Learn more about Hiragana
|Time period:||~800 A.D. to the present|
|Parent writing systems:|| Kanji|
|Sister writing systems:||Katakana, Hentaigana|
|ISO 15924 code:||Hira|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.|
Hiragana (平仮名?) are a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system, along with katakana and kanji; the Latin alphabet is also used in some cases. Hiragana and katakana are both kana systems, in which each symbol represents one mora. Each kana is either a vowel (such as a あ); a consonant followed by a vowel (such as ka か); or n ん, a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng (IPA: [ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of French.
Hiragana are used for words for which there are no kanji, including particles such as kara から "from," and suffixes such as ~san さん "Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms." Hiragana are also used in words for which the kanji form is not known to the writer, is not expected to be known to the readers, or is too formal for the writing purpose. Verb and adjective inflections, for example in tabemashita (食べました ate?), BE MA SHI TA are written in hiragana. In this case, part of the root is also written in hiragana. Hiragana are also used to give the pronunciation of kanji in a reading aid called furigana. The article Japanese writing system discusses in detail when the various systems of writing are used.
 The hiragana writing system
The hiragana consist of a basic set of characters, the gojūon , which can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker (゛), an unvoiced consonant such as k or t is turned into a voiced consonant such as g or d: k→g, t→d, s→z, and h→b. Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker (゜) changing the h to a p. A small version of the hiragana for ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ respectively) may be added to hiragana ending in i. This changes the i vowel sound to a glide palatalization. Addition of the small y kana is called yōon. A small tsu っ called a sokuon indicates a geminate (doubled) consonant. It appears before fricatives and stops, and sometimes at the end of sentences. This is represented in rōmaji by doubling the following consonant.
In informal writing small versions of the five vowel kana are sometimes used to represent trailing off sounds (はぁ, ねぇ).
There are a few hiragana which are rarely used. Wi ゐ and we ゑ are obsolete. V ゔ is a modern addition used to represent the "v" sound in foreign languages such as English, but since Japanese does not have a v sound, it is pronounced as a b. It is rarely seen because loan words and transliterated words are usually written in katakana.
The following table shows hiragana together with their Hepburn romanization. The obsolete kana are shown in red romanization. There are 104 cases.
|あ a||い i||う u||え e||お o||(ya)||(yu)||(yo)|
|か ka||き ki||く ku||け ke||こ ko||きゃ kya||きゅ kyu||きょ kyo|
|さ sa||し shi||す su||せ se||そ so||しゃ sha||しゅ shu||しょ sho|
|た ta||ち chi||つ tsu||て te||と to||ちゃ cha||ちゅ chu||ちょ cho|
|な na||に ni||ぬ nu||ね ne||の no||にゃ nya||にゅ nyu||にょ nyo|
|は ha||ひ hi||ふ fu||へ he||ほ ho||ひゃ hya||ひゅ hyu||ひょ hyo|
|ま ma||み mi||む mu||め me||も mo||みゃ mya||みゅ myu||みょ myo|
|や ya||ゆ yu||よ yo|
|ら ra||り ri||る ru||れ re||ろ ro||りゃ rya||りゅ ryu||りょ ryo|
|わ wa||ゐ wi||ゑ we||を wo|
|が ga||ぎ gi||ぐ gu||げ ge||ご go||ぎゃ gya||ぎゅ gyu||ぎょ gyo|
|ざ za||じ ji||ず zu||ぜ ze||ぞ zo||じゃ ja||じゅ ju||じょ jo|
|だ da||ぢ (ji)||づ (zu)||で de||ど do||ぢゃ (ja)||ぢゅ (ju)||ぢょ (jo)|
|ば ba||び bi||ぶ bu||べ be||ぼ bo||びゃ bya||びゅ byu||びょ byo|
|ぱ pa||ぴ pi||ぷ pu||ぺ pe||ぽ po||ぴゃ pya||ぴゅ pyu||ぴょ pyo|
The combinations にゃ, にゅ, and にょ are not to be confused with the sequences んや, んゆ, and んよ. The combinations of に with a small y kana each represent a single mora, while the sequences of ん followed by a large y kana represent two separate morae. The distinction can be illustrated with minimal pairs such as かにゅう ka-nyu-u, "joining", and かんゆう ka-n-yu-u, "persuasion", which are easily distinguished in speech, although in some romanization styles they might both be written kanyu. In Hepburn romanization, they are distinguished with an apostrophe: kanyū and kan'yū.
 Spelling rules
With a few exceptions for sentence particles は, を, and へ (wa, o, and e), and a few other arbitrary rules, Japanese is spelled as it sounds. This has not always been the case: a previous system of spelling, now referred to as historical kana usage had many spelling rules; the exceptions in modern usage are the legacy of that system. The exact spelling rules are referred to as kanazukai (仮名遣い?), "kana use".
There are two hiragana pronounced ji (じ and ぢ) and two hiragana pronounced zu (ず and づ). These pairs are not interchangeable. Usually, ji is written as じ and zu is written as ず. There are some exceptions. If the first two syllables of a word consist of one syllable without a dakuten and the same syllable with a dakuten, the same hiragana is used to write the sounds. For example chijimeru (‘to boil down’ or ‘to shrink’) is spelled ちぢめる. For compound words where the dakuten reflects rendaku voicing, the original hiragana is used. For example, chi (血 "blood") is spelled ち in plain hiragana. When 鼻 hana (“nose”) and 血 combine to make hanaji 鼻血 "nose bleed"), the sound of 血changes from chi to ji. So hanaji is spelled はなぢ according to ち: the basic hiragana used to transcribe 血. Similarly, Tsukau (使う; "to use") is spelled つかう in hiragana, so kanazukai (かな使い; "kana use" .. or .. "kana orthography") is spelled かなづかい in hiragana.
