Beginner Japanese: Are three alphabets better than one?

By | March 15, 2014

In Japanese, there are three alphabets used together, and each has it’s own set of uses. Let’s go over each of them briefly before we talk about how this trio impacts the language.

Hiragana: This alphabet is the most basic and is the first alphabet that Japanese children learn. Any word can be written with it, but it is typically used for particles (ex: “を”) and other words which don’t have a common representation in either of the other two alphabets. It consists of 48 characters, each of which is assigned as specific pronunciation. Examples: ”か” = ka, ”さ” = sa.

Katakana: This alphabet also contains 48 characters which have the same sounds as hiragana letters, and is used for special purposes such as onomatopoeia (when words are used to represent sounds, something very common in Japanese), foreign words, some scientific terms, and also for emphasis. Katakana is also used in a practice called ‘furigana’, where the pronunciation of a another word (usually in Kanji) is given above that word when it may be otherwise unclear. Examples: ”カ” = ka, “サ” = sa.

Kanji: This alphabet contains the most advanced characters, and is commonly used for many words including nouns, verbs, and pronouns. Words can be composed of a single kanji, multiple kanji, or in some cases a mix of hiragana and kanji.  In total there are over 50,000 kanji characters, though many of these are not in frequent use. The set of ‘Jouyou’ Kanji 2,136 contains frequently used Kanji. It is fairly well known that these characters come from Chinese, but the fact is that both Katakana and Hiragana have also evolved from Chinese characters. Kanji contains many pictographic characters, and there are many Kanji that are composed of other sub-Kanji. Eamples: “人” = person, “日本” = Japan, “火” = fire.

So now on to the main topic of this article – does it hurt or help Japanese to have three alphabets? Clearly, for those learning the language there is a steeper learning curve as opposed to a language with a single alphabet. But because these alphabets can be used interchangeably and there are things like furigana (discussed above) to help understand difficult kanji, a Japanese learner shouldn’t have too much trouble reading text that is targeting his or her skill level.

More importantly, for students of Japanese the use of three alphabets in concern actually makes it easier to know where one word begins and the next ends, a major boon for a language with no spaces between words (except for certain children’s books). Let’s take an example sentence to see how this helps in practice.

  • 僕は日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。
  • I am studying Japanese katakana characters.

This sentence contains several instances of all three alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. For beginners reading this article I’ll spell out exactly which is which. In each sentence below I’ve bold/italicized the characters from the respective alphabet.

hiragana: 僕日本語カタカナ勉強しています。 (used for particles and verb)

katakana: 僕は日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。 (used for the word ‘katakana’)

kanji: 日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。  (used for nouns)

In this sentence there is a transition from one language to another at each word boundary, which makes the act of figuring out each word very easy. While this is a somewhat cherry-picked example and there is many cases where this does not happen as nicely, this type of pattern is present in much Japanese to a certain degree. Exceptions would be young children’s books, which have mostly hiragana (but spaces to compensate), or news headlines which can have a lump of kanji stuck together,  sometimes looking a bit like Chinese.

One thing that is interesting to note is sometimes words which have a proper kanji representation are still expressed in one of the other two alphabets. In the above example I used カタカナ to say katakana (which is in katakana of course), but that word could be written as 片仮名.  Depending on the audience and the writing style either can be used, though I see 片仮名 used less often in my experience.

I occasionally hear from those unfamiliar with Japanese something along the lines of “Wow, you had to learn three alphabets!”, but hiragana and katakana don’t really add much difficulty since Kanji is so hard (or should I say time-intensive) to learn. Although if one were to compare either of these alphabets to English they would seem tough with nearly twice the number of characters.

For those of you considering learning Japanese, don’t be deterred by the “three alphabets” thing or even Kanji itself, since that can be learned with proper study habits and sufficient time. Japanese is a wonderful language to learn, and all the time you put in will surely be rewarded with satisfaction the more you study.


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