Hiragana ひらがな

第4課: Kana I: Hiragana  仮名①・平仮名

In this lesson, we will learn about the Kana system known as Hiragana. In this system, each sound does not correspond to a single letter. Rather, each one corresponds to a mora. So, rather than having a separate letter for /a/ and a separate letter for /k/, there is a separate Hiragana character for /a/ (because vowels can stand alone as a separate mora) as well as one for /ka/. There will be a separate way to write every vowel and consonant vowel combination.  

There are three types of symbols in these Kana syllabaries. Symbols that stand for a vowel (V), symbols that stand for “consonant + vowel” (CV), and symbols that stand for a “consonant” (C). 

The names of these Kana syllabaries are Hiragana and Katakana. As there are many symbols and rules to learn per syllabary, we will only focus on Hiragana in this lesson. Now, let’s get started!

Hiragana ひらがな

Japanese pronunciation is based on the concept of the “mora,” which divides speech into units of equal time. The purpose of Hiragana is to write out each possible mora in Japanese. Although that may sound like a lot, there aren’t that many possible mora combinations. 

When Japanese speakers learn how to read and write Hiragana, they study the symbols with a chart called the Gojūonzu (Table of 50 Sounds). Though not exactly 50 sounds, they are deemed to be the most basic sound combinations, and they are designated with the name seion 清音.

Learning how to properly read and write these characters will take time, but with the stroke order notations above, you will have an accurate basis to judge your accuracy. However, for brevity and conciseness, this chart will serve as the only time when Hiragana will be paired with their romanizations, so please refer back to this as much as needed until you have mastered them. 

■The Characters ゐ & ゑ

The consonant /w/ has mostly disappeared, but its presence remains in Hiragana. The symbols for /wi/ゐ and /we/ ゑ are both used in personal names, place names, and older literature written before 1945. These morae have disappeared from modern speech, so when you do encounter these characters, they are to be pronounced as [i] and [e] respectively. 

■The Character を

Similarly, the symbol for /wo/ is usually pronounced as [o], but there are still many speakers depending on dialect and/or situation who pronounce it as [wo], its traditional pronunciation. This is especially the case in music as singers are often vocal trained to imitate conservative pronunciation. 

■The Character ん

The moraic consonant /N/ is represented with ん regardless of how it is pronounced, further indicating how the consonant is deemed as one unit with several iterations rather than as several consonants. One thing that must be noted is that in Standard Japanese, ん is always either in word-medial or word-final position but never in word-initial position. 

General Handwriting Rules 書き順の基本的なルール

1. Write strokes from top to bottom and left to right.  
2. Make sure the end of the second stroke in あ is crossing the curve of the final stroke. 
3. Make sure that the final stroke in け is slightly farther down than the first.
4. For せ, the second stroke usually doesn’t have a hook.  
5. For い, こ, た, ふ, り, and ゆ, don’t connect the strokes together.
6. For む, if you connect stroke 2 and 3, do not add another slash.
7. Make sure the stroke 3 for お is not positioned far away from the rest of the character.
8. In more proper handwriting, the last stroke in さ and き is not connected with the rest.

Examples of Hiragana 「ひらがな」の例

The best way to learn how to read Hiragana is by practicing with actual Japanese words written in it. Below is a list of 30 common words written without romanization. Utilize the chart above to look up any symbol that you don’t know how to read. 

かたち (shape) ゆめ (dream) にほん (Japan) ふつう (usual) おわり (end)
 ゆき (snow) こねこ (kitty) あかし (proof) やくそく (promise) いす (chair)
 くさ (grass) さら (plate) しはらい (payment) せき (cough)みず (water)
 かめ (turtle) ちから (strength) つうろ (pathway) てんいん (clerk) たに (valley)
 ひみつ (secret) ほし (star) ふんいき (atmosphere) のみもの (drink) よる (night)
 なまり (accent) うみ (sea) さかな (fish) すみれ (violet) からて (karate)

The Diacritics ゛& ゜  濁点・半濁点

Diacritics are markings that are attached to glyphs to alter the pronunciation of said glyph. There are two such diacritics in the Kana syllabaries. These diacritics are 「゛」and 「゜」. When 「゛」 is attached to an unvoiced consonant Kana, the Kana becomes pronounced as the voiced equivalent (ex. か = /ka/, が= /ga/). As for 「゜」, it attaches to /h/ Kana to represent /p/. 

