Intro and Origin
Hirgana (ひらがな or 平仮名) is one of the three writing systems in Japan. This phonetic letter system is made out of simple symbols, or kana, in comparison to Kanji. In modern Japanese, there are 46 base characters in use (see chart below). Some non-conventional characters may be seen at old temples or shrines, as well as in company names or even manga.
The hiragana writing system dates from around the year 800 CE. The characters are derived from similar kanji and share the same pronunciation (see below). As for kanji, or even the roman alphabet, hiragana has a specific stroke order for each character.
Being the most basic writing system, together with katakana, it is used together with kanji to make phrases and words. Additionally, the 46 base characters alone do no form all the syllables in Japanese, as some of them can be combined with diacritics, or accents, to form different sounds.
Dakuten and Handakuten
There are two diacritics called dakuten (濁点 or ゛) and handakuten (半濁点 or ゜). The dakuten is casually called “ten-ten” (点々), meaning “dot-dot” because of the two dots it represents. It is used to turn a voiceless consonant into a voiced consonant. For example, た (ta) would become だ (da), き (ki) would become ぎ (gi). There are in total 20 possible combinations.
The handakuten is commonly referred to as “maru” (丸), which means “circle”. This diacritic will turn kana starting with an “h” into a “p” sound. Unlike the dakuten, there are only 5 kana that can be changed in hiragana. For example, は (ha) would become ぱ (pa), ひ (hi) would become ぴ (pi). The only somewhat irregular kana is ふ (fu), which, when written in alphabet, starts with the letter “f” and not “h”. In Japanese, ふ (fu) has a pronunciation that lies between the alphabet letter “f” and “h”. With a dakuten, ふ (fu) would become ぷ (pu).
Sokuon (促音), or assimilated sound, also commonly called “little tsu” (小さいつ), is the kana of つ but written in small (つ vs っ). The sokuon has the same use in both hiragana and katakana: to indicate that the following consonant is geminated, or doubled. This can be used to put an emphasis on some words, or change the word’s meaning entirely.
For example, if you see something huge, and want to put an emphasis on it, you could write でかい (dekai) as でっかい (dekkai), or even でっかっ (dekka). The latter two could be interpreted as something that is not only big, but surprisingly big.
On the other hand, the sokuon can change a word completely. For example, 来て (きて / kite) means “come”, while 切手 (きって / kitte) means postage stamp.
This doubling cannot be used on any syllable starting with a “n” (な (na), に (ni), ぬ (nu), ね (ne), の (no)). For that we must use theん (n) in words such as だんな (旦那 / danna), which means “husband”, or おんな (女 / onna). which means “woman”.
Yo-on (拗音), meaning contracted sounds, or palatalized sounds, are sounds that represent one kana with a smaller kana of ya, yu, or yo next to it. Yo-on are used in both hiragana and katakana, but are more visually prevalent in the latter, as many hiragana words using yo-on are ‘hidden’ due to the use of kanji. One example in hiragana would be じゃ (ja).
Even though the teaching of hiragana officially starts in primary school, many kindergartens try teach them how to write their own name in hiragana, and even write a few words.
There is a specific order in which students will learn hiragana, called gojuon (五十音), or fifty sounds. While there are only 46 kana used, this naming refers to the 5 by 10 grid displaying each character (see intro chart above). However, this specific hiragana order used to be different. Until the end of the Second World War the iroha order (いろは順) was standard. It had two additional characters, totaling to 48. The earliest appearance of the is iroha order dates from the Heian Era. This order was written so that all the hiragana syllables created a poem, which goes as follow:
This translates to:
Even the blossoming flowers will eventually scatter. Who in our world is unchanging? The deep mountains of karma, we cross them today and we shall not have superficial dreams nor be deluded.
As you can see there are two rarely used kana in this poem: ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we), which is the between the modern 46 characters.