Why does Japanese writing need three different sets of characters? (Part 2)

By Casey Baseel, RocketNews24

We’re back and ready to take on the third, and most puzzling, type of Japanese text: katakana.

Recently, we started taking a look at the question of why the Japanese language needs three sets of written characters. To recap, we saw that kanji (complex characters that originated in China) are used to symbolize a term or concept, while hiragana (simpler, indigenous Japanese characters) represent sounds and provide extra context and grammatical information.

What we haven’t talked about yet is why Japanese needs two sets of phonetic script. Aside from hiragana, there’s also katakana, yet another group of 46 low-stroke-count characters used for writing things phonetically. Specifically, katakana get used for writing foreign loanwords.

But wait. We don’t need a whole new set of letters to write foreign loanwords in English. What makes things different in Japanese? Let’s dive into the answer, and since it’s going to take a while to explain, go ahead and pour yourself a cup of coffee ... which, incidentally, is written with katakana as コーヒー.

As mentioned last time, there are two huge advantages to using a mix of kanji and hiragana. There’s an extremely limited number of sounds available in the Japanese language, which results in many Japanese words having the same pronunciation but wildly different meanings, but the conceptual meanings kanji possess help to avoid confusion. Second, since Japanese is written with no spaces between words, using kanji for vocabulary and kana for grammar (to put things in broad terms) makes it easy to see the components of a sentence.

For example, Watashi ha kuruma wo mita or “I saw the car,” with kanji (i.e. vocabulary) and hiragana (i.e. grammar). 私は車を見た.

But that limited number of sounds means most foreign words can’t be properly rendered in written Japanese, which threatens to give the language even more homonyms. For example, let’s say we wanted to talk about a maid, of the maid cafe variety. Since Japanese syllables can’t end in a “D” sound, “maid” becomes meido (pronounced close to “maid-o”).

If we want to write meido in Japanese, it seems like the obvious thing to do is to write it in simple, phonetic hiragana. Technically we could do that, and it would look like this: めいど.

But this would make things confusing once we combined it with other words. Since hiragana is most commonly used for grammatical modifications, using it for a whole noun like “maid” can make it hard to see the breakdown of ideas in a sentence. Remember how easy it was to spot the breaks in “Watashi ha kuruma wo mita/I saw the car?” Look what happens when we replace the kanji for kuruma/car, 車, with meido, written all in hiragana, to try to write Watashi ha meido wo mita/I saw the maid. 私はめいどを見た.

Now we’ve got that whole はめいどを cluster of hiragana, which makes it confusing to figure out where to draw the lines to separate the different idea in the sentence. The は, めいど, and を are all serving different purposes, but because they’re in a singular mass of hiragana, it becomes difficult to differentiate one from the other. As a matter of fact, it can actually be somewhat confusing and cumbersome for Japanese adults to read young children’s storybooks if they’re predominantly written in hiragana without severely slowing down their reading speed so they can pick things apart.

OK, so now we’ve seen that using hiragana to write meido would be a bad plan. So how about writing it in kanji? The problem with that approach is that it raises the question of how, and more importantly when, to decide what the kanji for meido should be. There isn’t a starkly defined point at which vocabulary crosses over into other languages. Just look at the gradual manner in which “anime,” “otaku,” and “moe” have seeped into English.

In order to write everything in kanji, you’d need some sort of linguistic authority group constantly scanning for foreign words and developing new kanji for them before anyone in Japan has a need to write them. Even if such a framework existed, there’s the problem that if you chose the kanji based on how they’re pronounced, in an attempt to stay close to the original pronunciation of the loanword, the meaning of those individual kanji is going to be something completely different from that of the loanword they’re supposed to be representing.

So now hiragana and kanji are both out. Using either for meido would both create new problems, and there’s no practical way to produce a universally accepted kanji for it either, so there needs to be another phonetic character set for writing foreign loanwords: katakana.

Which is why meido gets written in katakana like this: メイド

Now armed with all three sets of characters, let’s go back and write Watashi ha medio wo mita again. 私はメイドを見た.

Now we’ve got a nice kanji-hiragana-katakana-hiragana-kanji-hiragana pattern, giving us the easy-to-spot breakdown of:

  1. 私は: Watashi (I) and ha (the subject marker)
  2. メイドを: meido (the maid) and wo (the object marker)
  3. 見た: mi- (the verb see) and -ta (marking the verb as past tense)

Looking at the situation from the standpoint of how a language advances and evolves, katakana gives Japanese a way to quickly incorporate new concepts from other cultures with a non-kanji-based writing system. Without katakana, there’d be no way for Japan to efficiently add global ideas to its writing. Without hiragana, there’d be no way to easily modify grammar. And without either, you’d end up with basically the Chinese writing system, which makes the Japanese one look like a cakewalk in terms of difficulty for foreign learners.

