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A Primer on Writing Kana

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#1 Renzhe



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Posted 28 September 2008 - 20:11

A Primer on Writing Kana

This is a primer on writing kana (假名/仮名), part of the Japanese writing system along with kanji (漢字). I'm writing this guide to serve the FPN members learning or teaching Japanese, as there seem to be many. However, as with any writing system, one does not need to know the language in order to write its glyphs. Therefore, anyone can follow this guide and perhaps learn to write some kana. This is not a lesson in the Japanese language.

But first, a disclaimer: I have not grown up looking at kana, I can't speak Japanese, I can't read (in most people's sense of the word) Japanese, and I have no Japanese blood in me. In other words, I'm not a native reader. Therefore, if any native readers find anything out of place, please point it out, preferably before the stupid edit time limit runs out.

The Origin of the Two Sets of Kana and their Characteristics

(Note: From now on I will use Japanese pronunciation using an improper variation of Hepburn romanization and Shinjitai kanji for all foreign terms.)

Japanese writing system consists of three types of characters: kanji (漢字), hiragana (平仮名), and katakana (片仮名). Kanji are Chinese characters imported to Japan about 2000 years ago. The entire Japanese writing system stems from kanji. Since I'll be talking about kanji a lot in this guide, it might aid understanding to read my guide to writing Chinese characters.
Two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, developed from using kanji only for their sound. These kanji were called manyougana (万葉仮名). To give you an idea of how these manyougana were used, I'll show you the pronunciation of a few in different dialects of Chinese and Japanese.

Manyougana: 以呂波仁保部止 (Note: Kun-yomi of 止 is used.)
Tang Dynasty Middle Chinese: /iə̌ liǔ bɑ njin bɑǔ bhǒ ji/
Cantonese: [ji5 lɵy5 pɔ1 jɐn4 pou2 pou6 tsi2]
Mandarin: [ji3 ly3 puo1 ɻən2 pɑʊ3 pu4 ʈʂz̩3]
Japanese On-yomi, except 止: /I RO HA NIN HO BU to/
Hiragana: /i ro ha ni ho he to/ (いろはにほへと)

Manyougana were standardized and later became hiragana and katakana. Hiragana formed from cursive (sousho 草書) style manyougana. Katakana developed from adopting parts of manyougana (but not the same set of manyougana that formed hiragana). Hiragana appears curvy, while katakana appears more angular.
Hiragana is used to write grammatical particles, noun prefixes and suffixes, verb and adjective inflexions, words that have no kanji, or words where writing the kanji would be inappropriate for the context. Katakana is used to write transcriptions of words of non-Chinese or -Japanese origin, onomatopoeia, and to emphasize text (as italic type is used in English).

Katakana Structure and Writing
Let's first look at some of the manyougana that formed katakana. In each manyougana, highlighted in red is the part that formed the corresponding katakana shown next to it. (By the way, I'm not too fond of the chart on Wikipedia that shows katakana origins. They've got some things highlighted wrong, but I might have some things highlighted wrong, too. Still, I think I'm closer to the truth.)

Good to know, but not really useful because it doesn't help you produce a nice looking katakana (but pay attention to the manyougana that form hiragana! They will be useful.). I'm only showing you this just to demonstrate that these are parts of kanji. This means there's a definite stroke order for all katakana. There are only about 50, so one could just memorize the stroke order.

All strokes that compose katakana are written in standard script (kaisho 楷書) style. Therefore, each katakana stroke is composed of one or more of the 8 basic strokes in standard script, called eiji happou (永字八法). I go over them in my guide to writing Chinese characters. Some of the "vertical" and "horizontal" strokes are so slanted that it might mess you up (for example, the "vertical" in ヤ is far from vertical), but there truly are no strokes that cannot be composed of one of more of the 8 basic ones. Also, every stroke is essential, unlike in hiragana. The grids should help you with stroke placement and balancing.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of my knowledge of katakana and writing it. I hope the little information I've given you has helped somewhat.