However, this does not apply when kanji are used to make words which do not relate directly to their elemental meaning. The Japanese word for ‘lightning’, for example, is inazuma (稲妻). The ‘稲’ component means ‘rice plant’, is written いな in hiragana and is pronounced: ina. The 妻 component means ’wife’ and is pronounced tsuma (つま) when written in isolation or frequently as zuma (ずま) when it features after another syllable. Neither of these components have anything to do with ‘lightning’, but together they do when they compose the word for ‘lightning’. In this case, the default spelling in hiragana いなずま rather than いなづま is used.
Hiragana usually spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana. The chōon (vowel extender mark) (ー) used in katakana is rarely used with hiragana, for example in the word らーめん, ramen, but this usage is considered non-standard.
A word cannot begin with the kana ん (n). This is at the basis of the word game shiritori. However, n is sometimes directly followed by a vowel. For example, ren'ai 恋愛 ("romantic love, emotion") is written in hiragana as れんあい rather than れない renai (a nonexistent word).
Hiragana developed from man'yōgana, Chinese characters used for their pronunciations, a practice which started in the 5th century. The forms of the hiragana originate from the sōsho style of Chinese calligraphy. The figure below shows the derivation of hiragana from manyōgana via sōsho. The upper part shows the character in the kaisho form, the centre character in red shows the sōsho form of the character, and the bottom shows the equivalent hiragana.
When they were first created, hiragana were not accepted by everyone. Many felt that the language of the educated was still Chinese. Historically, in Japan, the kaisho form of the characters was used by men, so-called onode (男手?), "men's writing", and the sōsho form of the kanji was used by women. Thus hiragana first gained popularity among women, who were not allowed access to the same levels of education as men. From this comes the alternative name of onnade (女手?) "women's writing". For example, The Tale of Genji and other early novels by female authors used hiragana extensively or exclusively.
Male authors came to write literature using hiragana. Hiragana, with its flowing style, was used for unofficial writing such as personal letters, while katakana and Chinese were used for official documents. In modern times, hiragana has become preferred over katakana, which is now relegated to special uses such as recently borrowed words (i.e., since the 19th century), names in transliteration, the names of animals, in telegrams, and for emphasis.
The poem Iroha-uta ("Song/poem of colours"), which dates to the 10th century, uses every hiragana (except n ん) once. In the chart below, the romanization shows the hiragana; the reading in modern Japanese is in parentheses.
Note that the last line begins with an obsolete kana (we ゑ).
|いろはにほへと||I ro ha ni ho he to|
(Iro wa nioedo)
|Even if colours have sweet perfume|
|ちりぬるを||chi ri nu ru wo|
|eventually they fade away|
|わかよたれそ||wa ka yo ta re so|
(waga yo tare zo)
|What in this world|
|つねならむ||tsu ne na ra mu|
|うゐのおくやま||u wi no o ku ya ma|
(ui no okuyama)
|The deep mountains of vanity|
|けふこえて||ke fu ko e te|
|I cross them today|
|あさきゆめみし||a sa ki yu me mi shi|
(asaki yume mishi)
|renouncing superficial dreams|
|ゑひもせす||we hi mo se su|
(yoi mo sezu)
|not giving in to their madness any more|
 Hiragana in Unicode
In Unicode, Hiragana occupies code points U+3040 to U+309F:
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
The Unicode hiragana block contains precomposed characters for all hiragana in the modern set, including small vowels and yōon kana for compound syllables, plus the archaic wi and we and the rare vu. All combinations of hiragana with dakuten and handakuten used in modern Japanese are available as precomposed characters, and can also be produced by using a base hiragana followed by the combining dakuten and handakuten characters (U+3099 and U+309A, respectively). This method is used to add the diacritics to kana that are not normally used with them, for example applying the dakuten to a pure vowel or the handakuten to a kana not in the h-group.
Characters U+3095 and U+3096 are small か (ka) and small け (ke), respectively. U+309F is a digraph of より (yori) occasionally used in vertical text. U+309B and U+309C are spacing (non-combining) equivalents to the combining dakuten and handakuten characters, respectively.
There are no characters at code points U+3040, U+3097, or U+3098.
 See also
- Shodo, Japanese calligraphy.
- Iteration mark explains the iteration marks used with hiragana.
- Japanese typographic symbols gives other non-kana, non-kanji symbols.
- Japanese phonology explains Japanese pronunciation in detail.
- Nü Shu, a syllabary writing system used by women in China's Hunan province
- "The Art of Japanese Calligraphy", Yujiro Nakata, ISBN 0-8348-1013-1, gives details of the development of onode and onnade.
 External links
- Hiragana code chart at Unicode.org
- Hiragana derivation diagrams on nihongoresources.com
- hiragana stroke order diagrams on nihongoresources.com
- Real Kana Practice hiragana using different typefaces
- Learn how to read and write hiragana
- Test your hiragana knowledge
- Background and information on hiraganabr:Hiragana
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