Speaking of foreign learners, the existence of katakana actually works out in your favor, once you get the hang of some of the more common ways the pronunciation of foreign words gets corrupted in Japanese. Once again, say you’re reading the sentence 私はメイドを見た (Watashi ha meido wo mita/I saw the maid).

Even if you didn’t already know that meido is the Japanese word for “maid,” once you see that it’s written in katakana, you know it’s a foreign loanword. When you spot メイド, even if you’ve never seen the word used in Japanese before, you can ask yourself “Is there a word in English/French/Spanish/etc. that sounds like this?” and you’ve got a chance of deciphering the meaning on the spot.

Yes, until you get a little experience with the language and build up a base of vocabulary, sometimes it’s going to be extremely frustrating that Japanese has three different styles of writing. It didn’t all start making sense to me until a couple of months into studying the language, but one day it clicked, and in the roughly 20 years since I haven’t reversed my stance on it. Trust me, as weird as it might seem in the beginning, I’ve never met anyone for whom the relationship between kanji, hiragana, and katakana was the insurmountable stumbling block that kept them from becoming proficient in Japanese, so if that’s your goal, stick with it (and all three of them).

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Struggling with Japanese? Let Tako lend you a hand…or five -- Foreigners in Japan vote for the best-looking katakana character -- Seven mistakes foreigners make when speaking Japanese—and how to fix them

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While this is a good article, giving insight into the language, the truth is, Japanese doesn't 'need' 3 different written sets of characters, it simply HAS 3. The Chinese seem to have no problem with using/creating Kanji for new words and concepts, and many other languages seem to get by without having to use a completely different written set of characters to distinguish different parts of the sentence! Add to that, that even after having all these different character sets the Japanese language is still incapable of phonetically indicating sounds outside of their own language set, it is no wonder people get frustrated with it. And to those studying it - the written part is easier than the spoken part!

I'm not trying to bash Japanese - and indeed I study every day because, well, I live in Japan - but, sometimes you have to call them out on it!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The Chinese seem to have no problem with using/creating Kanji for new words and concepts, and many other languages seem to get by without having to use a completely different written set of characters to distinguish different parts of the sentence!

Chinese and other languages are not Japanese. They work very differently.

Add to that, that even after having all these different character sets the Japanese language is still incapable of phonetically indicating sounds outside of their own language set, it is no wonder people get frustrated with it.

This is a limitation of every writing system. Try indicating the sounds for らりるれろ in English - cannot be done. Try writing the tones of Chinese in English - cannot be done (or at least, it cannot be done without using numbers to indicate the tone). This is nothing particular to Japanese.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

If you have Microsoft Word, look at all the fonts that are available. It is not usual for there to be a couple of hundred different fonts already installed or added by various programs. Does English really need several hundred different ways of writing A B C ...? Some English fonts render the letters of the English alphabet with almost as much difference as there is between the hiragana and katakana pairs.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Specifically, katakana get used for writing foreign loanwords.

That sentence needs "usually" inserting before Katakana. For example, the biggest privately owned car dealer group in Japan is Yanase and their logo is written in Katakana thus ヤナセ

2 ( +2 / -0 )

All the problems given as justification for using three different writing systems could be resolved by the simple expedient of putting spaces between words. Honestly, how difficult is that?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I disagree with this article because it seems to be bending over backwards to justify the Japanese writing system when really no justification is needed. Japanese has three scripts simply because it does. The argument about the sentence getting muddled if it's written in one script alone is incorrect. Just look at children's books. They're written using hiragana alone and it's not confusing. One can assume that becuase it's a children's book that it's actually easier that way. Furthermore, many books are written in hiragana alone. Also, the article fails to mention style. As one poster noted above, many Japanese companies write their names in katakana simply as choice of style. This means that not only is katakana used for foreign words but it also lends a foreignness or an exotic quality to the native word. The article also fails to mention the political aspect as well. And I think this is what disturbes most foreigners that have a problem with Japan's writing system. Katakana is used to remind everyone and reinforce the us versus them dichotomy. Look at any variety shows that feature foreigners as guests. The foreigner can be speaking flawless Japanese and yet the subtitles for their speech will be in katakana while the Japanese's speech will be accompanied by kanji and hiragana-- unless the Japanese person says something "cool" or the tv producers want to add a little "exotic" spice then the Japanese's speech will also be sprinkled with katakana subtitles.

But there really is no need for justification. It is what it is. And I find that the only people who complain are those who just don't want to study. Stop feeding into and perpetuating the notion that Japanese is this exotic, esoteric entity that's impossible to grapple with. It's no different from studying any other language. You get out of it what you put into it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Romaji Katakana Hiragana Kanji

1,2,3...um 4?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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