Part Two: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

In part one we covered the basics of how Japanese Hiragana script works. In this post we’ll cover some of the more advanced concepts.

First let’s review the basic hiragana characters:

n w r y m h n t s k (blank)

As we talked about last time, each hiragana “letter” is actually a syllable, you combine the consonant at the top with a vowel on the right to get the right kana syllable. The only exception was the final “n” sound ん.

Further, some of the characters can be modified to make somewhat different sounds. For example the “K” column above becomes a “G” column if you add ゛(double ticks) to the characters. か (ka) becomes が (ga) and き (ki) becomes ぎ (gi) and so on. Only certain columns above can be modified this way: the “K”, “S”, “T” and “H” columns.

Further, there is one other column to learn and that is the “P” column which is formed by taking the “H” column and adding a small circle ゜for sounds like ぱ (pa), ぴ (pi), ぺ (pe) and so on.

Together these look like so:

b d z g p
* * i
* u

There are three characters to note here:

  • じ is pronounced as “ji”. This kinds of makes sense when you compare the “S” column as a whole with the “Z” column.
  • づ is pronounced as “dzu” or “zu” but is not commonly used.  Again, this kind of makes sense when seen as a whole.
  • ぢ is pronounced something like “dzi” or “ji”, but is even less commonly used.

Mini Hiragana

A few hiragana characters can be miniaturized to modify other hiragana. Namely や (ya) ゆ (yu) and よ (yo) which become ゃ ゅ and ょ. Literally, they’re a half-size smaller. How are they applied?

Think of the Japanese sound “sho”. You might be tempted to write it as しよ, but since hiragana are typically “what you see is what you get”, the end result would be “shiyo”, not “sho”. And yes, in Japanese there is a difference. A native speaker would have no trouble discerning the difference.

So, the key is to use the mini version of よ, ょ, as in しょ. Note that しよ and しょ look pretty similar, and depending on the typeface used a book or online, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference. Time and practice reading will help here, plus as you gain more experience with Japanese the context will obviously point to one or the other.

In any case, other sound combinations that can be made with these “mini hiragana” are sho, shu, sha, jo, ju, ja,¹ kyo, kyu, kya, gyo, gyu, gya, hyo, hyu, hya and so on.

Note that these are treated as a single syllable in Japanese, not two syllables. This is important when correctly pronouncing Japanese personal names like Ryo. It is a single syllable, so instead of saying “ree-yoh”, it blends together into just “ryo”. Westerners have to take care when pronouncing such sounds to avoid making two syllables. Practice makes perfect! 🙂

Speaking of two syllable-sounds, the ゅ (yu) and ょ (yo) mini-hiragana will also be frequently followed by う (u) as a way to lengthen the sound.  This is something inherent in Japanese language where the “u” and “o” vowels sounds are often lengthened.  This counts a two syllables or two “beats” of sound.  So, using the example of the capitol of Japan, Tokyo, it is pronounced as four syllables: と う きょ う (to u kyo u).  Sometimes this extra “u” is written in Romaji as either “ou”, “uu” or “ō” and “ū”.

Also, be warned that not all “u” and “o” vowel sounds do this.  The word りょこう (ryokou, “travel”) for example.  The first syllable has no trailing “u”, while the second does.

Finally, there is the mini っ (tsu). Unlike normal つ, it actually has *no* pronunciation as such. Instead, it is frequently used to put a brief pause between syllables. The only equivalent in English this author is aware of is the double-k in “bookkeeping”.

Interestingly, the small っ does actually count as a syllable for the purposes of rhythm and spelling even if it doesn’t have a sound, and therefore it does change the spelling of words. Compare sekai せかい (world) with sekkai せっかい (incision). These are two entirely separate words, but the only spelling difference is the small っ. For the purposes of spelling and pronunciation, the word せっかい would be 4 beats and pronounced as “se (pause) ka i”.

In part three, we’ll talk more about how to get used to hiragana and ways to improve your reading skills.

For now, try reading these words:

  • しょうぎ – Japanese chess
  • きょうと – the old capitol of Japan
  • えんぴつ – pencil
  • ひゃく – hundred
  • ざぜん – sitting meditation (namely “Zen”)
  • きょうそう – a foot race
  • えんじる – to act (e.g. theater)
  • しょうが – ginger
  • けっかく – tuberculosis
  • しょっぱい – salty

Good luck!

¹ This leads to an interesting problem in romanization.  In one romanization scheme, these are written as syo, syu, sya, jyo, jyu, jya which is more “Japanese”.  In another scheme, sho, shu, sha, jo, ju, ja which is more “English”.  You may see one other the other, so be aware.  🙂

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

One thought on “Part Two: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: