When studying a foreign language, once you are able to learn enough grammar, characters, and vocabulary to be able to start reading books made for native-speakers, a new world of nearly unlimited knowledge opens to you. This is true not just for entertainment (novels, etc.), but also for study materials such as textbooks. This post was inspired by some native-targeted Japanese learning materials I have been reading through over time.
One of the great things about the Japanese language is that generally sounds correspond tightly to how they are written, and things are pretty consistent across words. That’s why you won’t find any spelling bees in Japanese, whereas in a language like English figuring out to spell a word can be quite a challenge.
However, even Japanese has some vagueness with regards to spelling of words, which is where 仮名遣い (kanazukai) comes into play. “Kanazukai” comes from the word “kana”, which refers to the two alphabets katakana and hiragana, and “zukai” which comes from the verb “tsukau”, meaning “to use”. So you could roughly translate it as “character usage”.
It turns out that “Kanazukai” (in the context of modern Japanese) is about understanding what character should be used when there is some vagueness based on similar sounds. These are the common areas of confusion:
- お vs. う (especially when following an “O” column letter, like こ、ほ、etc.)
- えい vs. ええ
- づ vs. ず
- お vs. を
- わ vs. は
- へ vs. え
For example, Tokyo would be written in hiragana as とうきょう, not とおきょお.
Let’s look at a few others in quiz form. Which spelling do you think is correct for each row? (I have added spaces between words for the phrases for clarity.)
- おおきい vs. おうきい
- おとうさん vs. おとおさん
- うみ へ いこう vs. うみ え いこう
- せんせい vs. せんせえ
- おねえさん vs. おねいさん
- にほんご は むずかし vs. にほんご わ むずかしい
- りんご を たべる vs. りんご お たべる
- まほうづかい vs. まほうずかい
The leftmost choice for each is correct.
While I have seen at least one English-written Japanese textbook that talks about this difference, I feel that there is a much bigger emphasis by native Japanese educators. And I don’t think there is really a word in English to cleanly describe “kanazukai”.
Perhaps it is because non-native speakers typically learn how to read/write and speak/listen at the same time, whereas native speakers typically learn how to speak/listen from a very young age. So the native speakers may rely more on the sound of a word, whereas non-native speakers just learn to memorize the spelling of words from the beginning.