May. 4th, 2010 04:19 pm
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
[personal profile] j_rant
Kanji are hard. There are too many of them. They all look the same. Japanese people don't even write with them that much. Why can't we stick to nice, phonetic kana? Hell, why do we need katakana at all? One alphabet is enough for English: Why can't we just write Japanese in hiragana?

...or so says the optimistic student of Japanese about two weeks into one of those Learn Japanese in Two Minutes a Day Amazing Miracle Grapefruit Diet! books. Unfortunately, reality is a little more complex: Not only are there good reasons to use kanji, but kana aren't that transparently simple. I'll save the rant on kanji for another day, but I will tell you a bunch of quirks of kana that your crappy intro textbook probably didn't cover.

Kana aren't phonetic

Kana are a lot closer to being phonetic than English spelling is, but don't delude yourself into thinking they're 100% phonetic. Like in English, there are plenty of colloquial pronunciations and contractions that are rarely written as pronounced. Also like in English, one standard spelling covers a wide range of accents, all of which sound a bit different and some of which don't even have the same total number of sounds.

Particles: The obvious example is the particles , , and . Most textbooks mention these, but I've seen plenty of confused self-study people having trouble with them. "は" is pronounced "wa" when it's a particle and "ha" all the rest of the time; "へ" is pronounced "e" as a particle and "he" the rest of the time; and "を" is only ever used to write the particle "o". It's sometimes romanized as "wo", but it's rarely pronounced this way unless you're sounding something out for someone and you want to make extra sure they know you're talking about the particle. Just to make things extra fun, there's actually another "wa" particle that's spelled with the normal kana for 'wa', わ. は is the topic marker ("Watashi wa..."); わ is the sentence particle ("...desu wa ne!"). Students overuse both of these particles, but that's a topic for another post.

Small Tsu: I wouldn't have thought even the worst of self-study materials would screw this one up, but I keep seeing questions about this too. The kana for "tsu" (つ in hiragana or ツ in katakana) is also used to write geminate (i.e. double) consonants. 切手 (postage stamp) is written in kana as "きって". This is pronounced "ki-t-te", not "ki-tsu-te". Ki-tsu-te (not a real word) would be spelled with a large tsu like so: "きつて". To me, writing that right now, the difference is pretty obvious, but there are lots of fonts where it's a lot harder to see the difference, especially if you're not used to reading Japanese. Which reminds me...

Furigana only have one size

You've learned your kana, you've gotten some nice, easy manga with plentiful furigana, and you think you're all set... And then you come across a nasty little point that no textbook ever mentions: furigana only come in one size. Those small っ's that you've finally learned to recognize: Guess what? Now they're indistinguishable from regular-size つ's! You're going to have to guess which one's which. Lucky you.

Realistically, yes, there are cases where furigana do clearly distinguish between regular-size and small kana, but this is still a point that trips up a lot of people. It's even led to some hilarious translation mishaps like the name of Inuyasha's sword. In Japanese, it's written as 鉄砕牙. That's "てつ" "さい" "が" (tetsu sai ga), but when you combine those, you get "てっさいが". That's "Tessaiga", not "Tetsusaiga". Either somebody didn't know the difference between つ and っ, or they were looking at all-one-size furigana, because the Inuyasha fan community has stupid flamewars over the correct spelling of that word to this day. (And, of course, you can't look it up in a dictionary because it's a made-up word.)

ず = づ, じ = ぢ

These are called the yotsugana. When kana spelling got reformed in the 20th Century, づ and ぢ mostly dropped out of use because, in standard Tokyo accents, they're indistinguishable from ず and じ respectively. That's just one dialect though: there are others where all four represent distinct sounds or where all four are exactly the same. There's really only one written standard for Japanese, but you might see weird variant kana spelling in dialogue in manga or novels or when people are discussing accents. And that's not the only time...

Historical kana spelling

It's not just English speakers who like Ye Olde spelling. The Japanese do it too. Read anything by an author with a love of classical literature or just a weird sense of humor, and you may start running into wacky things like いふ (ifu) in place of いう (iu). For a native speaker, this stuff is no more confusing than a bit of Shakespeare or a sign saying "Olde Pubbe" in faux-Medieval font. For you the beginner student, it's much more of a headache.

Japanese people can so pronounce F and V!

