A Conversation for Writing Systems


Post 1


The description of the Japanese writing system has a few bits which might be confusing or misleading.

"Japan uses the most complex writing system of all"

Now that I can't argue with!

"All writing symbols in Japanese are called 'kana'"

Actually, kana only refers to the two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. There are 46 symbols in each set (confusingly, known as the "50 sounds) and they both represent the same set of sounds. You can think of them as similar, in some ways, to lower and upper casae letters in English: different symbols for that same sound.

"Sentences are written using what are known as 'kanji'; these are Chinese ideograms, which each represent a word."

It would be more accurate to say that sentences are written using a combination of kanji (Chinese ideographic characters) and kana. In Japanese, kanji do not always represent a single word. Most words consist of one or more kanji plus zero or more kana.

May also be worth noting that kanji have been adopted from Chinese in a variety of ways: with an approximation of the original sound and meaning, sometimes with the original meaning but with the Japanese pronunciation of that word, or simply used for their sound to represent the sound of a Japanese word (with no relationship to the original meaning).

This is very similar to the way cuneiform was adapted to write Akkadian.

"But Japanese is a highly grammatical language..."

Perhaps this should say it is a highly inflected language (all languages are equally "grammatical"). This is true, in that Japanese is more inflected than Chinese (hence the use of hiragana to mark grammatical endings). However, it is less inflected than many European languages.

"a system of 80 or so syllabic symbols known as 'hiragana' are used"

There are 46 symbols, including 'n' (which isn't a special symbol, it is just another character).

It is hard to say what the total number of syllables are because the definition of a syllable is slightly different from English. Also, there are a couple of accents and other conventions used to make changes to the sounds represented by the basic symbols. I can't be bothered to write out all the possible combinations that would make up an 'English' syllable but I guess it would be over 300...

"There is no attempt here to represent sounds that do not exist in Japanese"

Not quite true. The rules for using kana have been extended (officially and informally) to represent a range of sounds that are not part of standard Japanese (e.g. the 'v' sound).

"The u ending is tacked on to any word which ends in a consonant other than 'n'"

Not always. For example, 'cake' becomes 'ke-ki' (where the dash represents a long vowel).

Finally, katakana is used for more than just foreign words. It is used for some official government documents, for scientific terms such as names of plant species, for emphasis in adverts (like uppercase letters), and so on.


Post 2

Gnomon - time to move on

Thanks for that, oji-san. I'll try and incorporate some of that into the Entry. I was trying to simplify the description so that it would not be too confusing.

Some points:

about 80 -- I did actually count them. I can't remember the figure, but I think it was 78.

kana -- aren't kanji, hiragana and katakana all kana?

n _is_ a special symbol, because it does not represent any vowel.


Post 3


I agree it is a good idea to keep it simple.

> I did actually count them. I can't remember the figure, but I think it was 78.

Hmmm... I'm not sure what you were counting to get 78 ...

There are 46 basic kana. This includes 'n' and the 5 basic vowels (which are all 1 syllable in Japanese).

There are 26 extra sounds made by adding accent marks to change 'ta' to 'da', 'ka' to 'ga' , etc. So that makes 72. There are another 4 which are no longer used in modern Japanese so that would give 76.

Then there are another 36 combinations such as 'kya'. So, there are 108 Japanese syllables (not counting the 4 old ones).

If you say that a syllable in English can be any of the vowels plus 'n' then there would be 215 "English syllables". But, in English we would count consonant plus any number of vowels (plus optional n) as a single syllable so the number is much greater.

> kana -- aren't kanji, hiragana and katakana all kana?

No, just hiragana and katakana. In fact, the 'gana' bit of hiragana is the same as the 'kana' in katakana (it is just pronounced differently in that word).

> n _is_ a special symbol, because it does not represent any vowel.

Well, it is certainly unusual in that respect. On the other hand, there are 5 symbols for vowel sounds without a consonant.

But, from the point of view of sounds in the Japanese language, 'n' is just another syllable. When 'n' is occurs on its own, it is a full syllable, the same length as any other vowel or consonant+vowel syllable.


Post 4

Gnomon - time to move on

I don't speak Japanese, myself. I got the information from my daughter, who is studying it. As I said, I'll try and incorporate what you've said in the Entry. Thanks for pointing these things out.

smiley - smiley


Post 5


Thinking about it some more, I'm not sure the discussion of the number of syllables is particularly useful anyway.

It might be worth noting that knowing about 2,000 kanji is enough for a reasonable level of literacy.

A much larger number is needed to read Chinese.


Post 6


Hmmm, i may be being pedantic here, but japanese does not inflect either, it glues. Its an Agglutinative Language, meaning it fixes gramatical particles to a word rather then inflecting the word.


Post 7


On hiragana vs. katakana, in general, where in English one would use italic characters, in Japanese, katakana is used.


Post 8


On hiragana vs. katakana, in general, where in English one would use italics, in Japanese, katakana is employed.

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