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Learn Katakana Words: Why Some Japanese Words Sound like English
Picture | July 26th, 2019 | Dayna Hannah
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If you’ve just started learning Japanese to prepare for your trip, you might have noticed something funny about your phrasebook. Depending on which word you’re reading, the characters seem markedly different. Some have graceful loops, others look impossibly complicated, and more have sharp angles. You might start to shrug off any desire to study the written language, but don’t give up! Even understanding fundamental facts about Japanese can make your vacation more enjoyable!

First-time and seasoned travelers to Japan who are interested in foreign languages might start by learning the katakana alphabet. Buddhist monks developed Japanese katakana in the 9th century as a short-hand. Now, Japanese texts write loan words from European languages or English in katakana. There are thousands of terms based on English, which is why some Japanese words might sound familiar!

Learning key katakana words can help you read menus, check-in at your hotel, and shop for food and clothes. Here, we’ve prepared an introductory guide to katakana characters, and answers to frequently asked questions about Japanese writing.

DOES JAPANESE HAVE AN ALPHABET?

Let’s put the word “alphabet” aside and focus on thinking of the Japanese language as having a “writing system.” Japanese writing is called the kana, and there are two modern forms of kana. One is our topic, and the other is hiragana. Japanese also uses simplified Chinese writing known as kanji characters.

There are a lot of differences between katakana, hiragana, and kanji. In general, words written in hiragana are grammatical functions like conjunctions or predicates or are indigenously Japanese. Terms in kanji are often native Japanese words, but also might be of Chinese origin. A typical sentence uses all three, like in this example below:

アメリカ の 出身 です。
America no shŭsshin desu.
I am from America.

Can you spot the differences? First, we have the borrowed word “America; アメリカ” in katakana. Then, we see this hiragana symbol “No; の” to indicate possession. Next, the kanji “Shŭsshin; 出身,” which means “to hail from.” Last, hiragana again for the word “Desu; です,” which functions as the verb “to be.”

HOW MANY CHARACTERS ARE THERE IN KATAKANA?

If you’ve already learned hiragana, this will be a snap. Japanese hiragana and katakana follow the same rules. There are 46 basic syllables in each kana system. All katakana characters except one have vowel sounds and most start with a consonant. The katakana chart below shows what these Japanese characters look like.

If you take a closer look, you’ll notice something a little fishy.


The “tsu” katakana

The “shi” katakana

At first, tsu (pronounced like the last two letters of “cats”) and shi look alike, but there is a difference. If you were to learn how to write in Japanese, you would study by stroke order. Every line of each character follows a specific sequence, much like how we cross our t’s and dot our i’s after writing the vertical lines.

For tsu, start with the short top-left strokes by writing two vertical lines going down. Then, write the long line from the top and curve down. For shi, draw the small lines first but turn them slightly horizontal. In contrast to tsu, make the third stroke for shi by starting at the bottom and curving up. These details might seem inconsequential, but they impact the reader's comprehension.

We see this problem again when we look at:


The “so” katakana

The “n” katakana

Even though they look similar, they have different stroke orders. Like tsu, we write so by drawing a short vertical line to the left, and a long stroke on the right from the top-down. For n, we use slightly horizontal lines with the long one starting from the bottom-up. Piece of cake, right?

HOW MANY “LETTERS” ARE IN THE JAPANESE “ALPHABET?”

There are 46 basic katakana symbols, but then there are some that slightly transform their pronunciation. First, let’s look at the ones that pair with what’s known as the ten-ten mark (〃).

