Kana III: Orthography 仮名遣い

第6課: Kana III: Orthography

All writing systems of the world’s languages have rules that govern how they are used, and these systems of rules are called orthographies. For the most part, Japanese orthography is rather straightforward, but there are peculiarities regarding Kana use that must be taken into consideration.

  • Spelling Long Vowels in Hiragana
  • Spelling Long Vowels in Katakana
  • Use of the Sokuon
  • Yotsugana
  • The Particles “Wa” & “E”

Throughout these discussions, you will be given detailed instances regarding when to use either Hiragana or Katakana. To fully immerse yourself, you may wish to buy elementary textbooks aimed at young children. Such books, or even picture books, may contain little to no Kanji, but they will illustrate how to use Hiragana and Katakana. Without some knowledge in actual sentence composition, though, spelling may still remain a challenge. With that being said, for now take the time to go over Kana spelling specifics and utilize this knowledge with the words and grammar you’ll learn in subsequent lessons.

Long Vowels in Hiragana  平仮名での長母音の表記

In Hiragana, long vowels are typically written by doubling the vowel, but because /ou/ and /ei/ are often pronounced irregularly, depending on the word, おう and えい will correspond to long vowels. 

Long Vowel Spellings

■ああ is always /ā/ and is mostly found in native words.

■いい is always /ī/ and is mostly found in native words. 

■うう is always /ū/ and is found in both native and Sino-Japanese words.

■ええ is always equivalent to /ē/, and all words with it are of native origin (rare) or loanwords (common). In Sino-Japanese words, えい is usually pronounced as /ē/, but it can also be pronounced as /ei/ in careful pronunciation. In native words and loanwords, it is pronounced as /ei/. 

■Words written with おお are always either native or from loanwords. おう is pronounced as /ō/ in almost all words. If, however, おう constitutes the end of a verb, it is usually pronounced as /ou/.

Essentially, the knowledge you need to have is how to distinguish between native words, Sino-Japanese words, and loanwords as well as a basic understanding of what the various parts of speech look like to determine the pronunciation of words written in Hiragana, and this is of course for the words written not as they sound. Once you learn about Kanji, this will actually be rather easy, but for the purpose of studying these spelling rules, we will look at words utilizing each spelling above with notes on where they come from etymologically. 

Words with Long-Vowels in Hiragana  「ひらがな」で書かれた長母音の入った単語の例

/a/ vs /ā/ Word Origin Definition
ああNative Ah
 おかあさんNative  (Someone’s) mother
 おばさんNative  Aunt/middle-aged woman
 おばあさんNative Grandmother/old woman
/i/ vs / ī/ Word Origin Definition
 Native Stomach
 いい Native Good
 おじさん Native Uncle/middle-aged man
 おじいさん Native Grandfather/old man
/u/ vs /ū/ Word OriginDefinition 
くき Native Stalk/stem
 くうき Sino-Japanese Air
 すうがく Sino-Japanese Math
 ふうふ Sino-Japanese Married couple
/e/ vs /ē/ vs /ei/ Pronunciation(s) Word Origin Definition
おねえさん /onēsaN/  Native  Older sister/young lady
 へ /he/ Native Fart
 へえ /hē/ Native Really?
 へい /hei/ Native Wall/fence
 へい   /hē/, /hei/ Sino-Japanese Soldier
めし/meshi/ Native Meal
めいし/mēshi/, /meishi/ Sino-Japanese Noun/business card
えいが /ēga/, /eiga/ Sino-Japanese Movie
 え/e/ Sino-Japanese Picture/painting
 ええ  /ē/ Native Yes
/o/ vs/ō/ vs /ou/ Pronunciation Word Origin Definition
 お /o/ Native  Tail
 おう /ō/ Sino-Japanese  King
 おう /ou/ Native  To chase
 おおう /ōu/ Native  To cover
 こり /kori/ Native  Muscle stiffness
 こおり /kōri/ Native  Ice
 こうり /kouri/ Native  Retail
 こうり /kōri/ Sino-Japanese  High interest
 おい /oi/ Native  Nephew
 おおい /ōi/ Native  Many
 おうい  /ōi/ Sino-Japanese Throne
とい/toi/ Native  Question/trough
とおい/tōi/ Native  Far
がっこう/gakkō/ Sino-Japanese  School
 おとうさん  /otōsaN/ Native  (Someone’s) father

