Origins of Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ)

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Origins of Japanese Written Alphabets
Examples of Change
Differences between Hiragana and Katakana

Origin of the Japanese Alphabets

Originally, the Japanese language did not have a phoenetic writing system. Around the fifth century, they starting using kanji, ideograms that were adopted from China and Korea. They only used the phonetic reading of the kanji, regardless of their meaning. At that time, the ideograms were called manyogana (万葉仮名).

However, kanji’s characters are composed of many strokes. They take longer to write, as we are sure you have noticed by now! Due to their difficulty, those ideograms were slowly simplified into kana alphabets, namely Hiragana and Katakana. They are called syllabograms, as each character corresponds to one sound in the Japanese language. According to historians, the change was initiated by Buddhist priests who thought kanji was unable to accurately represent the Japanese language, and that a phonetic alphabet would be better.

Examples of Change

On the left is the manyogana, and on the right are simplified hiragana and katakana forms.

  • 安 →あ 阿 → ア (a)
  • 以 →い 伊 → イ(i)
  • 宇 →う、ウ(u)
  • 衣 →え 江 → エ(e)
  • 於 →お、オ(o)

This change is thought to have taken place between the eighth and ninth century.  Hiragana can be considered a simplified calligraphy form of the kanji’s strokes. On the other hand, katakana is taken from a single element of a kanji. In some cases, they are created from different ideograms.

Some characters in the Japanese alphabet express the same sound and have similar shapes, such as り and リ. However, some can be dissimilar, such as あ and ア.  Hiragana is said to be cursive while katakana is more angular. Do take note that one sound can have more than one hiragana. In 1900 the two kana scripts, hiragana, and katakana were codified. This led to the clear establishment of rules for the Japanese system in 1946.

Difference between Hiragana and Katakana

Why are there 2 syllabic Japanese scripts? In the event that the difference is stylistic, you will learn that hiragana is used to write native Japanese words. Those words will have no kanji representation or the ideogram is too ancient or too difficult to write. This kana script is also the one used to write grammatical elements such as particles: を (wo)、に (ni)、へ (he;e)、が (ga)、は (ha)…

On the contrary, Japanese use katakana to write words of foreign origin and foreign names. If you like to read manga in Japanese, you will have certainly noticed that katakana is also used to represent onomatopoeia and emphasis.

Have you heard of the word “furigana”? Furigana is Hiragana and Katakana characters written in small forms above kanji in order to show pronunciation. Furigana is used in kids’ books and Japanese language textbooks for learners, in order to teach the reading of unknown kanji.

Credits (CC BY 4.0): Kevin Poh
Title: Night Life @ Shinjuku, Tokyo
source: Flickr

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