Friday, August 20, 2010

Kanji Beginner: Understanding the "Alphabet"

Because the Japanese system of writing is very different from the Roman alphabet used in English, it can take a bit to get your head wrapped around how words work. It can also lead to confusion among non-Japanese speakers trying to understand Japanese through words written in Roman letters.

If you see the romanized word "hime" ("princess"), it is one word written as 姫 in kanji, or "ひめ" (hi me) if you want to spell it out by sound with the hiragana "alphabet".

There is no way in Japanese to write "h" then "i" then "m" and "e". The smallest units are, minus a finishing "n/m", always a vowel "a, e, i, o, u" or a consonant or two followed by a vowel. For example: "ka, shi, tsu, me, no". So "kimono" would be, in hiragana, three characters (ki-mo-no きもの). Sendai, a city in Japan, would be four characters (Se-n-da-i せんだい)

Let's practice the idea... How many "letters" are in these words if you wanted to write them out in hiragana?

1. Asagao (morning glory)

2. Nihon (Japan)

3. Sushi

4. Murasaki (purple)

5. Amerika (America)

1. 4 A-sa-ga-o
2. 3 Ni-ho-n
3. 2 Su-shi
4. 4 Mu-ra-sa-ki
5. 4 A-me-ri-ka

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