※/kouri/ (retail) is a compound word, with the word elements being “ko” and “uri,” which is why the combination of /o/ and /u/ doesn’t result in [ō].

※The pitch of /kōri/ (ice) is LHH whereas the pitch of /kōri/ (high interest) is HLL. 

Long Vowels in Katakana   「カタカナ」で書かれた長母音の入った単語の例

In Katakana, long vowels are written differently based on word origin. In loanwords, the mark ー, which is called ちょうおんぷ or ぼうびき, is used to represent any long vowel. When native words or Sino-Japanese words happen to be written in Katakana, the same spelling conventions are used as with Katakana. 

■Loanwords Written in Katakana  カタカナで書かれた外来語

※All loanwords are typically written in Katakana. For the purpose of focusing on long vowel notation, all the examples in the chart below are loanwords which contain at least one long vowel. 

テーブル (table) レコード (record) スーツケース (suitcase)
 アイスクリーム (icecream) コンピューター (computer) エレベーター (elevator)
 メール (e-mail) セール (sale) カレンダー (calendar)
 フィナーレ (finale) チーズ (cheese) メートル (meter)
 アイスティー (ice tea) コーヒー (coffee) コート (coat)
 コピー (copy) シャワー (shower) スカート (skirt)
 スプーン (spoon) フォーク (fork) ストーブ (heater)
 スポーツ (sports) セーター (sweater) タクシー (taxi)
 テープ (tape) デパート (department store) ニュース (news)
 パーティー (party) バター (butter) プール (pool)

※In rare circumstances, loanwords are sometimes written in Hiragana. This is usually for children who haven’t learned Katakana yet. In this event, ー is also used in Hiragana to indicate long vowels. 

■Native Words/Sino-Japanese Words Written in Katakana  カタカナで書かれた大和言葉・漢語

※The examples below are not limited to words with long vowels as the situations in which Katakana is used to write non-loanwords are all important specific circumstances that must be looked at.

Example Word Origin Definition
メガネ Native Glasses
バラ Native Rose
トヨタ Native Toyota
 コウカイ Sino-Japanese Regret
 イス Sino-Japanese Chair
 テキトー* Sino-Japanese Sloppy
 ビミョー* Sino-Japanese Doubtful

※Whenever one wants to emphasize a certain word and/or feel like the traditional Kanji (Chinese character) spelling is too difficult, Katakana may be used instead. Exs. メガネ, バラ, イス.
※Company names are often written in Katakana. Exs. トヨタ, ホンダ, スズキ, etc.
※Plant and animal names are often written in Katakana. Ex. バラ.
※When a word has a slang meaning, even if it is Sino-Japanese in origin, ー may be used to write a long vowel. Exs. テキトー, ビミョー.
※When the pronunciation of Sino-Japanese words is written out in Kana, the preferred syllabary is Katakana. Ex. コウカイ. 

Long Consonants in Kana  長子音の仮名表記

In both Hiragana and Katakana, long consonants are created by preceding a Kana with a small “tsu.” In Hiragana, you use っ, and in Katakana you use ッ. As discussed previously, unvoiced consonants are typically the only consonants that are doubled, which is reflected in both Hiragana and Katakana. However, both /n/ and /m/ may technically become long consonants if /N/ assimilates to either [n] or [m] depending on what sound follows it. In either case, ん (Hiragana) and ン (Katakana) are used to write the first “n” or “m” when doubled. 

