Kanji Clinic #81, The Japan Times, August 14, 2006
"Kanji is surprising source of hiragana, katakana"
The Japanese writing system is a sumptuous mix of meaning-based Chinese characters (kanji), two home-grown phonetic syllabaries (hiragana and katakana), and a sprinkling of the Roman alphabet. All four ingredients are evident in sentences such as 箸でスパゲティーを食べるのはNGです, Hashi de supagetii o taberu no wa NG desu, “Eating spaghetti with chopsticks is No Good (i.e., bad manners).”
Japanese first began to write their language when Chinese characters were brought to the archipelago around 300 A.D., and over the next 500 years they created hiragana and katakana, the two kana (仮名, literally, “assumed name”) systems. At first glance, kana may seem visually unconnected to kanji, but in fact Chinese characters are the raw material from which both hiragana and katakana were produced.
Kanji alone was far from a perfect fit as a means of writing Japanese. Fundamental differences between the monosyllabic Chinese language and polysyllabic, highly inflected Japanese made the Chinese writing system unsuitable for writing such elements of language as verb endings (e.g., past-tense -mashita, negative -masen) and particles (e.g., は, が,を). To write non-Chinese grammatical units, Japanese scribes originally utilized kanji for their phonetic value. These precursors to hiragana and katakana were called man’yougana (万葉仮名10,000-leaves-kana).
Because readers were forced to discern whether a particular kanji was being used for its phonetic or semantic value, man’yougana commonly caused confusion. A strictly phonetic system was needed, therefore, and by the ninth century the kanji used in man’yougana had given rise to the remedy: hiragana and katakana.
The shapes of hiragana (平仮名, “flat kana”) were derived from the full forms of man’yougana written in a flowing cursive script called sousho. When it was first created, hiragana was not universally accepted in Japan. The feeling among purists was that the written language of the well-educated should be limited to kanji. Hiragana was used primarily by women, who were not allowed access to education at the same levels as their male counterparts. In fact, an early alternative name for hiragana was onnade (女手, “women’s handwriting”). The works of early female authors, such as “The Tale of Genji,” were written extensively in hiragana, but eventually it gained acceptance as a literary script for both genders.
Katakana (片仮名, “one-sided kana”) is now used to transcribe the unending deluge of non-Chinese-- particularly English-- loan words entering the Japanese language, but it was originally devised by Japanese monks as a pronunciation aid for Buddhist scriptures written in Chinese.
Contrast katakana with the flowing, rounded lines of hiragana (e.g., あ, い, う, え, お), which are reduced forms of whole kanji: Katakana, comprised of kanji components, is characterized by short, straight strokes and angular corners (e.g., ア,イ,ウ, エ, オ). If you are already in the habit of seeing kanji as a collection of smaller parts, you should be able to make out the katakana embedded in the man’yougana from which it originated.
The katakana カ (ka), for example, is derived from the left-side component of the kanji 加 (“add”), whose Chinese (on) pronunciation is “ka,” and ヒ (hi) comes from the right side of 比 (hi, “compare”). Look for katakana コ (ko) at the top of 己 (ko, “self”) and ホ (ho) at the bottom-right side of 保 (ho, “preserve”). ナ (na) and ラ (ra) are derived from the two characters representing the city of Nara, 奈良: Look for ナin the first two strokes at the top-left side of 奈 (na) and ラ on the top-right side of 良 (ra).
The quiz below will allow you to explore more fully the intricate connection between Chinese characters and katakana, and may lead you to an even greater appreciation for the remarkable creative power of kanji.
Match each of the following katakana to the kanji from which it originated:
Example 1. カ (ka): e, 加, as in 参加 (sanka, “participate”)
1. カ (ka)
2. ロ (ro)
3. エ (e)
4. テ (te)
5. フ (fu)
6. サ (sa)
7. セ (se)
8. タ (ta)
9. キ (ki)
10. ミ (mi)
11. イ (i)
12. モ (mo)
2.h, 風呂 (as in furo, “bath”) 3.f, 江戸 (Edo, old name of Tokyo) 4.k, 天気 (tenki, “weather”) 5.b, 不便 (fuben, “inconvenient”) 6.c, 散歩 (sanpo, “stroll”) 7.d, 世間 (seken, “world”) 8.a, 多少(tashou, “somewhat”)9.g, 機械 (kikai, “machine”) 10.l, 三日 (mikka, “third day of the month”) 11.j, 伊藤 (Itou, surname) 12.i, 毛布 (moufu, “blanket”)