Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Japanese Writing System

The general consensus among Japanese language students here is that Japanese is pretty simple in terms of grammar, but it has a complex writing system. Despite that, I can read/write Japanese way better than I can speak it. Maybe it’s because I study kanji. A lot. Regardless, I’m going to break down the writing system and explain it a little bit in case someone is interested.

There are four symbol sets in Japanese: romaji, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. If you are capable of reading this, then you know romaji. Because Japan does business internationally, and not exactly everyone in the world knows Japanese, but many people can read Roman characters, businesses often write their names (and slogans) using romaji. Foreign businesses that setup shop in Japan also tend to retain their original spellings. Businesses in Japan also often use English for advertising, despite the fact that many people don’t know English. And in reality, the English used in advertising tends to not actually have any real meaning, which is where Engrish comes into play. Similar to the way that kanji are used in America as fashion statements, such as tattoos or whatnot, English has a “cool” factor in Japan. Seemingly random or nonsensical phrases are commonly adorned on shirts and stuff. One of the American students that studied here had a shirt with the kanji for “wind” on it, but the specific connotation of the kanji was “fart.” I’ll just say he didn’t wear that shirt again.

The most basic and essential symbol set of Japanese is hiragana. I guess you could compare it to the alphabet, but it (mostly) represents syllables instead of individual letters.
There are 46 basic symbols, but there are actually more given that the basic symbols’ pronunciations are changed by slight alterations (i.e. ひ=hi, び=bi, ぴ=pi, ひゃ=hya, etc.) Since hiragana composes the basic syllabic sounds of Japanese, all kanji can be written in hiragana. This poses an interesting dilemma for students of Japanese, or at least me. To kill time and simultaneously study, I tend to translate stuff. I find it extremely frustrating that sometimes words are written in kanji, and sometimes they aren’t—even in the same source. Some words don’t have kanji, but hiragana typically marks the grammatical portions of a sentence (verb/adjective endings, particles, etc.). If a word has a kanji, I wish it would just be used all the time. If you aren’t familiar with a word, and you just see a big jumble of hiragana, it can be difficult to separate everything. Kanji may be more difficult to commit to memory, but it really is easier to read.

Katakana is essentially the equivalent of hiragana, but for foreign words. Japanese borrows a lot of foreign words, Japanamizes the pronunciation, and then firmly integrates them into the language. Borrowed words have to be modified to fit into Japan’s syllable system. For example, Christmas becomes Kurisumasu. These words are then represented with katakana instead of hiragana. Because some foreign sounds don’t easily fit into Japanese syllables, there are some extra katakana modifications that make this symbol set larger than hiragana, such as for the letter ‘v.’ I think katakana is the mortal enemy of Japanese students. A lot of students really like it because the words are basically just cognates (assuming they are derived from English, some katakana words come from Portuguese or Dutch, due to Japan’s long trading history, or German, French, etc.). However, a lot of katakana words already have Japanese equivalents, so I feel that studying katakana is kind of the bane of making real progress with the language. This is strongly noticeable on product labels. For example: milk is often miruku, not gyunyu; apple is often apuru, not ringo; and fruit is often furutsu, not kudamono. It’s a rule in Japanese that Japanese words are written in hiragana only, and foreign words in katakana only (except in kanji dictionaries, where one indicates the Chinese reading, and the other indicates the Japanese reading). But to further emphasize how inconsistent the language really is, I see Japanese words in katakana and vice versa on signs and stuff all the time.

Kanji is probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Japanese. Kanji are the complicated ideograms borrowed from China. There are a lot of exceptions when talking about kanji, but generally, there are at least two pronunciations for each—a Chinese one and a Japanese one. Some kanji can be pronounced many different ways. Kanji may have different readings if: they are alone, they are in a word, they are used as a suffix, they are a prefix, they are a different part of speech, etc. Maybe because I’m a visual learner, I don’t find kanji to be all that difficult. Kanji are composed of different radicals (there are 214 of them). Once you learn the radicals, you stop seeing kanji as a group of complex strokes, and you start to see them as a pairing of different radicals. If the meaning of the kanji isn’t totally abstract, the radicals may indicate somewhat the meaning of the kanji. One interesting issue I have come across with studying kanji is that sometimes I can read a sentence and comprehend it, but not be able to read it aloud. I’ll know the proper meanings, but I’ll forget the reading.

One way Japanese literacy is determined is through knowledge of the Joyo kanji. The list is updated periodically, but there are currently 1945 kanji in it. The Joyo kanji are basically the “official” kanji that are used in media sources, etc. Other kanji (or different readings) may be used as well, but they are accompanied by furigana (small hiragana above the kanji to show its pronunciation). On top of learning the symbols, the Joyo kanji list consists of the various readings that need to be learned as well. 生, for example, has twelve different readings. Most Japanese words are constructed from combinations of kanji, so memorizing all the symbols and their readings isn’t going to result in the ability to understand a newspaper article.

A list of the Joyo kanji can be found here.

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