 Examples in Hiragana Examples in Katakana
 ちょっと (a little) ホッケー (hockey)
 しっぱい (failure) インターネット (Internet)
 いっしょ (together) ロボット (robot)
 せっけん (soap) サッカー (soccer)

■Long Voiced Consonants  有声子音の長音化

All long consonant are unvoiced, even those that come from doubled voiced consonants. Some loanwords do contain long voiced consonants, which is reflected as such when written out, but they are still pronounced as their unvoiced counterparts. Therefore, ベッド (bed) is pronounced as [betto] instead of [beddo]. 

Given that essentially no native word or Sino-Japanese words contain these ‘long voiced consonant,’ such spellings are only found in Katakana unless the text is being written for young children in which case Hiragana is submitted for ease of reading. 

バッグ (bag) レッドソックス (The Red Socks) テトラポッド (tetrapod)
 ホットドッグ (hotdog) バグダッド (Baghdad) すっごい (cool!)*

※すっごい is an example of a rare instance in which a native word does exhibit a ‘long voiced consonant.’ This example is an emphatic version of すごい (cool/amazing).

■Glottal Stops 声門閉鎖音

A glottal stop is made by forcibly stopping air coming from the throat. In both English and Japanese, word-initial vowels are usually preceded by one. Occasionally in Japanese, expressions may end in a glottal stop, especially when a speaker suddenly stops what they’re saying, perhaps out of surprise. When this happens, a small っ・ツ can be used to notate this. 

Ex. いたっ!(ouch!)

Yotsugana 四つ仮名

There are two sets of consonants that overlap in actual pronunciation with each other. /j/ and /dj/ may sound alike, and /z/ and /dz/ may sound alike. In both situations, the harder pronunciations–[dj] and [dz] respectively–are preferred by a majority of speakers.

Putting pronunciation aside, these consonants and vowels combinations are written with four distinct Kana, thus the name “Yotsugana.”  The only times when づ・ヅ and ぢ・ヂ are used is when they are immediately preceded by つ・ツ and ち・チ respectively or when they are at the start of the second element of a compound.  

All four consonants are primarily used with the vowels in native words: /i/ and /u/. /j/ and /dj/ Kana can be paired with small /y/-Kana to be used with the vowels /a/, /u/, and /o/ respectively. 

Sound Hiragana Rarity Katakana Rarity
/ji/ じ Common ジ Common
/zu/ ず Common ズ Common
/dzu/ づ Uncommon ヅ Rare
/dji/ ぢ Uncommon ヂ Rare
/ja/ じゃ Common ジャ Common
/ju/ じゅ Common ジュ Common
/jo/ じょ Common ジョ Common
/dja/ ぢゃ Uncommon ヂャ Rare
/dju/ ぢゅ Rare ヂュ Rare
 /djo/ ぢょ Rare ヂョ Rare

■Words with Yotsugana   四つ仮名を使った単語

はなぢ (nosebleed) しじ (instruction) ジャガー (jaguar)
 ちぢみ (shrinkage) すず (bell) みかづき (crescent moon)
 つづき (continuation) ひとりじめ (monopoly) まぢか (proximity)
 いれぢえ (suggestion/hint) いっぽんぢょうし (monotonous)てぢか (within reach)
 つづる (to spell) さんげんぢゃや (Sangenjaya place name)きさらづ (Kisarazu city name)

The Particles Wa は & E へ

Particles are normally written in Hiragana, but they may be written in Katakana for a number of reasons including stylization choice or imitating older texts as Katakana was the predominant Kana script in official publications until after WWII. 

The particle wa is spelled as は・ハ and the particle e is spelled as へ・ヘ. The perfect examples to showcase these particles without delving into grammar include the following:

  • Kon’nichi-wa こんにちは (Good afternoon)
  • Komban-wa こんばんは (Good evening)
  • Nihon e yōkoso にほんへようこそ (Welcome to Japan)

Don’t worry; we’ll return to these particles once we learn some actual grammar!