On Japanese

A chat with a friend today segued into a discussion on the Japanese language and then I went around Wikipedia reading up a bit. This is a powerpoint style post on what I learned about the language. Hopefully, someone will find it useful :-)

  • Modern Japanese uses four scripts:
    • Kanji which contains characters of Chinese origin. Used for nouns, etc.
    • Hiragana, a syllabary for where Kanji falls short.
    • Katakana, a syllabary for foreign words, technical words, onomatopoeia.
    • Romaji - the Latin alphabet :-)
  • A syllabary is a set of written symbols which represent syllables.
  • Sometimes, the choice of script to write the same word conveys extra information about the word. That's one of the nuances of the language.
  • Romaji is used to represent Japanese script in the Roman/Latin alphabet. Clearly, some sort of symbol mapping is required. The Hepburn system of romanization is the one most widely used (esp. outside Japan). But it's been criticized for not being a lossless translational mapping.
  • The traditional Japanese writing format, called tategaki, is top->bottom and right->left like Chinese. The modern yokogaki format is like English: left->right, top->bottom.
  • Katakana has roots in Regular scripts where all strokes are independent; characters are balanced and spaced. Hiragana has roots in Cursive scripts where the writing style is free flowing and strokes are often merged or dropped for stylistic reasons.
  • Since all this is so complicated, there's a special system/convention called Furigana wherein Hiragana symbols placed as superscripts next to Kanji symbols serve as a pronunciation guide for the Kanji. This is usually done for obscure Kanji symbols or where the context is not clear or in children's books since kids are typically not so well versed with the full Kanji set of symbols.
  • The alphabet of Indian languages is not a syllabary. It's called an abugida or alphasyllabary since the vowel and consonant symbols are combined to create syllables.

Corrections by those more knowledgable are most welcome!

PS: Wikipedia rocks!


Don't even ask.. the 'kana' scripts are driving us absolutely nuts! let's not even think about the 'kanji'!

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