Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Three Elements Of Japanese

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When I was in kindergarten, my grandmother brought back a “Banbi” (translated as “Bambi”) picture book from Japan for me. I was always looking at the writing thinking how pretty it was. Later on I was again introduced to the Japanese culture through their mangas (Japanese comic books) as I decided to take up Japanese. However Japanese language is a very difficult language to learn. Its grammatical structure and pronunciations are very different from English. The three different written elements of Japanese, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, each have a distinctive history, usage, and general appearance, making them the most difficult parts of the language to learn.

Hiragana’s general appearance and usage are easily defined while its history is the most interesting of the three elements. Hiragana evolved through the simplification of Chinese characters in the Heian period (74-1185) since the Japanese had no writing system at the time. It didn’t quite fit their language, so women who wrote letters and literary works by simplifying the characters; thus, it was once called, “onna de” (“women’s hand”). Hiragana is the most useful of the elements to learn because everything can be spelled phonetically. From sounds to words, Hiragana is used for the particles and topic markers in sentences. There are 46 Hiragana characters, and each represents either a vowel or a combination of a consonant and a vowel. To illustrate, there are characters for the five vowels, “a, i, u, e, o,” or combinations such as “ha, hi, hu, he, ho.” The Hiragana characters are very rounded and curved, and as with every element’s characters, it has to be written in a certain stroke order, or some Japanese people may even find the writer incompetent. It flows together very easily and is sometimes difficult to read because they may fit too well together, depending on the writer. Conversely, the appearance of Katakana varies greatly from that of Hiragana.

Katakana’s general appearance, history, and usage are far different from Hiragana or Kanji. Katakana appears very jagged and angular. Katakana characters are rarely ever written with even a slight curve in them. As in Hiragana, Katakana also requires a certain stroke order. There are some characters that almost exactly resemble the character used in Hiragana but are very easily told apart. Katakana is the youngest of the three written elements of Japanese. When Japan opened their ports and started to interact steadily with other countries, they soon ran into many objects, materials, or even phrases of which they had no words for; thus, Katakana was created. Katakana characters are used solely to spell out foreign words. A large majority of them are English, though there are a significant amount of German influenced words as well. For instance, “arubeito” is the Japanese word for “part-time job” influenced by “arbeit” which is the German word for “job”, or “hanba-ga-“ that is the Japanese word for “hamburger” which is influenced by the English language. Katakana is a very useful element to learn because foreign names are spelt with it; therefore, an English person or Hispanic person would need it to be able to spell their name. To further illustrate, “Harvey-Maluf” contains many consonants not in the Japanese language, and would instead be spelt, “Habei-Maruhu”. On the other hand, the majority of Japanese people rarely use Katakana, but mainly Kanji to spell their name.

Kanji is related more closely to Hiragana than Katakana in its history, usage, and appearance. Kanji is the oldest written element of Japanese as Buddhist monks brought it to Japan more than 1,00 years ago. Kanji characters most resemble the Chinese characters in that the resemblance is most apparent from the complexity of kanji that is commonly found in the Chinese characters. Each character is comprised of various sizes of strokes, ranging from two to even 0 in one single character. As in both other written elements, each Kanji character has to be written in a specific order that proves very useful in the memorization of the characters. Kanji is the most horrifying part of Japanese to learn. For example, a “safe-marker” of Kanji, meaning when a person has learned a decent amount, is when the person has memorized 750 characters. Most adults in Japan know about ,000 Kanji characters. Kanji characters, unlike Hiragana and Katakana, can mean a specific phrase, idea, or even someone’s name. This is because a single character can contain two to four syllables, which is two to four Hiragana characters, compiled together. Kanji is indeed the most difficult Japanese written language to learn and master.

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In brief, the Japanese language is beautiful yet deathly complex. Those with a strong will to learn it can overcome the initial difficulties, and enjoy the benefits of knowing it. One of the largest difficulties to overcome in learning it will be mastering the three different written elements of Japanese, from the basics of Hiragana, to the adaptive Katakana, to finally the very complex, yet most commonly used, Kanji. As a result, learning all three is extremely necessary to be able to speak and understand the language fluently.

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