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Japanese Kana Orthography

Part II

Introduction

We have seen how the original KanJi Characters brought over from China then went on to become the stylised forms of the Kana syllabaries, the Hiragana and Katakana in Part I. Here, we shall put forward the use of Romanisation to represent the sounds in the Kana tables, and also the formation of the other sets of sounds that are found in Modern Japanese today.

Modern Romanisation and the Representation of Sounds

There are two Japanese romanisations used today. As you can see from the above, there are rows of syllables which have the same vowel, each syllable has a different initial letter per column. The layout can show us the general sounds of the character themselves, and is mainly in the Japanese 'kunrei-siki' system () (little used). There is also the Hepburn Romanisation system which mimics the characteristics of the sound much better. Below, were show both systems, with the /wi/ and /we/ sounds removed.

Kunrei Siki and Hepburn compared

vowelinitial letter
== k- s- t- n- h- m- y- r- w- -n
-aKunrei

Hepburn

a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa
-iKunrei

Hepburn

i ki si

shi

ti

chi

ni hi mi ri
-uKunrei

Hepburn

u ku su tu

tsu

nu hu

fu

mu yu ru
-eKunrei

Hepburn

e ke se te ne he me re
-oKunrei

Hepburn

o ko so to no ho mo yo ro wo n

The table show four main differences, they are

Kunrei SikiHepburn
sishi
tichi
tutsu
hufu

The Japanese spoken language sounds much more like the Hepburn system. The Kunrei Siki is useful for showing the once historical value of the sound.

Other sounds

So far, the sound inventory has only included the vowels and the syllables beginning with the initials, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, and w, in that order.

hiragana and katakana

This is not a full inventory, since, there are kana which can be changed by the addition of a mark to signify a different sound. This mark is called the Nigori ( ) or Daku-ten ( ) ( ). In the case of p, the HanDaku ( ) mark ( ) is used.

Kana under DakuOn, or Voicing

vowelinitial letter
k- g- s- z- t- d- h- b- p-
-a
-i
-u
-e
-o

Voicing and the change in sounds

vowelinitial letter
k- g- s- z- t- d- h- b- p-
-aKunrei

Hepburn

ka ga sa za ta da ha ba pa
-iKunrei

Hepburn

ki gi si

shi

zi

ji

ti

chi

zi

ji

hi bi pi
-uKunrei

Hepburn

ku gu su zu tu

tsu

zu hu

fu

bu pu
-eKunrei

Hepburn

ke ge se ze te de he be pe
-oKunrei

Hepburn

ko go so zo to do ho bo po

We see from the table that the addition of the nigori mark changes the kana representation of the sounds. Under the Kunrei system, the romanisations look tidy and ordered, (with the ti > zi and tsu > zu kana the exceptions ) but the Hepburn system shows the actual sounds that we hear in Modern Japanese better. There is another group of sounds composed of the kana we see above. These are multiple kana compounds which for a sound and uses half-sized versions of the syllables ya, yu and yo and the -i kana initial syllables. The process in Japanese is called You-On ( ).

Kunrei ki-gi-si-zi-ti-zi-ni-hi-bi-pi-mi-ri-
Hepburn ki-gi-shi-ji-chi-ji-ni-hi-bi-pi-mi-ri-
Hiragana ya
yu
yo
Katakana ya
yu
yo

This table gives us a more complicated romanisation in Kunrei and Hepburn. They are as follows:

- k g s z t d n h b p m r
Kunrei ya kya gya sya zya tya zya nya hyabya pya mya rya
yukyu gyu syu zyu tyu zyu nyu hyu byu pyu myu ryu
yokyo gyo syo zyo tyo zyo nyo hyo byo pyo myo ryo
Hepburn ya kya gya sha ja cha ja nya hya bya pya mya rya
yukya gya shu ju chu ju nyu hyu byu pyu myu ryu
yokyo gyo sho jo cho jo nyo hyo byo pyo myo ryo

The absorbtion of the -i- in the romanisation is a peculiarity in both transcriptions, as it has merged with the -y- semi-vowel.

Long vowels, and other marks

To elongate a vowel, we can repeat the vowel of the previous kana, in the case of -a, -i, and -u, that is, the sound becomes, -aa, -ii, and -uu respectively. In the case of e, i is added, so the elongated sound is -ei. The -o ending is elongated with the addition of -u, so we obtain -ou. This proceedure is known as Chou-On ( ) in Japanese, literally, long sound. In the usual Japanese style kana table representation of Kou ( )and Dan ( ),

In Katakana transcription, the horizontal line is used for indicating that a vowel should be extended. For instance the english word "coffee" is written in katakana as .

This brings us finally to the use of the small tsu (tu) (top hiragana, bottom katakana) as opposed to the normal tsu (tu) kana. The term used is the Soku-On ( ), whereby the following consonant is doubled. The literal use of the sound tsu is disregarded, it serves merely as an indicator of the following changes in pronunciation. We can demonstrate the use in the Kanji compound which has the hiragana and katakana .


Go to Part I of Japanese Kana Orthography
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This page was first created on Wednesday 21st January and last updated on Friday 23rd January 1998.

©Dylan W.H.S 1996 1998

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