※When writing these characters, you follow the same stroke orders as before but you add the diacritics at the very end. 
※If you recall from Lesson 2, you will realize that ぢ and づ are, in fact, the Hiragana for /dji/ and /dzu/ respectively, but they are rendered in this chart as [ji] and [zu], reflecting the fact that they are pronounced the same way as じ and ず respectively. 

※The Japanese name for 「゛」 is だくてん. It’s also colloquially known as てんてん or にごり.
※The Japanese name for 「゜」is はんだくてん.  

Examples of Words with Diacritics  濁点・半濁点を使った単語の例

かず (number) どく (poison) かぐ (furniture) かべ (wall)ごぜん (A.M.)
 がくせい (student) かんぱい (cheers) ふじさん (Mt. Fuji) でかい (huge) ごご (P.M.)
 かぎ (key) はなぢ (nosebleed) かば (hippo) ぜん (Zen) かび (mold)
 さんぽ (walk) まつげ (eyelash) うず (whirlpool)ずつう (headache) ふで (brush)
 ぶんか (culture) かがみ (mirror) かぜ (wind) ひじ (elbow) ぜんぶ (all)
 のど (throat) かぞく (family) ちず (map) はだ (skin) ぶぶん (part)

Palatal Sounds in Hiragana 拗音の平仮名

Palatal sounds are represented in Hiragana by following a /i/-sound symbol with a small-sized /y/-sound symbol. These small-sized /y/-sound Hiragana are ゃ, ゅ, and ょ, and they make the following combinations.

※Just as before, there are two ways to write [ja], [ju], and [jo], but remember that those written with ぢ correspond to the consonant /dj/ and those written with じ correspond to the consonant /j/. 

Example Words with Palatal Sounds  拗音を使った単語の例

きゃく (customer) きょじん (giant) にゅうよく (bathing) きょく (song)
 ちゅうごく (China) じゅうしょ (address) ひょうじ (display) りゅうがく (studying abroad)
 おちゃ (tea) しゃかい (society) ぎゃく (opposite) ちょくせつ (directly)
 じゃくてん (weak point) ぎゅうどん (Gyudon) きゅう (nine) しゅう (week)

※The symbols ぢゃ, ぢゅ, and ぢょ are actually quite rare. This is because they must be the starting sound of the second element in a compound word to be used. 

Mispronouncing Palatal Sounds  拗音の誤発音にご注意を

Although it may be difficult to properly pronounce these palatal sounds, mispronouncing them as separate morae will result in the word either becoming a different word altogether or a non-word. 

i-sound + や・ゆ・よ   i-sound + ゃ・ゅ・ょ
う (Freedom)    じゅう  (Ten/gun)
   りゆう (Reason)   りゅう (Dragon)
   きう (Needless anxiety)   きゅう (Nine)
   しゆう (Private ownership)   しゅう (Week/state)

Long Consonants with Small “tsu” 長子音を示す促音「っ」

Long consonants are represented by preceding an unvoiced Kana with what’s called a small “tsu,” or sokuon 促音 to be precise. It is very important not to confuse it with a full-sized つ as they are not pronounced the same.

まっか (bright red) よっか (four days) こっか (nation)
 みっか (three days) さっか (author) たっきゅう (ping-pong)

In Conclusion 最後に…

Having learned Hiragana, in theory, you can effectively spell out anything in Japanese. However, spelling words out in Hiragana is not quite the same thing as writing words as they are normally written. You will still need to harness Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji to properly write Japanese. Once we learn Katakana, we’ll be able to take a better look at when you are to use either Kana system.