From Academic Kids

Template:Japanese writing

For other meanings of Kana, see Kana (disambiguation).

Kana is a general term for two types of syllabic Japanese script: hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ). These were developed as an alternative and adjunct to ideograph based characters of Chinese origin, or Kanji (漢字).

Table of the Japanese kana
Hiragana and katakana (grouped vertically).
Syllables in parenthesis are archaic. (Image of this table.)
あア  かカ  さサ  たタ  なナ  はハ  まマ  やヤ  らラ  わワ  んン
いイきキしシちチにニひヒみミ りリゐヰ
ikishichinihimi ri(wi)
えエけケせセてテねネへヘめメ れレゑヱ
ekeseteneheme re(we)

Modern usage

Today katakana is most commonly used to write words of foreign origin that do not have a kanji representation. For example, "George W. Bush" can be expressed as ジョージ・W.・ブッシュ. Katakana is also used for sound effects, biological terms, and some corporate branding.

Hiragana is mostly used to indicate grammatical aspects of the language. It is also used to represent an entire word (usually of Japanese, rather than Chinese origin) in place of kanji.

Hiragana can be written in small form above or next to lesser-known kanji in order to show pronunciation; this is referred to as furigana. Furigana is used most widely in children's books; however, literature aimed for young children with little knowledge of kanji may dispense with it altogether and use hiragana combined with spaces instead.

History of kana


Kana is traditionally said to have been invented by the Buddhist priest Kūkai in the 9th century. Kūkai certainly brought the Siddham script home on his return from China in 806; his interest in the sacred aspects of speech and writing led him to the conclusion that Japanese would be better represented by a phonetic alphabet than by the kanji which had been used up to that point.

The concept of phonetic characters existed before as Kanji phonetics known as Man'yōgana. Man'yōshū, a poetry anthology written in 759, is written in this early script.

Historical kana usage

Historical kana usage (歴史的仮名遣, rekishiteki kanazukai, also called 旧仮名遣, kyū kanazukai, ancient usage of kana or 正仮名遣, sei kanazukai, correct usage of kana) refers to a system of spelling with kana that does not accord with modern Japanese pronunciation (現代仮名遣, gendai kanazukai). Based on the original word forms, it differs from modern usage in the number of characters and the way those characters are used. Historical kana were widely used until after World War II, but the modern system was adopted by Cabinet order in 1946.

General differences

There are two kana in historical usage that are obsolete today: ゐ/ヰ (wi) and ゑ/ヱ (we). Today, these are pronounced as i and e. Words that formerly contained those characters are written using い and え instead.

Historical kana usage represents the way words sounded during the Heian era. As the spoken language has continued to develop, some orthography looks odd to the modern eye -- similar to the situation that the great vowel shift caused in English spelling. As these peculiarities follow fairly regular patterns they are not that difficult to learn.

Usage of small kana, ぁぃぅぇぉっゃゅょ, is not obligatory.


Following are some typical examples showing the historical spelling, modern spelling, and kanji representation.

historical usagecurrent usageRomajiTranslation
けふ kefuきょう kyō (今日)today
てふ tefu ちょう chō (蝶) butterfly
ゐる wiru いる iru (居る)to be/exist
あはれ ahare あわれ aware (哀れ)to be helpless/sad
かへる kaheru かえる kaeru (帰) to return home
ゑびす webisu えびす ebisu (夷)barbarian, savage
くゎし kwashi かし kashi (菓子)sweets

The table at the bottom gives a more complete list of the changes in spelling patterns.

Historical kana usage can be used to look up words in larger dictionaries and dictionaries specializing in old vocabulary, which are in print in Japan. One occasionally encounters old kana in words such as うゐすきい uwisukii ("whiskey", in hiragana).

Because of the great discrepancy between the pronunciation and spelling and the widespread adoption of modern kana usage, historical kana usage is almost never seen, except in some special cases; one notable case is restaurants that specialize in どじょう dojō (loach, a sardine-like fish), which often show the word in its historical spelling of どぜう dozeu on their signs. Again, companies, shrines and people occasionally use historical kana conventions such as ゑびす (Ebisu).

In addition, alternate kana letterforms, known as hentaigana (変体仮名), have nearly disappeared. A few uses remain, such as kisoba, often written using obsolete kana on the signs of soba shops.

