By Alexander Martin
For my first article on GMA, I’d like to build upon the momentum of this column from the last few years and take it in a completely different direction. While slang is great, it’s not something you’ll be learning from me (honestly your students are far better suited for that). Instead, I’m going to do my best to teach about Japanese while doing my best to avoid teaching you actual Japanese.
For those of you currently studying the language, I imagine you don’t need another blog or column telling you how to study, what to study, what to use, how to BEST make use of your time. Everyone studies differently, so far be it from me to tell you what to do.
I’d like to talk about some aspects of the Japanese language that make it so beautiful, confusing, and unique. I’ll be covering some nitty gritty technical aspects from time to time, with completely irrelevant ramblings in between to make sure you’re still paying attention.
While burying your head in flashcards and textbooks can be fun to a point, learning the history of how the language has evolved and where things come from can really make a squirrely grammar point stick and keep things refreshing. In my own personal language journey, I’ve come through quite a few of these little gems, and I’d like to share and elaborate on them here.
So where do we start?
A Brief History of the Japanese Writing System
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that there are three different writing systems in Japanese (we won’t count Japanese braille here).
Hiragana: those elegant curvy line thingies that represent sounds.
Katakana: those sharp, straight line thingies that represent the same sounds as hiragana.
Kanji: 99% of what you don’t actually understand on signs and papers; represent ideas and sounds.
Each of these writing systems actually came into existence at entirely different periods of Japans history. As with many written languages, kanji was first introduced through members of court, scholars, and monks–specifically those in China around the 5th and 6th centuries. This is why kanji 漢字 means ”Chinese character.”
This was okay for a while, but then people wanted a way to express their own phonetic language. At this point a precursor to hiragana and katakana was developed. This system was called manyogana, and was technically Japan’s first writing system.
Manyogana borrowed from kanji for its sounds rather than its meanings. This lead to much confusion because each writer chose a character that he wanted to use, rather than drawing upon a unified standard. By the 8th century, over 970 characters were being used to represent the scant 90 sounds in the Japanese language. On top of that, Buddhist monks were getting pissed that for each syllable they had to write down from the spoken word, they had to write an entire kanji, like in Chinese. Ouch.
One of the most famous Buddhist monks in Japanese history, Kukai or Kobo Daishi (弘法大師, “great teacher who propagated Buddhist teachings”) is credited with the creation of hiragana. He was an accomplished calligrapher, and was probably one of the first to be fed up with the jacked up writing system.
If you can believe it, hiragana actually developed from kanji. Seriously. I think that Kukai just got into a jar of sake and tried to write a letter to one of his peers. When asked about his handwriting, instead of fessing up, he called it a new writing system!
This chart below shows where each one derives from:
Katakana developed in a similar nature at the same time. However, instead of being arbitrary characters from drunkenly scrawled love letters, katakana derives directly from kanji like you would expect (katakana actually means “fragmentary kana”). At first, katakana was only used for footnotes in sutras, but it eventually became much more widespread.
Again below you can see what kanji each katakana character came from:
As an added bonus, if you look closely at the chart, you can see that most pronuncations of katakana and hiragana share the reading with the kanji they came from! For example ロ and it’s mamma 呂 are both pronounced “ro.” WOAH! I came really close to actually teaching something there. Let’s move on.
Interestingly, while the elite turned up their noses at the softly flowing hiragana and stubbornly continued to use kanji, they readily gobbled up the katakana system; it was adopted for use in official documents alongside kanji.
Hiragana wasn’t completely ignored at first though. Hiragana gained popularity with the women of the court for personal communication, partly because they didn’t enjoy the same extensive kanji education as did men. The Tale of Genji, a famous classical work of Japanese literature, is written entirely in hiragana because it was written by a noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu.
Because of this split between the two writing systems, they went by the alternative names of onnade (woman’s writing, 女手) and otokode (man’s writing, 男手).
Of course, hiragana was eventually adopted by men and became mixed with kanji and katakana to make things even more confusing. Nowadays, katakana is used almost strictly to signify a word originating outside of the Japanese language and is taught to students just after hiragana.
I said it would be brief, didn’t I? While we didn’t even knock the top off of the tip of the iceberg, I still hope you learned something new about the language. Please let us know what you think or what else you’d like to hear about in the comments, or send an email directly.