カ  ガ Ka ; Ga
キ  ギ Ki ; Gi
ク  グ Ku ; Gu
ケ  ゲ Ke ; Ge
コ  ゴ Ko ; Go

サ  ザ Sa ; Za
ㇱ  ジ Shi ; Ji
ス  ズ Su ; Zu
セ  ゼ Se ; Ze
ソ  ゾ So ; Zo

タ  ダ Ta ; Da
チ  ヂ Chi ; Di
ツ  ヅ Tsu ; Du
テ  デ Te ; De
ト  ド To ; Do

ハ  バ Ha ; Ba
ヒ  ビ Hi ; Bi
フ  ブ Hu ; Bu
へ  べ He ; Be
ホ  ボ Ho ; Bo

Then, there are some that pair with the diacritic mark (°) which looks like a “degrees” symbol.

ハ  パ Ha ; Pa
ヒ  ピ Hi ; Pi
フ  プ Hu ; Pu
へ  ぺ He ; Pe
ホ  ポ Ho ; Po

Some syllables combine to make entirely new sounds.

キャ Kya
キュ Kyu
キョ Kyo

シャ Sha
シュ Shu
ショ Sho

チャ Cha
チュ Chu
チョ Cho

ニャ Nya
ニュ Nyu
ニョ Nyo

ヒャ Hya
ヒュ Hyu
ヒョ Hyo

ミャ Mya
ミュ Myu
ミョ Myo

リャ Rya
リュ Ryu
リョ Ryo

About half of these can combine with ten-ten (〃), or diacritic (°) marks to make sounds like ギャ gya or ピョ pyo.

We can also stretch the syllables into long vowel sounds by adding the mark “ー” as in ジュース (jyūsu; juice). Or, stress a constant and shorten the preceding vowel by adding a small “ッ” like チケット (chikĕtto; ticket).

Rember, the Japanese writing system uses kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Including diacritics, the kana systems have 142 syllables combined. There are an estimated 85,000 Chinese characters, but thankfully, there are only 2,136 commonly used kanji in Japanese. Although we say there are 46 letters in the Japanese alphabet, to become a fluent reader, you’ll need to study much more.

Have you hugged the Japanese student in your life today?

HOW TO MAKE FOREIGN WORDS WITH KATAKANA

We can write borrowed terms by finding the approximate English pronunciations. For example, "computer” in katakana is コンピューター. However, this isn't an exact transliteration. If we write this in roman letters, the spelling is konpyūtā. We can see this in all katakana words:

チーズ
Chīzu
Cheese

ダブル
Daburu
Double

グラス
Gurasu
Glass

Let’s do a little katakana quiz! Can you read these words? Scroll down to see the answers.

1) バイク

2) デスク

3) サッカー

4) カラオケ

5) ピアノ

KATAKANA WORDS YOU MIGHT USE DURING YOUR JAPAN VACATION

Katakana

Pronunciation

English

アイスクリーム

aisu kurīmu

Ice Cream

アイスコーヒー

aisu kōhī

Ice Coffee

アメリカンドッグ

amerikan dŏggu

Corn Dog

アニメ

anime

Japanese Animation

バーゲンセール

bāgensēru (sounds like "bargain sale")

A sale at a store

バイキング

baikingu (sounds like "viking")

Buffet

バター

batā

Butter

ベビーカー

bebīkā (sounds like "baby car")

Stroller

ビール

bīru

Beer

ダストボックス

dasuto bŏkkusu

Trash can/Dust box

デパート

depāto

Department Store

エアコン

eakon

Air Conditioner

エレベーター

erebētā

Elevator

フライドポテト

furaido poteto (sounds like "fried potato")

French Fries

フロント

furonto

Front desk of a hotel

ギャラリー

gyararī

Gallery

ハンバーグ

hanbāgu (sounds like "hambug")

Salisbury Steak

コインランドリー

koin randorī

Laundromat

コンビニ

konbini

Convenience Store

クラブ

kurabu

Club

モーニングコール

mōningu kōru

Wake-Up Call

パイナップル

painăppuru

Pineapple

パン

pan

Bread

ポスト

posuto

Mailbox

レストラン

resutoran

Restaurant

トイレ

toire

Toilet

Answers:
1) Bike
2) Desk
3) Soccer
4) Karaoke
5) Piano


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