The Japanese language relies on not one but three different alphabets — hiragana, katakana and kanji — which are differentiated both by their distinct appearances and by their use.
No wonder Japanese is such a difficult language for English-speakers to learn!
Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji: Defining the Differences
Hiragana and katakana — collectively referred to by the generic term kanamoji — are both syllabic alphabets of 47 characters, each of which represents a sound. Some of the characters between the two alphabets even represent the exact same sounds and look quite similar to one another.
The major difference between hiragana and katakana is the fact that hiragana is primarily used to represent Japanese words, while katakana represents foreign words. Japanese is a language with many borrowed words, and katakana immediately alerts the reader to the fact that the word is an imported one.
Kanji is the major alphabet of the Japanese language, consisting of more than 8,000 characters, each of which represents an abstract concept, general word, or name. By combining individual kanji characters, it’s possible to create phrases in the same way that English language speakers would.
What makes kanji so tricky is the fact that a single kanji character can have multiple meanings. Readers must rely on the context and familiarity with the language to determine which meaning is the intended one.
Kanji can also have multiple pronunciations. In some cases, syllabic hiragana characters are placed above kanji in order to indicate pronunciation. When used toward this purpose, hiragana is referred to as furigana.
Historical Development of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji
Founded on a Chinese model, the basis of modern Japanese kanji developed around the 5th century AD, after a period of cultural contact with the Chinese. This Chinese-based model was known as manyogana.
However, basic differences between Chinese and Japanese — such as the fact that Chinese relies primarily on monosyllables while Japanese words are usually polysyllabic — demanded that a distinct Japanese writing system be developed.
During the Heian Period (794 – 1192), changes were made accordingly when the overly-difficult manyogana was adapted to create a Japanese script that was partly syllabic (characters based on sounds i.e. hiragana and katakana) and partly logographic (characters based on concepts i.e. kanji).
Is Three Alphabets for One Language too Much?
Upholding three writing systems for use in a single language may seem unnecessarily confusing — even downright crazy to a native English-language speaker who relies on just one 26-character alphabet.
However, Japan’s three alphabets are all integral components of a single Japanese writing system. They complement one another in necessary ways, as is the case with furigana (the use of hiragana to clarify kanji pronunciation).
Then again, it may be argued that a simpler solution would be to rely on hiragana in such instances, rather than having to write out two sets of characters.
Reforms have been made to the Japanese writing system since World War II, but complications persist. The enduring question is whether practicality should always be put first or whether traditional writing systems should be maintained for prosperity, both in the interest of maintaining historical roots and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy?
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