Intro and Origin
Katakana (カタカナ or 片仮名) is one of the three writing systems in Japan. This writing system dates from around the year 800 CE, having all its characters derived from kanji with similar pronunciation. It looks very similar to hiragana, and uses 48 base characters (see chart below). Even though katakana is used in everyday Japanese, its frequency is much lower than hiragana and kanji.
Katakana has several uses. One of them is to transcribe foreign words or names in Japanese. It is also used for loan words, called gairaigo, such as アルバイト (arubaito), which comes from the German word “Arbeit”, which means “work” in German, but is used to indicate part-time work in Japanese.
Another usage of katakana is for words that are hard to read, or for rarely used kanji. Some hiragana or kanji may be written in katakana to put an emphasis on the word.
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, ク (ku) would become グ (gu), ス (su) would become ズ (zu).
There are 21 different combinations, which is one more than for hiragana. The additional kana is the ウ (u), which can become a ヴ (v). When this character is combined with a smaller character, it can create new consonants (See yo-on below for more details), such as ヴァ (va) or ヴォ (vo). The use of ゔ (v) may appear in hiragana in special cases, such as when a person or company having the “v” sound, if document papers necessitate the furigana to be written in hiragana instead of katakana.
The handakuten is commonly referred to as “maru” (丸), meaning “circle”. This diacritic turns kana starting with an “h” into a “p” sound. There are only a total of 5 kana that can be changed in katakana. For example, ヘ (he) becomes ペ (pe), ホ (ho) becomes ポ (po). The only ‘irregular’ kana is フ (fu). When it is written in alphabet it starts with the letter “f” and not “h”. In Japanese, フ (fu) has a pronunciation that lies between the alphabet letter “f” and “h”. With a dakuten, フ (fu) would become プ (pu).
There are of course exceptions to the above rules, most notably seen in manga. Some scenes expressing a shock, or a surprise may write ア゛(ah) instead of ア (a). The way one should read it is up to one’s imagination, depending on the scene where it is depicted.
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. Thanks to this, you can combine many different words, and make many more sounds in Japanese. For example, if you combine キ and ャ you would get キャ (kya). This can also be used with dakuten (ジョ (jo)) and handakuten (ピョ (pyo)).
Sokuon (促音), or assimilated sound, also commonly called “little tsu” (小さいつ), is the kana of ツ but written in small (ツ vs ッ). 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 something is tight, and you want to put an emphasis on it, you can write きつい (kitsui) as キッツイ (kittsui), or even キッツッ (kittsu). The latter could be interpreted as something that is not only tight, but surprisingly tight. If you see the word きつい in katakana instead of hirgana, it has an aditional emphasis to it, because this word would normally be written in hiragana. Most of the time, this would be true for any word usually written in hiragana.
The sokuon can also change a word’s meaning completely. For example, 坂 (さか / saka) means “hill”, while 作家 (さっか / sakka) means author.
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”.
The cho-onpu (長音符), or long sound symbol (ー), is used in katakana to show long sounds. A few examples: ダーク (dark / daaku), ラッキー (lucky / rakkii). It is rarely used in hiragana, as instead of using a ー, hiragana will just add another vowel to elongate the sound.Example: a は (ha) will get a あ (a) added to become はあ (haa), a く (ku) will get a う (u) to become くう (kuu).
Students in primary school will first learn hiragana, then katakana, and finally kanji. Katakana will be thought using the same order as for hiragana: the gojuon (五十音), or fifty sounds. This naming refers to the 5 by 10 grid displaying each character (see chart above). This order used to be different in hiragana until the end of the Second World War. See the learning section on the hiragana page for more information.