All About Japan

Intro to the Japanese Writing System: Katakana

Learning Japanese First Time in Japan Life in Japan

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 ideas in the sentence. The は (ha), めいど (meido) and を (wo) 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,” “manga” and “ninja” 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 choose 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. (You could, alternatively, just make up a logical combination of kanji and declare that it's read meido, but if you do that for all loanwords, the entire population would have to have annual study sessions just to learn the phonetic reading of all the new words that have been introduced.)

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

Which is why meido gets written in katakana like in the picture above.

Now, armed with all three sets of characters, let’s go back and write ”Watashi ha medio wo mita” again.

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.

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 (though admittedly some words are a little easier to decipher than others).

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. Trust us, as weird as it might seem in the beginning, we’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)!

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