What is Hiragana?
Hiragana is one of two syllabary writing systems in the Japanese language, collectively called kana, used to write the majority of native Japanese words, functions, and inflections where Kanji is not used. Hiragana is visually distinguishable by its cursive style which features pronounced curves and a lack of straight edges or corners.
The Hiragana Table
Hiragana characters, which total 46 characters in modern use, are arranged for learning by young students according to their dictionary order, or the order in which the beginning sounds of words are arranged in the dictionary.
Each character represents a phoneme that is, in most cases, a combination of a consonant and vowel sound. Only the first row, marked by a slash, is pronounced exclusively with vowels. You can derive the correct pronunciation of a character by matching its heading in the column with its heading in the row. For example, the character か is a combination of the k and a sounds, which creates the phoneme ka.
To express voiced and plosive consonants and glottal stops in Japanese, Hiragana used these diacritical marks: small tsu っ, dakuten ゛, and the handakuten ゜.
The final entry in the table is the lone consonant nasal ん, pronounced like the English n. Some characters, such as wi and we are no longer in use in contemporary Japanese. In most cases, the sounds simply blended into other similar sounds and their presence became obsolete.
Some Japanese businesses and location names still use stylized text that includes the wi ゐ and we ゑ characters, and they are still taught in school for the express purpose of learning to read historical texts and poems.
The History of Hiragana
In the 5th century, educated Japanese learned to write using Chinese characters that represented sounds. The adoption of Chinese characters, called Kanji, into the Japanese writing system was favored among Japanese elite, but it didn’t make much sense to use the characters considering the major linguistic differences between Japanese and Chinese.
There were 2 major problems:
- Japanese has a completely unique grammatical structure
- Japanese contains inflections and post-positions
The grammatical structure of Japanese made the use of Chinese characters awkward and difficult to understand. Verb inflections were also difficult to represent since the Kanji had to change to represent a new sound. The arrangement of characters into written works was too ambiguous to be naturally understood, but the men of elite Japanese society perceived the difficulty of reading as a testament to their education.
A New Script Developed by Japanese Women
Women were not allowed to learn the Kanji writing system when it was introduced to Japan, so they simply borrowed Hiragana and began to develop their own writing system. The Japanese reimagined the traditional Chinese characters that were written in their cursive forms as a simpler set of characters that could represent sounds instead of meanings.
Men who were using Kanji continued to advocate the use of otokode 男手, or men’s writing. Women, however, started writing complete works, such as the widely celebrated first novel in the world, The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, fully realized with the help of Hiragana, or onnade 女手.
Men, both common and elite, began to realize the usefulness of including syllabic characters in written script. They started to use Hiragana in person letters and memos and Kanji in official correspondence. As Japanese linguistics evolved, scores of Japanese writers opened their eyes to the possibility of combining writing systems.
The use of Kanji as logograms to represent both sound and meaning as well as Hiragana and its counterpart, Katakana, to represent sounds, inflections, and grammatical signals held onto the tradition of ornate writing style while providing much needed function to the written language.
Today’s Japanese writing is an optimized system that combines Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana relatively seamlessly. While there are still artifacts of archaic Japanese and anomalies of language evolution, contemporary Hiragana is, for the most part, the building blocks of Japanese writing.
In fact, anything can be written in Japanese using Hiragana exclusively. However, since Japanese does not use spacing or markings to indicate when a word begins or ends, it is highly inefficient to write everything in Hiragana. Children’s books and video games marketed to young children use Hiragana exclusively to help them master the writing system, and some older video games took advantage of Hiragana to save memory on their cartridges by excluding the hundreds of Kanji necessary to create scripts.
Hiragana is taught to second language Japanese learners as a basis for understanding the phonics and writing system. The Japanese phonetic guide, called furigana, is written in either Hiragana or Katakana, but since both are taught before Kanji, non-Japanese readers of works that include Furigana are quickly able to read text intended for younger audiences.
Japanese kana opened the door to a true Japanese writing system and also helped the first novelist in the world break new ground in the realm of storytelling. It bridges the second language learning gap and has helped Japan achieve a 99% literacy rate. It was also one of the first steps women took toward gender equality in Japan.
Hiragana is more than just a writing system – it’s a pillar of language.