Hiragana

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Introduction

Hiragana (平仮名, literally "smooth kana") are a Japanese syllabary, one of four Japanese writing systems (the others are katakana, kanji and rōmaji).

Hiragana are used for:

  • Japanese words for which there are no kanji, for example particles such as kara から and suffixes such as ~san さん.
  • Japanese words for which the kanji form is not known to the writer, not expected to be known to the readers, or too formal for the writing purpose.
  • Verb and adjective inflections, for example in tabemashita 食べました (used like this, hiragana are called okurigana 送り仮名).
  • Giving the pronunciation of kanji for readers who may not know them (used like this, hiragana are called furigana).

Each hiragana represents one syllable (technically, one mora), and is either a vowel on its own (such as a あ), a consonant followed by a vowel (such as ka か), or ん, which sounds like the English "m" or "n".

The presence of hiragana among Chinese characters is usually sufficient to identify a text as Japanese.


The hiragana writing system

The hiragana consist of a basic set of characters, the gojūon (五十音, literally "fifty sounds", but only 45 are in common use today), which can be modified as follows:

  • Adding a dakuten (濁点) marker ゛ turns an unvoiced consonant into a voiced consonant, in particular it changes kg, td, sz, and hb.
  • Adding a handakuten (半濁点) marker ゜ changes hp.
  • Adding a small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ respectively) changes a preceding i vowel sound to a glide palatalization.
  • A small tsu っ indicates a geminate consonant. This only appears before fricatives and stops. This is represented in rōmaji by doubling the following consonant. Occasionally this will follow the last vowel in a word to indicate surprise.

There are ways to represent other sounds with hiragana, using minuscule versions of the five vowel kana. This is not generally used in formal writing, but is occasionally used with loanwords in katakana in an attempt to approximate more closly the source word's pronunciation.

There are a few hiragana which are not in the standard modern set. wi ゐ and we ゑ are obsolete. vu ゔ is modern and is pronounced as bwu to approximate the "v" sound in foreign languages such as English (it is rarely seen because transliterated words are usually written in katakana).

If you have a font including Japanese characters, you can view the following chart of hiragana together with their Hepburn romanization. Obsolete kana are shown in red.

Hepburn Romanization of Hiragana
a i u e o (ya) (yu) (yo)
ka ki ku ke ko きゃ kya きゅ kyu きょ kyo
sa shi su se so しゃ sha しゅ shu しょ sho
ta chi tsu te to ちゃ cha ちゅ chu ちょ cho
na ni nu ne no にゃ nya にゅ nyu にょ nyo
ha hi fu he ho ひゃ hya ひゅ hyu ひょ hyo
ma mi mu me mo みゃ mya みゅ myu みょ myo
ya
yu
yo
ra ri ru re ro りゃ rya りゅ ryu りょ ryo
わ wa ゐ wi
ゑ we を wo

n
ga gi gu ge go ぎゃ gya ぎゅ gyu ぎょ gyo
za ji zu ze zo じゃ ja じゅ ju じょ jo
da ji zu de do
ba bi bu be bo びゃ bya びゅ byu びょ byo
pa pi pu pe po ぴゃ pya ぴゅ pyu ぴょ pyo
Spelling rules

With a few exceptions for sentence particles は, を, and へ and a few other arbitrary rules, Japanese is spelled as it sounds. This has not always been the case: a previous system of spelling, now referred to as historical kana usage had many arbitrary spelling rules; the exceptions in modern usage are the legacy of that system.

Note that there are two hiragana pronounced ji (じ and ぢ) and two hiragana pronounced zu (ず and づ). These pairs are not interchangeable. The exact spelling rules are referred to as kanazukai (かな使い, "kana use"). In general, the rules are:

  • If the first two hiragana of a word are the same, but the second one has a dakuten, use the same hiragana as the first one, for example chijimeru is spelled ちぢめる.
  • For compound words where the dakuten has added due to compounding, use the original hiragana. For example, chi (血 "blood") is spelled ち, so hanaji (鼻血, "bloody nose") is spelled はなぢ, and tsukau (使う; "to use") is spelled つかう, so kanazukai (かな使い; "kana use", "kana orthography") is spelled かなづかい. (However, this does not apply when the second element is not considered to be a meaningful, separable element: in these cases, use the default spelling given below. Thus, even though inazuma (稲妻, "lightning") is written using the kanji tsuma 妻 ("wife"), that is not considered a separable suffix and so inazuma is spelled いなずま and not *いなづま.)
  • ji (痔, "hemorrhoids") is written ぢ. (Actually, according to dictionaries it should be written じ, but a commercial for hemorrhoid medicine popularized the incorrect version.)
  • Otherwise, use the default: write ji as じ and zu as ず.

n ん can never be at the beginning of a Japanese word. This fact is at the basis of the word game shiritori. However, n is sometimes directly followed by a vowel. For example, ren'ai 恋愛 is spelled れんあい and den'atsu 電圧 is spelled でんあつ.

Pronunciation
See the main article on the Japanese language.
Collation

Hiragana are the basis for collation in Japanese. They are taken in the order given by the gojūon (あ い う え お … わ を ん), though iroha ordering is used for enumeration in some circumstances. Dictionaries differ in the sequence order for long/short vowel distinction, small tsu and diacritics. As the Japanese do not use word spaces (except for children), there can be no word-by-word collation; all collation is kana-by-kana.

A convenient English mnemonic phrase for remembering the gojūon ordering is:

Ah, Kana Symbols: Take Note How Many You Read Well.

The first letters in this phrase give the ordering of the non-voiced initial sounds in the syllabary.

For vowel ordering, the vowel sounds in the following English phrase may be used as a mnemonic:

Ah, we soon get old.

The vowel sounds in the English words approximate the Japanese vowels: a, i, u, e, o.

History

Hiragana developed from man'yōgana, Chinese characters used exclusively for their pronunciations, a practice which started in the 5th century. Literature was written using these characters, and as the forms of the man'yōgana became simplified (flattened), the hiragana came in to existence, used mainly by women.

Hiragana were not accepted by everyone. Many felt that the language of the educated was still Chinese. However it gained in popularity among women as they were not allowed access to higher education. (From this comes the alternative name of onnade (女手, "women's writing").) For example, The Tale of Genji and other early novels by female authors used hiragana extensively or exclusively. Male authors also wrote literature using hiragana. Hiragana with its flowing style came to be used for unofficial writing such as personal letters while Katakana and Chinese were used for official documents. In modern times, it has become preferred over katakana, which is now relegated to special uses such as borrowed words and names in transliteration.

<>Most sounds had more than one hiragana. In 1900, the system was simplified so each sound had only one hiragana. Other hiragana are known as hentaigana (変体仮名). Note however that this hentai (変体) is not the same word as the hentai (変態) from which the English slang term is derived.
Hiragana in Unicode

In Unicode, Hiragana occupy code points U+3040 to U+309F [1]:

  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
304
305
306
307
308
309
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