Ok, maybe grandpa can't, but any young-ish person in Japan who's had a bit of exposure to foreign things is going to know a number of foreign sounds that aren't found too commonly in Japanese. And when they make new loan words from foreign languages, they're going to try to write those sounds. This gives us fun things like ツァ,ツィ,ツ,ツェ,ツォ (tsa, tsi, tsu, tse, tso); ヴァ,ヴィ,ヴ,ヴェ,ヴォ (va, vi, vu, ve, vo); and ファ,フィ,フ,フェ,フォ (fa, fi, fu, fe, fo), of which, only ツ and フ are a traditional part of Japanese spelling. These are most common in katakana, but you'll see them in hiragana too (usually for sound effects). With the exception of ヴ, most wacky kana spellings will involve small kana. Speaking of which...

More about small kana

Small kana work in three ways: 1. Small っ is used to write double consonants. This has nothing to do with the pronunciation of big つ: it's just a writing convention.

2. Small ゃ, ゅ, and ょ are placed after a "consonant i" kana to indicate a palatalized sound (kya/rya as opposed to ka/ra). き ゃ = きゃ (ki ya = kya) The consonant part comes from the big kana, the vowel sound from the little one.

3. Weird modern kana spellings, as described above use this same convention: The big kana gives you the consonant; the little one gives you the vowel.

ヶ月, ケ月, ヵ月, カ月, か月

ヶ, despite being called "small ke", isn't really the same as those other small kana. It and those other variants above are actually short for the kanji 箇.

Katakana: not just for loanwords

Among the most idiotic and widespread myths about written Japanese is that loanwords are written in katakana and katakana is for loanwords. In reality, older loanwords often have kanji, and katakana is used for a number of things in addition to recent loanwords. It's often equivalent to italics, being used for both scientific names and emphasis. It's also frequently used for sound effects.

Robots and foreigners: Another italic-like use of katakana is for halting, artificial speech. Computers in video games frequently speak in all-katakana text (including the rarely seen katakana 'wo': ヲ). Foreigners' speech is sometimes also written in katakana either to indicate a poor accent or because the Japanese writer just doesn't think gaijin could ever possibly sound natural in Japanese.

Moans, grunts, and doujinshi sexytimes

If you're reading a manga with a lot of scenes at the gym... Oh, who am I kidding. If you're reading shameless yaoi porn with lots of explicit sex, you may have noticed something like ん” or あ”. Putting dakuten (that Japanese voicing mark) on kana it doesn't belong on often indicates some kind of grunting sound. ん” usually appears where I'd expect to see "unf" or "ngh" in English. あ” can be anything from a bellowed "a" sound to a long, drawn-out, nasal moan.


It shouldn't be surprising that foreign languages also have cursive and non-cursive handwriting, fancy and plain typefaces, and even wacky alternate forms like normal g vs. typewriter g in English. But for some reason, as a n00b Japanese student, this never really occured to me. This isn't a big deal with most of the kana, but there are a few that have alternate forms that can be confusing. Hiragana 'so' is the worst here, but 'sa' and 'ki' can also be hard to recognize. The best illustration of this point I could find is this blog post. Notice how 'so' can either be one stroke (what your Japanese textbook probably shows) or two (found in lots of handwritten parts in manga and in fonts that are meant to look like handwriting).

Katakana that look similar

Lots of kana look similar to one another, at least if you're not used to reading them yet, but the ones that cause a problem for the most students are ツ, シ, ソ, ン, and ノ. ノ has only one stroke, but how do you tell ツ apart from シ or ソ apart from ン? The answer is in the direction of the stroke. Have a look at the wikipedia stroke order charts for tsu and shi. Notice that 'tsu' goes left dot, right dot, and then down for the long stroke. 'Shi' goes upper dot, lower dot, and then up for the long stroke. In many fonts, the beginning of the stroke will be wider or will have a bit of a hook on it (as it would if handwritten). For 'tsu', the dots will be more vertical because of how you're moving as you go to write the next stroke (down, down, down and to the left). For 'shi', they will be more horizontal (across, across, across and up to the right). Similarly, 'so' has a vertical dot; 'n' has a horizontal one.

That's all of the kana trivia I can think of for the moment. If you've got any questions or want to share your own wacky trivia, leave me a message.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-05 04:35 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] imagina
Thank you very much for this post! The part about the furigana was especially useful, because I've been reading some novels that use it and I couldn't figure out why they were using the big tsu.

I do have a question, but I'm not sure it's related to kana or not. The character 々 used to repeat the kanji in some words like 人々, what should it be considered as?  

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-05 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] imagina
=) thank you very much. These links will certainly keep me entertained for a while.

Looking forward to your kanji post.


j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)

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