Step-6: Learn the Katakana
Learning the katakana is the same process as learning the hiragana. However some people might want to focus uniquely on the katakana, so in this article that’s precisely what we’re going to focus on! What’s the use of the katakana!??? Frankly: understanding when the Japanese are writing or talking about anything foreign!
Understanding the Katakana
The first thing you should know about the katakana, is that it’s divided into five groups, just like the hiragana. These groups are the five vowels of the Japanese language:
1 - ア; A 2 - イ; I 3 - オ; O 4 - エ; E 5 - ウ; U
Pair each vowel with a consonant, and you have a letter 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: ン.
As you might have noticed, the katakana is more angular than the hiragana, and as you’ll soon see several characters also look closely alike. For this reason, I recommend simply learning about 60% of the syllabary, and allowing your immersion environment (which we’ll discuss in a future article) do the rest of the learning for you (unless you’re in a hurry to learn, that is!).
Reading the Katakana
A basic katakana chart looks like this:
ｋ ｓ ｔ ｎ ｈ ｍ L ｙ ｗ A ア カ サ タ ナ ハ マ ラ ヤ ワ O オ コ ソ ト ノ ホ モ ロ ヨ ヲ U ウ ク ス ツ ヌ フ ム ル ユ E エ ケ セ テ ネ ヘ メ レ I イ キ シ チ ニ ヒ ミ リ N ン
That’s it for the basic katakana. But wait! Your training isn’t complete . . .
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: ハ(ha) becomes バ(ba).
Syllables starting with the K-sound then have a G-sound in front of them (example: カ/ka becomes ガ/ga), while the S-row is replaced with a Z-sound (example: サ/sa becomes ザ/za), the T-row is replaced with a D-sound (example: タ/ta becomes ダ/da) and the H-row is replaced with a B-sound (example: ホ/ho becomes ボ/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: ハ(ha) becomes パ(pa).
The result of all of these rules is a chart that looks like this:
ｋ-----> g s-----> z t-----> d h-----> p A ア カ ガ サ ザ タ ダ ハ パ O オ コ ゴ ソ ゼ ト ド ホ ポ U ウ ク グ ス ズ ツ ヅ フ プ E エ ケ ゲ セ ゼ テ デ ヘ ペ I イ キ ギ シ ジ チ ヂ ヒ ピ
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: キ(ki) + ヤ(ya) = キャ(kya)
the 5 Exceptions to the Rules
In all languages there some “exceptions to the rules”. For this reason I’ve transcribed the 7 exceptions bellow:
- (1) シ is a “shi” sound, pronounced like the word “she”.
(2) However it sounds like “ji” when placed with a daku-on (ジ). A more accurate pronunciation is like the sound “jee” as if to say “Jee-wiz!“
- (3) チ 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) ツ is a “tsu” sound.
As you’d expected, with a daku-on (ヅ), it becomes a “du” sound).
- (6) フ 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.