Hiragana Structure and Writing
I'm more familiar with hiragana. I'm almost certain that hiragana is usually learned without even looking at the manyougana from which they form. However, in order to understand hiragana and write them well, one has to know the manyougana. (If you haven't already, now would be a good time to get familiar with kanji by reading my guide.)

As I said before, hiragana is manyougana written in cursive and then truncated some more. Cursive script formed from writing clerical script (reisho 隷書) quickly. One can think of cursive as an impressionistic representation of clerical script. A single curvy stroke can represent structures that would take many small straight strokes to write. In order to understand the 50-or-so cursive characters that are used for hiragana, one must know which curves represent which structures.

Students of Japanese are often unsure of what's essential and what's optional in hiragana, because there are many variations on how to write something in cursive. Someone might be more conservative, another more blasphemous; one person connecting a few strokes and another writing them separately. Another troublesome area is stroke order. If connecting some things is optional, then the number of strokes varies, and it would be difficult to define what a stroke is. Here is my solution: I've made a chart of hiragana and their corresponding manyougana. First study the manyougana, particularly its stroke order. Then observe how the hiragana abbreviates the manyougana. Additionally, I'm doing away with the idea of stroke order, as these are cursive characters (and as you might know, one could use one stroke to write an entire line in cursive). Instead, I only mark where the hiragana starts, and one can follow the paths of the curves until the end of the hiragana.

The observant might notice that when there's a manyougana ending in a vertical stroke, the hiragana bends left at the end (like in け); and when the manyougana ends with a horizontal stroke, the manyougana bends down at the end (like in め). This bending is made in preparation for the next glyph. This is because when hiragana are written in succession, each one starts below the previous one. Technically, these paths leading to the next character are unnecessary when writing one kana, or writing horizontally. However, for many readers, these trails have become necessary for recognition of the glyph. Inclusion of them has become standard. Not writing these trails might render your writing illegible, or make it seem like bad writing.
All of the hiragana on the following chart are commonly accepted. The grids should help you balance the character.

Using Kana with Kanji
On average, kanji is much denser than kana in strokes. Therefore, in order to make a text appear uniform, one must compensate for the difference in density by either increasing the size of kanji or decreasing the size of kana. Below is an example of Japanese text. I've drawn rectangles around the first line so that one can easily see the difference in size. One might ask; what should the size ratio be? It is not fixed, as different kanji have different densities, and one must compensate accordingly.

(Special thanks to Sailor Kenshin and Taki!)

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#2 HDoug


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Posted 28 September 2008 - 21:18

How I wish the ability to read these characters were somehow genetically encoded! I grew up gazing at these characters, but my parents wisely decided to focus my meager abilities on English. But I love seeing the implied motion of the brush on the strokes, and can see in my mind the tip of the brush as it makes its rounds.

Thanks for posting. I'd be very interested in seeing something similar for other written languages. Sanskrit anyone? And Arabic calligraphy is beautiful, but I have no idea what that's about.


#3 orangezorki



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Posted 28 September 2008 - 21:18

Best. Post. Ever.

Takes me way back to my GCSE Japanese classes and trip to Nagoya in school.

Only thing I'd appreciate is a guide to the phonetic sounds of the characters - I have forgotten many of them.


#4 thibaulthalpern


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Posted 28 September 2008 - 21:48

The images don't load for me.
m( _ _ )m (– , –) \ (^_^) /

#5 Renzhe



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Posted 29 September 2008 - 01:33

QUOTE (orangezorki @ Sep 28 2008, 03:18 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Only thing I'd appreciate is a guide to the phonetic sounds of the characters - I have forgotten many of them.

振り仮名? Denied! MUAHAHAHAHAAHA!!!!

thibaulthalpern, do any of the images in this post load for you? I used the same image host.

#6 woojoo666


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Posted 24 November 2012 - 00:57

Thanks a lot, the charts are really helpful. Is there any way I can get the Katagana chart without the stroke order written on it? And is there a font that looks like the hiragana chart?

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