So I decided to finally write a post about the Japanese language; the language I’m a beginner at but which I’ve already fallen in love with.
You may be wondering: “why in the world would I learn all these crazy symbols if I know nothing about Japan?” For starters, the fact that something is different from what you know doesn’t make it crazy; besides, it’s easier, way easier, than you think.
When I had decided to study Japanese some people suggested me to study Chinese instead, due to its economical advantages. What people don’t get it, and I hope you do, is that no matter what you study, work with, and do, you must feel connected to it somehow. Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but I mean it! Maybe you’re just curious and attracted by the exoticness of Japanese “letters” or the richness of this language’s culture, it doesn’t matter: go for it!
I want to introduce you to this wonderful language, may I?
As you know, Japanese (日本語 [ni hon go]) is the language mainly spoken in Japan (日本 [ni hon]) and by Japanese people (日本人 [ni hon jin]) and their descendants all over the world.
I was surprised to learn that Brazil – the country I live in – hosts the biggest Japanese community outside Japan; around 1.5 million Japanese live here according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. USA holds the second place; take that, USA! Oh yeah!
The fundamental part of any language is its writing system. Who lives in the western portion of the globe is probably only used to the latin alphabet, the base of a large number of languages. Thinking of learning a whole new set of characters may be frightening, but I think it’s fun! I mean, you can write a whole word with a single symbol; how awesome is that?
There are 3 writing systems in Japanese:
ひらがな [hi ra ga na]
It’s a syllabary, that is a writing system whose symbols mean syllables. Instead of writing “he”, two latin symbols, you simply draw a へ, pretty cool, eh? It consists of 46 symbols (in modern Japanese) and it’s the basic Japanese writing system. You could – but won’t – write all Japanese words just by using these symbols.
カタカナ [ka ta ka na]
It’s also a syllabary but with simpler strokes. For each ひらがな symbol there is a カタカナ equivalent; that’s why this system also has 46 symbols. They’re only used to write specific kinds of words; a few examples are scientific names (e.g. species), loanwords, names of international brands and non-Japanese people names. When one reads something in カタカナ he or she is sure that the word is not traditionally Japanese.
漢字 [kan ji]
These are all those more complex symbols. They were mostly taken from the Chinese language and are considered logograms (or ideograms) as a single symbol can mean one or even more words. There are many kanji to be learnt. In Japanese school, children need to learn 1,006 basic characters before finishing the 6th grade; this set of characters is called kyōiku kanji. Afterwards, by the end of the 9th grade, they are supposed to have mastered 2,136 characters (the 1,006 ones from kyōiku kanji are included). The set of these 2,136 símbols is called jōyō kanji and once learnt allows a person to be considered fluent and understand newspapers and Japanese literature. Don’t be scared, though: we can do it! If you want to get a picture of what you have to learn take a look at this map. I loved it: characters are color-coded and each color represents the grade a child learns those kanji.
I consider Japanese pronunciation much easier than the ones of other languages. With a few exceptions, it’s strictly standard. Japanese people are kind of conservatives and they don’t change their pronunciation when they add a loanword to their vocabulary; you don’t need to learn even a bit of French, German nor Spanish to be able to pronounce Japanese correctly. Besides writing loanwords with a different set of characters (カタカナ [ka ta ka na]), they adapt their pronunciations to use the sounds Japanese already has. Weird things like writing a word in a way and pronouncing it in another don’t happen in Japanese. Another advantage of Japanese pronunciation is intonation: it’s very regular; unlike English and Portuguese where we need to sing all the time. The only thing that is a bit off is 漢字 [kan ji] pronunciation. There are two ways of pronouncing kanji characters:
- on’yomi – aka “on”, the Chinese way
- kun’yomi – aka “kun”, the native Japanese way.
In addition to that, some characters can have more than 10 ways of being read. I know… :X
One more thing that I think it’s worth being shared is how they write one character after another. In all western languages that I’m aware of, one writes horizontally, from the left to the right, and once the line is over that one should continue writing in another line bellow. Modern Japanese accepts the same way of writing, beyond the traditional way which is different: one writes vertically, from the top to the bottom, and when the column is over, another column on the left should be started (yes, right to left writing).
Japanese is not difficult, it’s just different. Be open-minded and don’t compare with other languages you’ve learnt so far. I accepted the challenge and started learning it, why wouldn’t you? (Yeah, I dare you.)
Note: the phonetic transcriptions used here were not written with the IPA. Instead, I used the Hepburn romanization system which is the most common way of writing Japanese using latin alphabet characters.