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Intro to Hiragana



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Introduction

Hiragana is one of the three writing systems of Japanese that makes up almost all sounds that you'll hear. It features 46 main characters and a further 25 variations, each with their own associated sound. The sounds are all made up of a combination of a consonant and a vowel. The consonants are k, g, s, z, t, d, n, h, b, p, m, y, r, w and the vowels are a, i, u, e, o. These are combined to make characers such as 「さ」(sa, made with consonant s and vowel a). The 46 characers can be found in the chart below:

Hiragana Chart

Unlike the alphabet (and similar to Kanji) these symbols each have a specific way to write them. To learn stroke orders, check out our hiragana page or start with 「あ」.


Pronounciation

A beautiful fact about the Japanese language is that these characters are always pronounced exactly how they're shown, so you just need to learn these blanket pronounciation rules and then you'll be able to read just about anything:

a-vowel: like the a in father

i-vowel: like the ea in eat

u-vowel: like the oo in bloom

e-vowel: like the e in help

o-vowel: like the o in hope

All words you hear are created using combinations of these characters and sounds. Here are some examples to get you familiar, try saying these based on the pronounciations we just learned:

「いま」(ima) = now

「かお」(kao) = face

「うえ」(ue) = up

「あなた」(anata) = you


Dakuten & Handakuten

The variations of the characters that I mentioned earlier come from a combination of certain characters and either a Dakuten (or a ten-ten, meaning "dot-dot") or a Handakuten (or a maru, meaning "circle"). A Dakuten looks almost like a double quote mark (") and the Handaku looks like a small circle.

If you see these attached to a character, you should know that the main consonant sound is changed. A dakuten attached to a of the K-line of characters (か, き, く, け, or こ) their consonant becomes "G". For example, 「か」(ka) becomes「が」(ga), 「き」(ki) becomes「ぎ」(gi), and so on. The dakuten will also change S consonants into Z, T to D, and H to B.

The H-line is special, because it is the only set of characters that can feature a Handaku (circle). Adding this mark changes the main consonant into a "P".

See below for a complete chart of the possible variations:

Hiragana Dakuten & Handaku Chart


Hiragana Combinations

To be able to write words like Tokyo or densha (meaning train), we need to be able to combine sounds together, so we can create the kyo and sha sound, as these don't appear as standard sounds in the character set. We can do this by combining hiragana with I-vowels with characters from the Y-line. We can't just write one after another, because that would be 「きよ」(kiyo) or 「しや」(shiya). Instead, we can add the Y-line character right after the i-vowel character and make it smaller. This changes 「きよ」(kiyo) into 「きょ」(kyo) and 「しや」(shiya) into「しゃ」(sha). This may be difficult to see based on what font is used, but the や, ゆ, or よ becomes almost half-sized. See if you can notice this in the following examples:

や→ゃ
ゆ→ゅ
よ→ょ

See below for a complete chart of the possible variations:

Hiragana Combination Chart


Long Vowels & Double Consonants

Japanese is spoken with a sort of rythym, with each syllable getting its own beat. Some words require vowels or consonants to carry over multiple beats, which is something that English doesn't distinguish. For example, おばさん (obasan meaning aunt) and おばあさん (obaasan meaning grandmother) are two different words, with the difference being the a-vowel extending over one and two beats respectively. To extend a vowel, you can simply add a certain vowel after the character that needs to be extended:

a-vowel: attach「あ」
example: ば (ba) → ばあ (baa)

i-vowel: attach「い」
example: し (shi) → しい (shii)

u-vowel: attach「う」
example: つ (tsu) → つう (tsuu)

e-vowel: attach「い」
example: せ (se) → せい (see)

o-vowel: attach「う」
example: ほ (ho) → ほう (hoo)

Notice that e- and o-vowels require a vowel different than their own. They are still pronounced as a two-beat ee and oo respectively.

In addition to being able to extend vowels over two beats, you can also extend consonants. By placing a small 「つ」(tsu) character before the consonant, you give that character two counts. The「っ」acts as a silent character in a way, so when you read a word featuring a double consonant, give a one-beat pause.
Check out these examples:

にっぽん (nippon, an alternative name for Japan)

がっこう (gakkou, school)

きっぷ (kippu, ticket)



Congrats on your first steps taken toward learning Japanese! If you'd like help memorizing these characters, please be sure to check out our Hiragana drill game

For info on how to write the hiragana along with individual information, see below: