ケ国語、2ヵ国語、2ヶ国語


romaji
ni ka getsu
ni ka sho
ni ka koku
ni ka koku-go


the V sound

The ‘u’ (ウ) with a ten-ten (ヴ) sounds ‘vu’. For example, the following image is from the anime ‘Violet Evergarden’:

Since the name ‘Violet Evergarden’ is not Japanese, we write it in katakana:

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; 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
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



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’, pronounced ‘tii-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.

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 スカート sukaato skirt
メニュー menyuu menu ジュース juusu juice
テューバ tyuuba tuba デュエット dyuetto 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