Japanese Language: Katakana

Katakana カタカナ

Japanese has three alphabets: Chinese characters or kanji (漢字), hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ).

Hiragana and katakana are phonetic syllabaries made up of 46 characters.

The first five characters of both hiragana and katakana are the vowels a, i, u, e, o.

The rest of the letters are a combination of a consonant and a vowel, for example, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko and n ン - the only singular consonant.

Katakana is literally "fragmentary kana" and is square and angular in shape in comparison with the more rounded hiragana.

Katakana is often taught in Japanese kindergarten and, along with hiragana, is learned before children begin on Chinese characters in the first grade of elementary school.

Chinese characters and katakana.
Kanji (Chinese characters) above with katakana below

How Katakana is used

Katakana is usually used in the following ways:
* to transliterate foreign loan words from English, Chinese and other languages such as television (テレビ - terebi), radio (ラジオ - rajio), fried rice (チャーハン - chaahan), Chinese noodles (ラ-メン - raamen), part time work (アルバイト - arubaito) etc.
* foreigners', except Chinese, names are written in katakana such as Smith (スミス - sumisu), Brown (ブラウン - buraun) etc
* for the names of foreign countries, regions and cities such as "America" (アメリカ - amerika), England (イギリス - igirisu), Vietnam (ベトナム -betonamu), London (ロンドン - rondon), Asia (アジア - ajia) etc.
* in advertising and on signs for emphasis, here katakana acts much like italics, such as garbage (ゴミ - gomi), spectacles (メガネ - megane), pervert (チカン - chikan), coffee (コーヒ - koohii) etc
* animal, fruit and plant names are often written in katakana such as monkey (サル - saru), dog (イヌ - inu), apple (リンゴ - ringo), persimmon (カキ - kaki) etc
* onomatopoeia, words representing sounds or movements, for example, bow-wow (ワンワン - wanwan), lick (ペロペロ - peropero), scratch (ポリポリ - poripori), squeak (キシキシ - kishikishi)
* some Japanese company names are written in katakana, such as Toyota (トヨタ), Sony (ソニ), Honda (ホンダ) etc

Katakana was developed in the Heian Period (794-1192) from parts of Chinese characters as a kind of shorthand, supposedly by students studying Buddhism.

Katakana sign.
Katakana, hiragana and kanji (Chinese characters) all in the same sentence!
Katakana museum sign.
Loan words such as "Museum" are written in katakana as in this sign for the Ryukoku Museum in Kyoto

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