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Intro to Katakana



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Introduction

Katakana is another one of the writing systems of Japanese. It is mainly used to represent foreign words, onomatopoeia, and emphasis. It shares many characteristics with hiragana, so if you read the Introduction to Hiragana Guide (which we highly recommend reading first!) you'll read a lot of the same information here. We'll highlight the information that differs from Katakana (like this) to save you some time.

Katakana also has 46 main characters with 25 variations. Each character has its own sound, made up of either a combination of a consonant (k, g, s, z, t, d, n, h, b, p, m, y, r, w) and vowel (a, i, u, e, o) or just a vowel. These sounds are the same ones found in katakana. These are combined to make characers such as 「サ」(sa, made with consonant s and vowel a). The 46 characers can be found in the chart below:

Katakana 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 katakana page or start with 「ア」.


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:

「アメリカ」(amerika) = America

「ホテル」(hoteru) = hotel

「レストラン」(resutoran) = restaurant

「ハウス」(hausu) = house


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 (カ, キ, ク, ケ, or コ) their consonant becomes "G". For example, 「カ」(ka) becomes「ガ」(ga), 「キ」(ki) becomes「ギ」(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:

Katakana Dakuten & Handaku Chart


Katakana 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 katakana with I-vowels with chracters from the Y-line. We can't just write one after another, because that would be 「キヨ」(kiyo) or 「シヤ」(shiya). Instead, we can add the Y-line character right after the i-vowel character and make it smaller. This changes 「キヨ」(kiyo) into 「キョ」(kyo) and 「シヤ」(shiya) into「シャ」(sha). This may be difficult to see based on what font is used, but the ヤ, ユ, or ヨ becomes almost half-sized. See if you can notice this in the following examples:

ヤ→ャ
ユ→ュ
ヨ→ョ

See below for a complete chart of the possible variations:

Katakana Combination Chart

Since other languages, such as english or spanish, have more consonant sounds than Japanese, katakana features a few more cominations to be able to accurately portray foreign words.

Below is a chart of all these special combinations that are only found in katakana.


Katakana Special 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, ビル (biru meaning building) and ビール (biiru meaning beer) are two different words, with the difference being the i-vowel extending over one and two beats respectively. To extend a vowel, you can simply add a bar (ー) after the character that needs to be extended:

デパート (depaato, department store)

パーティー (paatii, party)

スーパー (suupaa, supermarket)


In addition to being able to extend vowels over two beats, you can also extend consonants. By placing a small 「ツ」(tsu) character before the consonant, you give that character two counts. The「ッ」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:

マッチ (macchi, match

ケチャップ (kechappu, ketchup)

サンドイッチ (sandoicchi, sandwich)



If you'd like help memorizing these characters, please be sure to check out our Katakana drill game

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