Step-5: Learn the Hiragana
In this article our focus-point is the hiragana (ひらがな). Why start with the hiragana!?? Because understanding and being able to read it will help us “unlock” the other two writing systems!
Understanding the Hiragana
The first thing you should know about the hiragana, is that it’s divided into five groups. These groups are the five vowels of the Japanese language:
1 - あ; A 2 - い; I 3 - お; O 4 - え; E 5 - う; U
Pair each vowel with a consonant, and you have a character in the hiragana syllabary. For example if you add a “K” in front of the “A” vowel, you get the sound “ka”, which is more accurately pronounced as “kah”.
In addition to these consonants and vowels is the character for the “N” sound, which looks like this: ん. You might find it convenient that the character for ん, actually looks like “n”.
Reading the Hiragana
The basic hiragana chart looks like this:
ｋ ｓ ｔ ｎ ｈ ｍ L ｙ ｗ A あ か さ た な は ま ら や わ O お こ そ と の ほ も ろ よ を U う く す つ ぬ ふ む る ゆ E え け せ て ね へ め れ I い き し ち に ひ み り N ん
That’s it for the basic hiragana. But wait! There’s more!
Voice, Unvoiced & Twisted Sounds
First are the “voiced sounds”, known in Japanese as daku-on. These are G, Z and B consonants placed in front of a vowel. They’re simply denoted by placing two diagonal lines (or strokes) on the upper-right hand side of the kana.
An example: は(ha) becomes ば(ba).
Syllables starting with the K-sound then have a G-sound in front of them (example: か/ka becomes が/ga), while the S-row is replaced with a Z-sound (example: さ/sa becomes ざ/za), the T-row is replaced with a D-sound (example: た/ta becomes だ/da) and the H-row is replaced with a B-sound (example: ほ/ho becomes ぼ/bo).
Second are the “unvoiced sounds”, known in Japanese as handaku-on. These reflect the P consonant. They’re denoted by placing a circle on the upper right hand side of the kana.
An example: は(ha) becomes ぱ(pa).
The result of all of these rules is a chart that looks like this:
ｋ-----> g s-----> z t-----> d h-----> p A あ か が さ ざ た だ は ぱ O お こ ご そ ぞ と ど ほ ぽ U う く ぐ す ず つ づ ふ ぷ E え け げ せ ぜ て で へ ぺ I い き ぎ し じ ち ぢ ひ ぴ
Finally we have the “twisted sounds”, known as yō-on. These are formed by combining two kana characters, to form one unique sound.
An example: き(ki) + や(ya) = きゃ(kya)
the 6 Exceptions to the Rules
In all languages there some “exceptions to the rules”. For this reason I’ve transcribed the 7 exceptions bellow:
- (1) し is a “shi” sound, pronounced like the word “she”.
(2) However it sounds like “ji” when placed with a daku-on (じ). A more accurate pronunciation is like the sound “jee” as if to say “Jee-wiz!“
- (3) ち is a “chi” sound. Most accurately it sounds like “chea”, as in the word “cheating”.
As we’d expect with a daku-on (ぎ) it sounds like “gi”, as in “A katate gi“.
- (4) つ is a “tsu” sound.
(5) However with a daku-on (づ), it becomes a “zu” sound).
- (6) ふ is sounds more like “fu”. With a daku-on (ぶ) it sounds like “bu”.
When using a handaku-on (ぷ), it sounds like “pu” just like any other character would.