The use of を (historically pronounced /wo/), へ, and は for sentence particles instead of お, え, and わ are remnants of historical kana usage.

Romanization of historical kana

Readers of English occasionally encounter words romanized according to historical kana usage, although we is typically rendered ye. Here are some examples, with modern romanizations in parentheses:

Spelling reform

As long ago as the Meiji Restoration, there had been dissatisfaction regarding the discrepancy between spelling and speech, but it was in 1946 immediately following World War II that modern kana usage was instituted as part of a general orthographic reform. It should be noted that, for example, あ (a) includes all kana using the /a/ vowel, such as か (ka) or た (ta).

spelling changes
archaic modern
あ+う (a + u)
あ+ふ (a + fu)
おう (ō)
い+う (i + u)
い+ふ (i + fu)
ゆう ()
う+ふ (u + fu) うう (ū)
え+う (e + u)
え+ふ (e + fu)
よう ()
お+ふ (o + fu) おう (ō)
お+ほ (o + ho)
お+を (o + wo)
おお (ō)
く+わ (ku + wa) か (ka)
Originally kwa
ぐ+わ (gu + wa) が (ga)
Originally gwa
medial or final は (ha) わ (wa)
medial or final ひ (hi), へ (he), ほ (ho) い (i), え (e), お (o)
(via wi, we, wo, see below)
any ゐ (wi), ゑ (we), を (wo) い (i), え (e), お (o)
ぢ (voiced chi), づ (voiced tsu) じ (voiced shi), ず (voiced su)

In addition, there were no small kana, thus, for example, きよ would be ambiguous between kiyo and kyo while かつた could be either katsuta or katta.

The pronunciations of medial h-row kana does not extend to compound words, thus, にほん was pronounced nihon not nion. Note that there are a small number of counterexamples, e.g., あひる "duck", pronounced ahiru rather than airu or ふじはら (ふぢはら?) pronounced Fujiwara, despite being a compound of Fuji (wisteria) + hara (field).

The h-row was historically pronounced as fa, fi, fu, fe, fo (and even further back, pa, pi, pu, pe, po). Japanese f is close to a voiceless w, and so was easily changed to w in the middle of a word. This is also why even today fu is used rather than hu.

The vowel + (f)u compounds do not apply in compound words, for example, the name てらうち was Terauchi not Terouchi, as it is Tera (temple) + uchi (inside, home). The -fu of the modern -u series of verbs (that is, those verbs using the actual kana う such as kau or omou) were not affected by the sound changes on the surface, however, some reports of Edo era Japanese indicate that verbs like tamau and harau were pronounced as tamō and harō instead. In contrast, the -ō in darō and ikō is a product of the sound change from au to ō.

Kana in Unicode

The Hiragana range in Unicode is U+3040 ... U+309F, and the Katakana range is U+30A0 ... U+30FF. The obsolete characters (WI and WE) also have their proper codepoints, except for hentaigana, as hentaigana are considered glyph variants of more common kana.


Code points U+3040, U+3097, and U+3098 are unassigned as of Unicode 4.1. Characters U+3095 and U+3096 are hiragana small ka and small ke, respectively. U+30F5 and U+30F6 are their katakana equivalents. Characters U+3099 and U+309A are combining dakuten and handakuten, which correspond to the spacing characters U+309B and U+309C. U+309D is the hiragana iteration mark, used to repeat a previous hiragana. U+309E is the voiced hiragana iteration mark, which stands in for the previous hiragana but with the consonant voiced (k becomes g, h becomes b, etc.). U+30FD and U+30FE are the kana iteration marks. U+309F is a ligature of "yori" (より) sometimes used in vertical writing. U+30FF is a ligature of "koto" (コト), also found in vertical writing.

Additionally, halfwidth equivalents to the standard fullwidth katakana are provided, primarily for round-trip conversion compatibility with older Japanese character sets. These are encoded within the Halfwidth and Fullwidth Forms block (U+FF00U+FFEF), starting at U+FF65 and ending at U+FF9F (characters U+FF61U+FF64 are halfwidth punctuation marks):

FF70 ソ

There is also a small "Katakana Phonetic Extensions" range (U+31F0 ... U+31FF), which includes some extra characters for writing the Ainu language.


See also:

External Links

de:Japanisches Schriftsystem#Kana es:Kana fr:kana (caractres) ko:가나 (문자) ja:仮名 pl:Kana sv:Kana


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