Baseic Japanese

Fuji-yama by Yamashita Kiyoshi


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The System of Japanese Letters

The system of Japanese letters is very easy to describe in alphabet for the reason that it has only 5 vowels. But there are as many as three kinds of writing systems, hiragana, katakana and kanji.

YAMATO KOTOBA is an orginal form of the Japanese language and it has been used since the first Japanese began to live in the archipelago in ancient times when manmoths were roaming.. The primitive people, who had not had any written symbols, invented 50 HIRAGANAs, phonograms and a kind of Japanese alphabet, which were borrowed from Chinese characters, and simplified. Hiragana has become basic of Japanese letters.

あいうえお かきくけこ さしすせそ たちつてと なにぬねの

はひふへほ まみむめも やゆよ わ ん

a i u e o / ka ki ku ke ko / sa shi su se so / ta chi tsu te to / na ni nu ne no

ha hi hu he ho / ma mi mu me mo / ya yu yo / wa / n

If only Yamato Kotoba had developed without any foreign influences, the Japanese language today would not be what it is now. But they also had adopted KANGI, Chinese characters, as their legitimate writing system.

Kanji is ideogram, a very rare form in the world of languages. The origin of Kanji is glyph, associated with ordinary objects of daily lives. The whole number of Kanji is said to be hundreds of thousands. That is why Kanji is suitable for literal rather than oral communication.

kanji (examples)

at least 1 945 kanjis are to be learned

For this reason, once they have a common understanding of a Kanji character, it served as an international literal sign, though it was pronounced in different ways.. In particular, Buddhist scripts greatly owed their spread and translation to Kanji throughout Southeast Asia.

When Kanji and Buddhism were introduced into Japan, great efforts must have been made in a hurry to assimilate these Chinese characters into Japanese language because there were no particularly popular writing system at that time. But the grammatical systems of Japanese and Chinese are entirely different both in structure and origin. After all, many Chinese vocabulary were to be added in the end.

A kanji has usually only one kind of sound in Chinese. Japanese people imitated the sound in a Japanese way. That way of pronunciation is called "ON-YOMI 音読み" For example, "shan" means mountain in Chinese. and Japanese people called it "san".

on-yomi (examples)
競(compete)+走(run)=競走 kyoo-soo 短(short)+気(temper)=短気 tan-ki

旅(travel)+行(going)=旅行 ryo-koo 読(read)+書(books)=読書 doku-sho

While people regarded Yamato-kotoba as a spoken language, the introduction of Kanji increased words for abstract concepts, with the result that has developed the language system depending on visual rather than auditory effects. With too few vowels and consonants and too many vocabulary, the number of homonym has greatly increased.

But Japanese people were not content with imitating Chinese ways of pronunciation. Rather, these loan words ran into Yamato kotoba. They had already had "yama" meaning mountain. How can they reconcile "san" with "yama"?

Finally they thought out ways to solve this problem; Kanji had more than one ways of pronouncing ! A kanji had a pronunciation derived from Yamato kotoba, while its fundamental meaning is kept largely unchanged. This is called KUN-YOMI 訓読み.

kun-yomi ( examples )
山(mountain) = yama ( as against "san" ) 川(river) = kawa (as against "sen" )

薬(drug) = kusuri ( as against "yaku" ) 光(light) = hikari ( as gainst "koo" )

But they found out in no time that just adding new ways of pronunciation was not enough. Japanese verbs and adjectives have many cases of variation. While their stem can be written in kanji, the part of variation cannot, so hiraganas designating the variation were put after kanji. These added hiraganas are called OKURI-GANA 送りがな.

okuri-gana (examples)
はしる(run)=走る hashi-ru あいする(love)=愛する ai-suru 

ねる(sleep)=寝る ne-ru たべる(eat)=食べるta-beru

うつくしい(beautiful)=美しい utsuku-shii おおきい(big)=大きい oo-kii 

おもい(heavy)=重い omo-i あつい(hot)=暑い atsu-i

That is why reading ( and writing ) kanji is the second barrier for learners who have just understood basic Japanese grammar as a spoken language. Japanese language is not so difficult so long as they learn only spoken words, but if they really want to learn more, this complicated writing system is waiting for them.

There are another set of letters which are mostly used to express loanwords other than Chinese and onomatopoeia. They are called KATA-KANA カタカナ. While hira-gana is curviform, invented by literary women, kata-kana is linear, directly cut off from kanji.

アイウエオ カキクケコ サシスセソ タチツテト ナニヌネノ

ハヒフヘホ マミムメモ ヤユヨ ワ ン

a i u e o / ka ki ku ke ko / sa shi su se so / ta chi tsu te to / na ni nu ne no

ha hi hu he ho / ma mi mu me mo / ya yu yo / wa / n

Modern Japanese is written in complicated mixture of hira-gana, kata-kana and kanji. If you want to read a newspaper in Japanese, you are required to know minimum of 50 hira-ganas, 50 kata-kanas, and 1 945 kanjis. Many foreigners speak fluent Japanese, but far less of them write and read Japanese properly. Don' be discouraged !!!

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